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The art of saying No

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Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.” But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. (Neh. 6:2-4)

An old preacher made the point from this passage of Nehemiah 6 – Priorities keep you safe. Focusing on the main thing – the work you’ve been given to do – keeps you from distraction, harm and sin. Those who wander off and ‘pierce their soul’ or ‘shipwreck their faith’ are often those without a clear, resolute, industrious focus on their work and its value. Nehemiah was strengthened in his ability to say a clear “No” – despite the wearing repeated requests (cf. Judges 14:17; 16:16) – because he knew he couldn’t leave “a great project.”

Michael Hyatt points out that if we don’t get better at saying No then, not only will we end up exhausted, but also “Other peoples’ priorities will take precedence over ours… We won’t be able to say “yes” to the really important things.” Peter Brain, in his book Going the Distance, similarly explains how saying No is not only an important self-care skill (maintaining work/rest boundaries) but it is also a positive opportunity to explain to the person requesting (and an opportunity to remind yourself at the same time) what is the main thing for you. Jesus does this in Mark 1:38 (I’m not going to set up a healing ministry in Capernaum because my real work is to preach). With skill, sensitivity and winsomeness this approach can turn an awkward moment of refusal into a discipleship (and even vision-casting) opportunity.

But one important qualification. What we’re talking about here is not your boss giving you more work. Sanballat and Geshem are not Nehemiah’s boss. (There may be a need to have grownup, tactful and respectful conversations with your boss about workload but that’s not the point of this post.) What we’re talking about here is really distractions – either malicious distractions from enemies (as in Nehemiah’s case) or just plain old distractions – and these are the ones which are more likely to be the case for most of us – TV, social media, hyperlinks, spam, unhelpful friendships, pointless conversations, random requests for help (from those who would be better helped by someone else or just need to sort themselves out).

This is not easy stuff. In terms of technology this infographic is helpful in cutting distraction. More widely, it’s certainly going to be important to have a very clear idea what your life mission really is (Matt Perman is helpful on this) and a passionate commitment to the work you’ve been given. Then there’s going to be a lot of wisdom needed. Sometimes it will be difficult to tell a distraction from an important request (note Mk. 1:40-45 straight after Mk. 1:38). But at the very least the more straightforwardly pointless, unnecessary and unhelpful stuff that flows through our phones and screens and says, “Come to Ono” should get a quick slap down. And with the more marginal invitations and suggestions from friends and family, well, let’s at least take a moment to consider.

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About andyharker

Andy is a sinner saved by grace.

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