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Learning to Say Yes When You Want to Say No

  • Dr. Bill Lawrence President, Leader Formation International
  • 2010 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Learning to Say Yes When You Want to Say No


I like to have authority over others. I don't like others having authority over me.

I would be reluctant to admit this if I thought I were unique. However, I've never met anyone who didn't have that same feeling in some way. I have a friend who is in a leadership role he doesn't like, but he tells me he does it because he doesn't want to be under any of the people he leads. He's honest, that's for sure, and I understand his feelings. Authority, as defined from a follower's perspective, is the responsibility to submit to the control of someone else and is often resisted because we want to have control over our lives and not release ourselves to others.

I have often struggled with the demand God has put on me to say yes to human authority when I want to say no, especially when I don't feel the person over me worthy of controlling me. I may not respect him or want to go where he is taking me or think that what he requires of me is wise. When that happens we resist the authority over us, either passively or actively through critical words aimed to undermine the leader's authority.

Yet learning to say yes when I want to say no has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. This experience has humbled me by teaching me that God uses the authority He places over me to change me and show me that I am not as wise as I think. He has also transformed me through this experience by bringing me to the cross to find the power and the patience I need to follow when I want to lead. And He has prepared me for future leadership by making me much more aware of my limitations and need for others than I ever would have been without subjection to uncomfortable and unwanted authority. God has done a deep work within me designed to make me more effective for Him by making me say yes when I want to say no. After all, the authority God places over us—or allows to be over us—is part of His plan and purpose to conform us to Christ's image.

Even while I struggled with authority at times, I have always believed that all leaders should subject themselves to human leadership, not just to God. Often when we claim we are subjecting ourselves to God, we use that claim to cover up the fact that we are actually subjecting ourselves to ourselves and doing whatever we want. Having to subject ourselves to human authority brings out deep struggles within us and forces us to face ourselves in ways we would never do otherwise. For me, willingness to subject myself to my leaders has always been a test of my commitment to Christ. Through this I have learned that one of the greatest struggles a leader has to learn is to become a follower, and that can only can be accomplished by coming under the authority of someone else. I must submit to the authority of another in order to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And submission is just that, sub-mission: putting ourselves, our freedom, our desires, our will, our "mission" in life under the authority, direction, and control of someone else, especially when we don't want to.

Consider how many great men in the Bible had to do this: Joseph subjected himself to unjust Egyptian legal authority with no hope of freedom; David subjected himself to Nathan after his adultery with Bathsheba; Daniel subjected himself to his captors in order to obey God; Paul subjected himself to Rome when he was arrested and held unjustly for two years and then executed some years later. We can say with certainty that submission to human authority, even unjust human authority, is the primary mark of all of God's great men.

Consider Peter following his ministry to Cornelius. Upon his return to Jerusalem, the apostles and other church leaders confronted him because they were offended that he had entered and eaten in a Gentile's house, and they demanded an explanation of his behavior. If ever a man had a right to say, "God told me to do it," Peter did. After three efforts not to obey God (Acts 10:9-23), he acted and saw an amazing response in Cornelius and his household. Yet the Jerusalem leaders were offended at his actions and demanded that he answer their questions in order to maintain his authority in their lives. Peter had to submit to his followers so he could continue to lead them (Acts 11:1-3). So what did Peter do? He explained to them in orderly sequence exactly what happened (Acts 11:4-16), and they accepted his explanation. If Peter, in order to continue to lead, had to submit himself to the authority of his followers and give them an explanation of his actions, how much more must the rest of us learn to subject ourselves to human authority, even if we can claim God's direction for what we're doing. And we must remember that our followers have as much authority over us as we do over them. After all, they have the two most powerful words of all: we quit!

But the greatest example of the impact of authority on a leader's formation is Jesus. Jesus, as the author and completer of our faith (Hebrews 11:2), is a leader. He did what leaders do—they start and finish something no one else could do that attracts others to them, and that is what Jesus did. Nothing played as great a role in Jesus' life as His submission to authority. If He had not submitted to the authority over Him, He would never have accomplished what He did. Think about these realities:

  • His baptism, an act in which He "fulfilled all righteousness," indicating that He had to submit Himself to a test for righteousness from the people and His Father (Mt. 3:15);
  • The approving words of God at His baptism, showing that He had to meet the demands of His Father to be qualified for His task as Messiah (Mt. 3:17);
  • Jesus' statement that He could do nothing by Himself, but only that which He saw the Father doing (Jn. 5:19);
  • Jesus' words in John 6:38 that He did not come down from heaven to do His own will but the will of the one who sent Him and that He needed the Father's seal of approval (John 5:27) to serve;
  • The words of God at the transfiguration (Mark 9:7), sanctioning Jesus;
  • Jesus' declaration to James and John that He did not have the authority to determine who sits on His right and left in His kingdom—while He's the king, He cannot decide who shares honor with Him (Mark 10:40);
  • Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane when He asked if it were possible for the cup to pass from Him, but submitted His will to the Father's will—He said yes when He wanted to say no (Mt. 26:36-46);
  • Jesus' offer of accountability and prayer for the restoration of His glory in which He shows the Father how He's done what the Father wanted (John 17:1-12);
  • Jesus' declaration that He does not determine the timing of the kingdom because that belongs under the Father's authority, not His (Acts 1:6-7);
  • The head of Christ is God indicating that Christ is subordinate to God's authority (I Cor. 11:3).

Jesus was totally subordinate to His Father because He had to learn something He could never know without becoming a man, and that knowledge prepared Him for one of His most important leadership tasks of all. Jesus had to learn obedience and the only way He could learn it was to suffer (Heb. 5:7-9). Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears and He was heard. Why? "Because of His submission (Heb. 5:7)," because He chose His Father's will over His own. That submission is what enabled Him to be "the source of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:9)." Amazing! The only way Jesus could accomplish His purpose was to submit Himself to His Father as a Son, and that is how He became the approachable High Priest we need to find mercy and grace to help us (Heb. 4:14-16). If Jesus needed to submit Himself to His Father in order to become the Man He had to be to achieve His purpose, could any of us be any different? Without submission to the Father's will Jesus would never have accomplished our salvation, never received the restoration of His glory, never possessed the name that will be honored by all mankind, nor ever have the joy of sitting at the right hand of the Father (Heb. 12:2). From this we see that submitting to God-established human authority, be it good or evil, is the only way to become like Christ.

So is there never a time when we should resist authority and step out from under it?

Of course there is. Consider these realities.

  • We should resist authority when it moves from right to wrong, when the authority over us demands that we do wrong in light of God's word;
  • We should resist authority when it moves from truth to lies, when it uses statistics to misrepresent reality or when it seeks to cover up failure by claiming success or misrepresents those who threaten it;
  • We should resist authority when it moves from humility to humiliation, when it uses our loyalty to turn us into lackeys by shaming us or robbing us of our dignity or using us for its interests rather than enabling us to pursue God's interests;
  • We should turn from one authority to another when we move from vision to vision, that is, when our vision changes and we have a new passion that demands we move to a different role.

When you face realities like these, you must resist the authority over you, but you must do it very carefully, very gently, and only after you are absolutely certain you are right and not in a state of rebellion masked by spiritual hypocrisy.

Several years ago I was on a presidential search committee of a very large organization. The board had failed to hold the previous president accountable and thus was forced to correct the situation. In the final stages of the selection a man was being considered who had served under the previous president. The new man seemed qualified in every way yet there was one question that some on the committee wanted to ask. With all the problems the previous president had, why did he never speak up and address these issues? He responded by saying he did speak up and warned the previous president that if he didn't change the board would remove him, which is essentially what happened. However, he had never spoken to a board member about these issues, even though several board members were his good friends. That answer gave him the presidency. While he was a loyal man, he was not a weak man. His submission to painful authority proved him to be worthy of authority.

Learning to say yes when we want to say no is the most demanding lesson we learn in life. It was for Jesus; why wouldn't it be for us? And because it is so demanding it is also the most vital lesson we learn in life. Only Christ can enable us to learn submission. But remember this reality: what was true for Jesus is true for us. Today's submission determines tomorrow's authority.

Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International (LFI) as well as Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 
Bill began LFI in 2002 to minister to leaders around the world who are impacting the nations for Christ. Having watched God form his own life as a leader-mentor over thirty-seven years in ministry (including twelve years as a founding pastor, twelve years as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership, and over twenty-three years as a seminary faculty member), Bill helps other leaders recognize the reality that their success as a leader depends upon God's formative work in their heart. Bill has been privileged to personally serve leaders in Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He has also produced a six-part video/workbook series, Forming Davids for the 21st Century, which is a perfect resource to help groups of individual leaders engage with each other in the leader formation journey.

Publication date: October 19, 2010