If you made a list of things you would do on your ideal day, what items would you write down? This may seem like a wild stab, but there’s a good chance that very few of the items on your actual “to-do” list for today are also on your list of items for your ideal day. There’s a tension here between the things we would ideally do and the things we have to do.
Most of us feel like the list of things we have to do is ever-growing, often at a pace quicker than our ability to actually get things done. Each new email from a coworker, each text from a family member, each news article acts as a call to action to some new item we feel compelled to complete. In the midst of all that comes this article, giving you one more item you need to do: You need to say “no”. For the good of yourself, for the benefit of those around, and for the betterment of the world, it just might be time to flex a few “no’s”.
This doesn’t need to be a selfish act. As we look at the instances of Jesus saying “no”, we may begin to understand that often our “no’s” come as acts of humility. A “no” can suggest that we are not in control, that we are not all-important, and that we trust there is a plan at work outside of ourselves.
When Jesus said “no”
There’s an unsettling story of Jesus. While the story has a happy ending, we’re not quite sure what Jesus’ motivations are for doing the things he does in this story, and that makes us uneasy with it.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, we hear of Jesus being told that his friend Lazarus is very sick. Lazarus’ sisters asked Jesus to come and help his friend. Jesus seemingly says “no”. We read that when Jesus was told of Lazarus’ sickness, “he stayed where he was two more days” (John 11:7). During this time of waiting, Lazarus died.
Now why didn’t Jesus go as requested? Was he being selfish? Not likely–this is the person who said there was no greater love than laying down one’s life for friends and then accepted death on a cross. Was Jesus engaged in more important things? Also not likely–the story in John doesn’t mention Jesus doing anything during those days.
Perhaps a better question is to ask why Jesus didn’t immediately say “yes” when this new call to action was presented. Why didn’t Jesus immediately say “I’ll be right there”?
We get a hint at what the answer to that question is in John, as well. In verse 4, Jesus said “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Why do we say “yes”?
When we’re saying “yes” to the different calls to action that interrupt our days, what are our motivations? Likely, some of our motivations are altruistic: we see an opportunity to do something good or helpful, so we say “yes, I’ll do that.” There are other instances, though, when our motivations are less-than-altruistic. In these instances, we say “yes” not simply because there’s an opportunity for something good to happen, but because there’s an opportunity for us to do something good, and to perhaps be noticed doing the good. Or in other instances we’re a bit fearful that someone else might take advantage of this opportunity instead of us. Or we’re fearful that we, ourselves, are the all-important factors in this situation and if we don’t say “yes” then the deal won’t get done.
We can only wonder what motivated Jesus to wait two days to respond to Lazarus’ sisters’ request to come visit the dying Lazarus. The scripture doesn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking (besides that God would be glorified). What we don’t see, however, is Jesus saying that he and only he needed to respond in order for Lazarus to heal. He doesn’t rush off to heal Lazarus so he can show how powerful he is.
Instead, Jesus waited and Lazarus died. When Jesus did arrive at Lazarus’ home, we get a scene of grief. In his mourning, Jesus calls out to his dead friend–and his friend comes out of the tomb, resurrected. That’s a pretty incredible turn of events.
There’s so much we don’t know about this miracle. Did Jesus know exactly what would happen? Maybe so, there are clues in the text that Jesus expected a miracle. But it was not forced. Jesus let it happen. Jesus accepted his role in the events surrounding him. He said “yes” when it became clear a “yes” was not just going to be self-serving, but so that healing would come and people could witness the possibilities of God.
A meaningful “yes”
Jesus then provides witness to criteria for our busyness. Or, at least, provides us a lens by which we can assess the fruit of our busyness. Are we saying “yes” because to do so serves the greater good? Because saying “yes” reveals healing and the possibilities of God? Or are we saying “yes” to the requests of a day because it makes us feel important or seen?
There is definitely a lot of important work to be done in our world. An awareness of that fact creates in us a sense that we need to jump on nearly every opportunity of involvement or task sent our way. But the truth is not all of our busyness bears good fruit. It’s not all productive.
At times, even in the face of high demand, Jesus waited and trusted. When the action served the higher purpose, Jesus responded.
Are you feeling a call to slow in order to gain some perspective? You're not the only. Visit our section on spiritual practices for some contemplative practices.