Obligation or Obedience
A Fearful Yes
I recently had a very busy week full of coffee dates, client meetings, meals with lovely people in our church community, family get-togethers, our Wednesday night Life Group, and what felt like a whole bunch of other appointments and errands. For the entire week I was offered some delicious baked treat everywhere I went; and I kept hearing myself say yes to glazed lemon loaf, Oreo cheesecake, crunchy coconut cookies, chocolate-chip banana bread, coffee cake with cinnamon sugar, snickerdoodles, and tiramisu. Every time I said yes to another meeting, and yes to another treat, a seldom-heeded part of me was yelling, “No, just say no!” But instead I said yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Although it was an absolutely delicious week, at the end of it all I was tired, bloated, and irritated.
I have a gluten intolerance, and when I eat wheat my stomach expands to three times its size, and I am often in some degree of pain as a result. I know, I know, it may seem crazy that I would choose to eat so much of something that has such negative effects on me. But because I so esteem the people in my life, and their desire to bless through the gift of food, saying no to something offered up in love — whether it is homemade pasta or a slice of pie — is extremely difficult for me. I am concerned that saying no will make the other person feel slighted, and I dislike that possibility more than I dislike the pain that comes from eating wheat. Even though “cheating” inevitably brings me discomfort, in social circumstances I often can’t bear to say “no”, and if I do muster up the courage to say no, I usually end up feeling bad about it and caving in anyway.
But back to the effects of my busy week — even after all those lovely social engagements, I felt strange inside. And it wasn’t only because I was in pain from all that gluten either. There was a deeper gnawing in the pit of my stomach, a feeling that I couldn’t shake. What was going on? I ran through the week again in my mind and realized I hadn’t said no, even once, to anyone or to anything. And I felt the burden of what each quick yes had cost me: energy to do the things that mattered most, even to fully focus on the person I was with — the very person whose feelings I was trying to protect. On further reflection, I realized that eating the food offered was distracting to my spirit, because as I ate, I worried about the pain I would feel later, and was not fully present with the person I was with anyway. I had fear about not eating the food offered, but I also worried while I was eating it! Doesn’t this sound ridiculous? But how often do we live our lives like this, day by day, trapped by fear, and saying yes to crazy things?
As the verse from 1 Corinthians 6 implies, it was permissible for me to eat all those treats, but it wasn’t beneficial in the long run. (See 1 Corinthians 6:12.) In fact, trying to please others actually put a deep-seated fear in my heart, the kind of fear that leads to bondage. Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (ESV).
A Guilty Yes
I have a weak back from an injury in my youth and can easily re-injure it, as I did last summer. After two months of physiotherapy, massage, and chiropractic treatment I was back on my feet, but with very limited mobility. Prior to my injury, I volunteered at the church nursery once a month, and after my back injury, I considered resigning. But I felt guilty every time I thought about the small number of volunteers, and the burden that it would place on others if I was unavailable, so I kept showing up, not wanting to inconvenience anyone else. I reasoned that if I were very careful, my injury wouldn’t turn into someone else’s problem. So on my assigned Sunday once a month I kept saying yes.
But on those Sunday afternoons when I got home, I felt my back begin to ache from holding those cute chunks of love. During the week that followed, I would struggle on and off with the pain. I knew that continuing to do this would only serve to hinder my healing, so why couldn’t I bring myself to resign? I was afraid that one of the other very busy women in the church would think I was lazy, or just making an excuse to get out of the commitment. I liked being the person everyone could count on. But this way of thinking caused me confusion and worry over the long months that I wavered back and forth. And meanwhile, I continued to do something far longer than was beneficial.
For months, my guilty yes cost me peace of mind, and caused me pain.
Obligation or Obedience?
I have been painfully aware lately of my tendency to be a “Yes-Woman”, saying yes out of a false sense of obligation, guilt, fear, or a desire for recognition, rather than simply giving a “yes” or a “no” for love of God and obedience to Him. This isn’t a new tendency for me, or for other Christian women I know, but I’m newly recognizing its debilitating effect on my walk with Christ and my relationship with others in my life. Both stories I’ve described above have made me freshly assess my priorities and my responses, and have forced me to dig deep into God’s Word for the truth.
As Christians, we are called to exercise kindness, generosity, love, and putting the needs of others before our own needs, but not without exercising wisdom, and not without a love for God coming first in the equation. Otherwise, it is all based on striving and works, and God says He will “…expose [our] righteousness and [our] works, and they will not benefit [us]” (Is. 57:12 NIV). In my life the desire to say yes to people, opportunities, food, and well, anything, comes from a desire to have a strong testimony of godly love, honor, and givenness. However, I can — and have — said yes for all the wrong reasons and ended up hindered in my service to others, rather than freely able to help them.
Here are two amazing qualities of a faithful response found in Scripture that have given me great hope and freedom!
1. No wavering
God’s Word instructs us to respond with a simple, “Yes, I will” or “No, I can’t”, and that anything else is from the evil one. (See Matthew 5:37.) If we are trying to form a response but have any kind of hesitation, the issue likely needs further prayer and to be re-evaluated in light of God’s Word. The enemy often tries to distract us and bring confusion to our thoughts. But God’s Word assures us that when we experience any kind of wavering, it is from the enemy, because in Christ we are given a “sound mind.” (See 2 Timothy 1:7.) We shouldn’t try to quickly form a response just to satisfy others. This often leads to regret. If we aren’t sure, perhaps the motives of our heart need to be checked, or our priorities realigned to His truth. Whatever we say or do is a part of our testimony to the onlooking world. So we need to make sure that whatever we commit to we can carry through with gusto and confidence that it was God who called us to it!
2. No fear
Sometimes I refer to myself as a people-pleaser and then cringe, because I know full well that people-pleasing comes from fear of men, not freedom in Christ. Does this bring to mind similar circumstances from your own life where a yes should really have been a no, but you imagine that saying so will hurt someone else’s feelings? Or have you ever been motivated to make a decision by first asking the question, “what will so-and-so think?” putting too much of an emphasis on the opinions of others, and fearful of their judgment or of rejection? First of all, let’s address that fear. Plain and simple, it comes from the enemy of our souls, and often immobilizes us. We are unable to make wise choices when we live in fear of what others might think. But God’s Word clearly says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 Jn. 4:18 ESV). The opposite of fear is peace. Saying yes based on love for our Savior will lead to experiencing the reigning peace of God, even if we end up saying yes to something difficult. And saying no — though we may face societal pressure — may actually bring us greater freedom in Christ!
A God-Honoring Response
Have you ever caught yourself thinking that saying yes is the godly, Christian response, while saying no is selfish or harsh? Me too, but hold on. The Bible clearly says that it is not works that matter, but only “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6 NIV). A yes and a no have little meaning when not motivated by the love of God, or carried out by His Spirit at work in us. And true, selfless love can only come from Him, so only by His wisdom can we form God-honoring responses. The important thing is to first take the battles over our responses to the Lord, to seek His wisdom, and then to speak and act as He directs us. Because, “…we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4 ESV).
I came across a quote from Amy Carmichael a while ago (source unknown) that said, “Blessed are the single-hearted, for they shall enjoy much peace. If you refuse to be hurried and pressed, if you stay your soul on God, nothing can keep you from that clearness of spirit which is life and peace. In that stillness you will know what His will is.”
So no matter the response, if it first honors God, it will also honor others.
Even if it leads me to politely decline a delicious brownie so that I can minister from an unhindered mind? Yes. Even if it means resigning from the nursery so as to heal, being better able to serve elsewhere? Yes. For me, these are hard things to do, but making these decisions has given me such freedom. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a “Yes-Woman”, but the kind who says “YES” to her Savior first!