Back when I was a new widow, I adopted the attitude of saying Yes to as many opportunities as possible. “Yes, I’ll join you and the kids in Disney World.” “Celebrating your husband’s birthday in Mexico? I’ll be there!”

And not only Yes to new adventures, but also Yes to interruptions, volunteer respite care, and visiting the dying.

Photo by Kevin Borrill on Unsplash

As we head into the second month of a new year—some of us with goals and intentions in mind—I’ve been thinking about how to know when to make a new commitment, and when to recognize that our schedules are plenty full.

A resounding Yes

Saying Yes can be challenging after a major setback that drives us to our couches with stacks of books and pots of tea. When we’ve lost something of significant value—our health, a loved one, rewarding work or ministry—we want the comfort of the familiar.

But getting off the couch and making the most of our hardest Yeses means we trust God with the unexpected and the unpleasant. It means we lean into the detours, into the waiting. We accept not knowing what’s going on.

God hears all our resounding Yeses, and I think it gladdens His heart because of what we can achieve through our availability partnered with His power and His resources.

The important word No

And then there’s the important word No, which we find difficult to articulate to our friends, our families, our communities. Because we don’t want to disappoint anyone. Because we earn our sense of self-worth by how busy and involved we are. Or because we kind of like the reputation of being Superman or Supergirl.

In her book Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist wrote:

I pray that we’ll understand the transforming power that lies in saying No, because it’s an act of faith, a tangible demonstration of the belief that you are so much more than what you do.

Shauna Niequist

One of my closest friends sat on the board of Shepherd’s House, a local men’s shelter. She asked if I would be interested in serving as a board member. My first husband and I had a connection to the House. Back before chemo knocked him down, he volunteered at the front desk three mornings a week. We took groups of residents hiking and snow-shoeing, and one at a time out to dinner.

I respect the leadership of this ministry. I believe in the good work they’re doing. But the thought of one more obligation seemed heavy. And so I (wisely) declined my friend’s invitation. Which wasn’t easy because I didn’t want to disappoint her. I didn’t want her to think less of me. But as a widow, I was trying to prioritize my days well. I had a strong sense of what God was calling me to do during that season. I could have squeezed in one more obligation, but it would have triggered a sense of overwhelmedness.

Allowing for margin

It takes wisdom to know when to say Yes and when to say No. So what if we checked in with God first before overcommitting ourselves once again?

For the Lord gives wisdom. From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6

Learning to say No to those things that don’t light us up allows margin to respond with Yes to something that’s a better fit for our passions and skills and life experiences. It gives us space to walk out the unique purpose God has destined for each of us.

This thought from Nanea Hoffman:

Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing or where you think you should be in life. You are here. Figure out what you love and then pursue it relentlessly. It’s OK to be scared. Just don’t let that be your excuse for not trying.

Nanea Hoffman

When we live in that light-filled, guilt-free place of knowing when to say Yes and when to say No, we discover that what God writes upon our hearts to do with our one, available, surrendered life is quite a joyous thing.