The Courage to Say No
Paul Coughlin Paul Coughlin's Weblog
- 2010 Jun 05
It's a pivotal day when those of us who are low on courage admit it. There's no shame in this admission, but instead liberation, purpose, and joy. What would be shameful, indeed sinful, is if we allowed ourselves to stay in that state of soul. Our lives provide ample opportunities to express courageous faith, and one of the best ways to begin this journey is learning to say no.
An inability to say no is mere submission. Jesus submitted to the will of his Father, but not to the will of those around him. Although we've been trained to believe otherwise, submission to others is not always servanthood. It doesn't make us loving—it makes us weak and ineffective.
Without a viable ability to say no, we cannot be strong and courageous. Thinking everything has to be yes makes us avoid people—avoid life—and this is cowardice in disguise. Eventually, failure to say no on behalf of ourselves and others leads to abdication, resentment, and cynicism, all of which undercut the production of thumotic action.
One of the underreported reasons why many people cannot produce a courageous no is that they do not yet possess a strong sense of self, which is vitally connected to the understanding of soul emphasized throughout these pages. They don't have enough soul—an authenticity of living that's tied to the real world, with real vision, clarity, and grit—from which to draw courage, the kind that Jesus wanted his disciples to pull out of themselves on the choppy Sea of Galilee.
They also have the wrong image of themselves, the most notable being that they're "really nice people," which, they've been told, is the pinnacle of Christian virtue. They have a false image of God in human form. Despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, they still contend that Jesus did not quarrel, disagree, speak bluntly, create firm boundaries, or otherwise disrupt the world around him.
They somehow believe that Jesus was a wave-free zone, and people who don't roil the water don't say no. For many of us, not being seen as "nice" feels like a death blow—that's one of the reasons we've created this fictitious Jesus. If he didn't have to go through the suffering and live with the heat that follows forging a courageous no, then we don't have to either.
The sooner we retrain ourselves, the more we will grow spiritually, which will further fortify our ability to say no when saying no is the right thing to do. I think the ability to say no on behalf of others is one of the more distinctive traits of male love. Men like the incisive nature of a redemptive no, which is why on the whole we're more attracted to martial occupations. This is a big part of what might be described as kingly energy.
From the male perspective, the masculine expression of love at its best is supportive and nurturing but without absorption of another into our self. It keeps boundaries clear and visible while it cleaves and cuts. This is why men are more prone to respect the autonomy, the individuality, of another person, and sometimes this respect is mistaken for lack of care. Male love says to another person, while saying no: "You need help, and I'm here to give it, but I respect you as an individual. I don't expect you to be like me. Remain who are you as you accept my help. I have no intention of absorbing you. (In fact I can't even stomach the thought.)"
So when a man helps another man, he'll put his arm around a shoulder or his hand on a shoulder—supportive but not smothering. This is different from many feminine styles of love, and it has nothing to do with right and wrong. They are complementary.
The ability to say no without feeling woozy leads to the issue of ownership. Who are you? Who owns you? If you think your parents or church or culture owns you, then eventually you'll end up carrying out their will and living by their definition of you. They usually will lay claims upon you that override your will with theirs. If the church is authentically asking you to adopt God's will instead of your own, then that's a different story. But the church can often ask you to take on the will of its leaders disguised as God's. Sometimes this is done out of ignorance, and sometimes it can be a thumos-crushing form of spiritual dissimulation.
Again, God owns you, and he gives this ownership back to you along with his love and guidance. This dual stewardship, so to speak, creates a solid level of responsibility that's essential to courageous faith. No one else is responsible for your life, and the sooner we come to this sobering conclusion, the sooner we become our whole selves. And the sooner we become whole selves, the sooner our capacity for courage increases.
Keeping ownership between yourself and God leads to the realization that you are valuable, that you matter, and that you are needed right now, today. Without this rugged understanding of the gift of your life (being, existence) and the gift of living (animation, spiritedness), you won't take your life and the lives of others as seriously as you should. It is the seriousness of life—the "drama," as Scott Peck put it—that causes us to embrace and celebrate the miracle of living, which in turn feeds and fires our thumos courage.
I've been told that the number one event that turns a non-voting citizen into a voting one is home ownership. Such people now feel they have something to lose, some flesh in the fight. This causes them to take action, to become more animated and involved. Likewise, when we take ownership of our lives, we're prone to greater vitality. Having something valuable at stake brings an accompanying vigor, and herein we also start to see the value of others more clearly, and so our capacity for courageous faith and love increases.
Saying no is a discipline of the courageous. But like most new things, it will feel odd at first, usually bringing a vague sense of being ill at ease. Warns Henry T. Close:
I will feel guilty, anxious, uneasy, frightened, as though in some strange way I have betrayed something or someone. If I understand in advance that this will happen, it will make it easier to handle…I will need lots of practice in small areas, making sure that I do not invite people to take advantage of me…Every time I succeed, I will feel better and stronger, and it will be a bit easier the next time. All of this will be difficult at first, in the little things as well as the big ones, but in a sense my whole life is at stake…I regard people who say No as more real than people who don't—and I like real people.
There's that word again, real. We don't like people who aren't authentic because the soul deficiency we sense within them makes them less trustworthy, powerful, and redemptive.
If you're like me, something has been bugging you while reading this. It's a topic that's very dear to (if not an obsession for) many evangelicals. It's weakness.
If you're unfamiliar with evangelical culture, let me fill you in on something. We talk a lot about weakness. We talk so much about it that around us you might feel like a pretty bad person if you don't feel weak all the time.
The reason we emphasize weakness is because the Bible emphasizes it. However, we've done something unusual to the paradox of being strong through weakness: We've largely redefined what it means, and as is often the case when we don't understand or appreciate paradox, we've overemphasized weakness at the expense of traits like boldness and courage.
We receive this view from Paul, who writes that he asked God to take away a physical thorn in his flesh. Three times he asked and was refused.
[God said,] "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore [Paul] will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.
In a startling revelation, Paul even says he finds joy and pride in his weakness.
We all have struggles that others don't. For example, have you ever heard someone pray about a problem that doesn't hinder you? I remember hearing one many pray about an issue with a co-worker. It wasn't a big one—just the garden variety that pops up in most every workplace. I said to him, "Why don't you have a talk with the guy; you know, don't yell or anything, just talk with him. Tell him you don't like what he's doing, that it hurts your ability to do your job."
He replied that he couldn't that he wasn't strong enough to have such a straightforward conversation. And then, remarkably, he said it was good he was weak in this way, because he would be kept humble while God would be seen as strong in the situation. He never actually did have the conversation with the person hindering his work. His weakness remained weak, and he continued to hold that condition as a badge of spiritual honor. Would you want such a man as your boss? Your attorney? Your spouse? Your pastor?
Most of the time such an interaction is within my capacity. I can do it. I'm not crazy about potentially tense conversations, but I can handle them. It's a strength I have that this guy didn't, and my attempts to help him through a weakness and into strength fell on deaf ears.
So how can I reconcile the Bible's clarion call to greater strength and loving courage toward others with Paul's words about boasting in weakness so that Christ's power can rest upon us? Being a believer can't mean I have to pretend I'm weak when I'm not. I'm not going to pretend I don't have strengths when I do—that's just a churchy way of lying.
These strengths are helpful to me and to those I care about and minister to—should I actually abandon things I do well? Some Christians think they should.
We need to embrace our strengths, to be bold and courageous while at the same time thrusting ourselves into situations where we know we will face our weakness. We need to reach beyond what we're currently capable of doing, trusting that God's grace will be with us when we do and that his power will come to rest upon us. This opens doors to him in our lives.
Just as I'm stronger in some ways than others, I'm weaker in some ways as well. I don't have to pray for strength to talk to a troubling colleague, but I would need to pray for strength if I had to lead people into war. And if our campaign were successful, I could boast only in having received power come to rest upon me as a gift.
I know a man who mentors juvenile delinquents. They have problems he cannot fully comprehend and burdens he cannot remove. He's weak in that way, as most of us are. So he prays that God will strengthen him and give him the right words to say or not say. God has helped him be strong, bold, and courageous as he extends himself in love for others. His weakness is not an excuse to stop but a reminder to bow and to press forward.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.