Every Yes is a No
It’s pretty revolutionary idea when you start to think about it: every Yes is a No. Every time you say ‘yes’ to something, you’re effectively saying ‘no’ to something else.
We’re all finite people with a set amount of time and energy. After all, we’re just creatures.
And so we can’t just add more things to our lives without taking away time and energy from something else. Every ‘yes’ is a ‘no’ to something else.
But here’s the wake-up call: most of the time that ‘something else’ is not something we’ll be asked to do in a few weeks time. It’s something that is already part of your life.
And it gets even more subtle: by ‘saying ‘no’ to something else’, we shouldn’t necessarily envisage this as stopping doing something else. In fact all too often we’ll try to keep doing what we’re already doing. But we just won’t be able to do any of it to the same level of quality or care.
And so that’s still a ‘no’, right? We’ve said ‘yes’ to something new, and so we’re effectively saying ‘no’ to keeping our existing commitments at our previous level of dedication or attentiveness.
(I’m no mathematician, but I think this is what’s called a ‘zero-sum game’?)
Yes Can Be Right
Of course, it may be that the commitment or person that we’re saying ‘yes’ to is more important or necessary at that particular season of life.
Maybe we’ve got time that we feel we could use better, or maybe it’s just a ripe moment for evaluating our commitments and changing things up.
That’s all well and good. The point of the principle certainly isn’t to say that a ‘yes’ is a bad thing.
I also want to factor in that as a Christian my default posture should be giving myself in generous, selfless love. But it’s because of a desire to lovingly serve others that it’s always worth thinking about the impact of a ‘yes’ on everything and everyone else I’m already committed to, rather than naively assuming it’ll have no impact.
Saying Yes To Church
Maybe an important example for those of us who are Christians is our commitment to our church.
Let’s assume you’re part of a church that meets on a Sunday morning. Now by default, we’ll probably then think of Sunday mornings as ‘for church’.
But of course, sometimes other things crop up. We get invited to family events and special occasions and we take holidays or go on weekends away. It’s not that we shouldn’t ever miss a Sunday morning.
(Although, saying that, I think it is a good practice to decide in advance how many Sundays we’ll let ourselves miss in a year).
But have we consciously realised that every time we say ‘yes’ to doing something else on a Sunday morning, then we’re saying ‘no’ to our church family?
That might sound stark, and of course sometimes that ‘no’ is not personal but more about the value of the corresponding ‘yes’. A family holiday or visiting friends at a precious time in their life.
But as you map those out over time, I think it’s helpful to see that it’s not just a question of whether we’ll say ‘yes’ to that invitation or opportunity. It’s a question of whether we’ll say ‘yes’ to that invitation/opportunity – or say ‘yes’ to church.
And I wonder if it’s that second half that we don’t tend to consider so much.
Your Church or Organisation’s Priorities
One area where this has been on my mind recently has been at the level of an organisation.
Take a church. There are so many groups running different events that would love your church to be championing said events. There are so many causes to which we could give our church finances. There are so many initiatives to which we could encourage our church family to give their time to.
But we can’t just say ‘yes’ to everything, because every ‘yes’ is a ‘no’. It’s a ‘no’ in terms of not really being able to enthuse people about the events we’re already committed to. It’s a ‘no’ in terms of limiting our financial support to the partnerships we’ve already established. It’s a ‘no’ in terms of ending up spreading our church family’s lives and time too thinly.
On that last one particularly, as a pastor I have a duty of care to the flock to which I’ve been entrusted. It’s not helpful if I’m endlessly expecting our people to sign up to all sorts of different events and initiatives. They’ll end up running themselves ragged and effectively can’t give quality time and love to their existing commitments and relationships and families. The ‘yes’ has led to a ‘no’.
Maybe as Christians we need to be better at understanding that a church might not be able to throw themselves into this or that – to say ‘yes’ – because they already have commitments that they don’t want to say ‘no’ to.
Every Day Rhythms
I think it’s also helpful to think through how many times we say ‘yes’ each day to ‘little things’, often without even thinking.
I was reflecting on some ‘everyday’ examples of this and realised that so many of them are bound up with how we use screens. We say ‘yes’ to picking up our phone as soon as we wake up. ‘Yes’ to casually checking our email during the evening meal. ‘Yes’ to mindlessly browsing online at work. ‘Yes’ to scrolling through Facebook for ten, then twenty minutes, then half an hour before bed.
Aggh. Isn’t it terrifying? But every single ‘yes’ there is also a ‘no’. It might be a ‘no’ to considerate conversation or prayerful reflection or giving someone our presence.
As you look through your day so far, how many times have you said ‘yes’ to some little activity (perhaps involving a screen) without really thinking about it. And especially without really considering what it’s meant you’ve unintentionally said ‘no’ to.
Every No Is a Yes
Of course, you can flip it the other way:
Every No Is a Yes. Now, that’s powerful.
Have you ever described yourself as ‘not being very good at saying “no”‘? Yep, me too.
But, doesn’t it change things when you realise that saying ‘no’ is about saying ‘yes’ to the things you really value and are committed to?
In fact, I think it can often be helpful to describe it in those terms to the person who is asking us to do something. Maybe try something like this: “I’m really sorry, I’d love to help and it sounds like a great project – but I know that if I took this on, I wouldn’t be able to honour the commitments I’ve already made at this time.”
You’ve said ‘no’ but it’s clear that it’s because you really care about your ‘yes’.
Nothing New Here
I can’t remember where I first heard this. In fact I’ve just Googled ‘every yes is a no’ and there’s like a gazillion posts.
So nothing new here, but maybe it’s new to you? But now that you’ve clocked the principle, I’m pretty sure you’ll see it all over your life.
Every Yes is a No. Yes?