Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Positives of Negatives

I’ve got a favorite word.

It’s only two letters long, but it gives me complete control of my life.

My wife says maybe I use it too much. I’m not at all sure that’s true.

After all, I’ve seen that people who don’t have this word in their vocabulary suffer a lot. They let people put things upon them, and then have to live with the consequences.

Life Without Limits

They let less capable or less moral people manipulate them through guilt. They get overwhelmed with the demands of others, kill themselves to meet them, and then find themselves simmering with impotent resentment for having to do so. And because of this, even their true friends are never sure when they’re really being welcomed and when they’re merely being tolerated and appeased.

They can neither diet nor deliver themselves from stress, so they are permanently unhappy with their own physical state. They cannot exercise or eat well. They cannot make time for rest. They are not in charge of their own bodies.

Their time is not their own. Their lives are a blur of obligations and responsibilities they don’t really want, and to which they feel no real commitment. Hours get stolen from them. Opportunities are torn out of their grasp.

Their moral certainty is destroyed. Having no firm limits to what they will and will not do, they can be wheedled and manipulated dangerously near to activities they secretly know are worthless, contemptible or even immoral. They end up making concessions they actually don’t want to make. They are riddled with shame.

Their work lives are mediocre. And since they are always looking to others for signs of approval, they are incapable of leading. They are followers only — patsies, pushovers, victims.

Their homes and lives are not secure. They cannot keep anyone or anything out. It may be unwanted people, or it may be unwanted influences from technology or entertainment. Everything gets in, goes through, and has its impact on their families.

Their devotion to the Lord is perilous. They are incapable of prioritizing, ordering or structuring their lives, so they are incapable of stewardship or consistent obedience. Their devotional time is spotty, at best. They give lip service to prayer. They can never find time to read or study. They have no peace.

These people need my favorite word. It’s a scriptural word, actually.


There it is: that’s the word! See how beautiful it is?

Now, some people don’t like it. They think it’s evil, or at best antisocial. Some are even scared to pronounce it.

Not me, though. I love it. It defines the boundaries of my life. It grounds my ability to obey the Lord. It shuts out influences I don’t want, and provides time and space for the resounding “Yes!” I want to say to really good things. It empowers me to achieve the things I believe the Lord is calling me to achieve, and precludes me from having to bow to the wishes of people who are badly motivated, or who simply do not know what I’m about. I need it in order to defend my home. I need it in order to honor my wife. I need it in order to raise my children.

It’s a loving word, a responsible word, a godly word.

And yet some people think Christians just don’t use it. They think it’s only godly to say yes to everything, to please everyone, to put yourself out indiscriminately.

But I think nobody who is a Christian, or who is living like one, can possibly avoid saying no, and doing so pretty regularly.

Now, notice that when you use it, it’s got to start with a capital letter and end with a period. You can’t say “No-ish”. All that does is open you up to being contradicted, undermined or defeated in some way. You’ve got to make it final and absolute, a thing for which you neither need apologize nor make excuse. “No” has got to stand as gracious and firm, like the Statue of Liberty — an unshakable signal of your personal loyalties and the principles for which you stand.


It’s easy to see the ways in which the Christian calling involves us saying yes. We say yes to the convicting work of the Spirit, yes to the call of the Savior, yes to the commandments of a holy God, yes to repentance and belief, and yes to our baptism into new life.

To the sacrifices required of us, we say yes. To duties of charity and morality, yes. To growing in faith and knowledge, yes. To obedience and sacrifice, yes. To going and preaching, yes.

Yet to evil, we must say no.

To the devil and his works, no. To the flesh and its demands, no. To the world system with its empty values, we say no.

And we also say no to everything that stands to interfere with something that matters more. To compromise and second best, we say no. To the demands and expectations of self-serving others, we say no. To all that seeks to invade, intrude and undermine our faith, we say a resounding no.

The Lord loves us to do both. He says, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” You see, he gives his blessing to both words. And interestingly, the two words need each other. The luxury of saying yes is only safeguarded by “No!” We say no only in order that we may say a more unreserved yes.

Negative Stewardship

So let me introduce you to a new concept. I call it “negative stewardship”.

You remember that “stewardship” means “the correct, grateful and strategic use of the resources the Lord has given us”? Well, negative stewardship is the godly refusal to allow our resources to be spent on that which is not godly. It’s the door shut in the face of evil. It’s the margin that keeps all of the text readable. It’s the pump that keeps our boat from filling up and sinking, and the cork that keeps the wine in our barrel from running out. It’s a very good thing.


Now, you may never have felt comfortable saying no. Your personality may be such, or you may have been raised to believe, that to say that word is somehow “unchristian”, or at the very least is something a nice person just does not say.

Let me encourage you to rethink that. And then let me encourage you to try it out. Take something you’ve never really wanted, something that has been imposed on you, something that has been wrong in your life, or even a particular person who has been abusing your kindness.

And just say no. Say it quietly and firmly, but with no uncertainty. Add nothing more. Just let it ring. Then turn on your heel, walk out, and make it stick.

I promise you, you’ll learn to love it. And your spiritual life will be much better because of it.


  1. Love your getting on top of the barricades and shouting enough is enough.

    Two points. From my own experience (kids, grandkids) we often get annoyed and impatient when that No word gets overused by them. At the same time I have concluded that the "No" attitude should be carefully and smartly channeled by the adult over time into a firmness of character that eventually truly knows how to say No when it is appropriate, healthy, helpful and needed as they grow up. In other words, teach them to outright reject inappropriate peer pressure. It can be done, if you care enough.

    Second, as they grow in the appropriate use of No and Yes they will discover that there is also room and even the need for the use of "maybe" because their ability to judge a situation has matured enough in the No/Yes school.

    Now, all this seems fairly obvious, and yet it may take an eternity to come about universally, because, after all, we are damaged merchandise.

  2. Yup.

    I can't tell you how many times I've looked at the family calendar and said to my wife (who is otherwise a fine companion): "why on earth are we doing THAT?". The answer is invariably some version of "I didn't want to seem mean and I didn't tell them no". I sympathize to a degree - "No" isn't easy for me to say at times but I realize after many years of struggles that it's virtually impossible for my wife to say.

    My wife is a 'lost cause' in this regard - she's far too nice to deploy the word easily or often - so I'll do it for her and happily take the resulting "heat". But I desperately want my young son - who must stand alone eventually - to learn the value of a firm "no". He faces a far more challenging and antagonistic-to-faith world than I did at his age. He needs a firm "no" to survive.

    But most of all I want my spiritual brothers and sisters to learn to say "no" to that which is not bad on its face but IS a waste of their gift and their energy. I want them - as IC so well points out - to say "no" so they might have room for a resounding and effective "yes".

    I don't think the importance of IC's article can be overstated.

  3. A very good article. My only concern is that some people might use this as justification to say "No" to any service they find inconvenient. I have no doubt they'll learn to love that. In fact, I have no doubt they love it already ... it allows them to justify serving only when they desire and only in the ways they enjoy.

    I think it would be helpful to make more of a distinction between that to which we know with 100% certainty (on the basis of the Bible) we should say "No" (e.g. sin, carnality, worldliness) and that where we need discernment - those situations in which it MIGHT be the Lord's will for us to say "No" but where it also might be the Lord's will for us to say "Yes" and the flesh wants to say "No" because it's unpalatable.

    1. This is a good thought, and I probably need to reflect on it further.

      I remember almost thirty years ago, a Christian I greatly admire told me "Always be ready to pray, preach or die". I took that saying as gospel for a number of years. Later in life, I have learned to be always ready to pray, and (hopefully) always ready to die. These two cannot be disputed by any sincere follower of Christ as necessities in the Christian life.

      The "preach" component though, or anything at all related to service, is something that requires, as you point out, discernment. Though we are all gifted by the Holy Spirit, we have been given discretion over what we do with our time and how we do it. I find that a lot of my time over the first 10 years I followed the Lord was poorly used. I like to think that I do a better job now, and one of the reasons is that I have discovered the things to which I am not suited and at which I remain ineffective.

      That doesn't mean I will never do them, but it means I need more than simply an invitation to engage in them.

  4. I wonder, anonymous, if you would suggest that if the Bible does not explicitly prohibit something, or if it seems like a potentially "good" thing, then we still ought to feel obliged to say "Yes"? I wonder if you feel we Christians are duty bound to opt for the "Yes" first, and then only say "No" if evil (or perhaps evident worthlessness) is involved?

    Now, I agree that "It's unpalatable" is an inadequate reason to say "No." But I would suggest that to opt automatically for "Yes" would be poor stewardship. For that which is unpalatable is not also necessarily the best use of your time and energies. I suggest that even the "good" can be an enemy of the "best."

    If there were one point I could leave you to think about from my article, it would be that the responsibility for conscious and conscientious stewardship cannot be foregone either by opting for automatic "Yes" or automatic "No." For "No" is the safeguard of the "Yes": a man/woman who lacks the resources and time cannot say "Yes" anymore, and is forced into the "No" position, simply by dint of lack of resources. I would certainly concede to you that the Lord requires us to have the right reasons to use both words -- but I also submit to you that as generally service-minded people, Christians (as I know them) rarely have so much trouble with the "Yes" as they do with the "No."