May 21, 2015

Love Means Learning to Say No

Gary Thomas — 

Love Means Learning to Say No final


Let me begin this post by sharing a common dilemma of life. How we resolve this dilemma will either serve or assault family intimacy. This account comes from a book that I highly recommend (Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown)

A woman named Cynthia once told me a story about the time her father had made plans to take her on a night out in San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Cynthia and her father had been planning the “date” for months. They had a whole     itinerary planned down to the minute: she would attend the last hour of his presentation, and then meet him at the back of the room at about four-thirty and leave quickly before everyone tried to talk to him. They would catch a trolley car to Chinatown, eat Chinese food (their favorite), shop for a souvenir, see the sights for a while and then “catch a flick” as her dad liked to say. Then they would grab a taxi back to the hotel, jump in the pool for a quick swim (her dad was   famous for sneaking in when the pool was closed), order a hot fudge sundae from room service, and catch the late, late show. They discussed the details over and over before they left. The anticipation was part of the whole experience.

This was all going according to plan until, as her father was leaving the convention center, he ran into an old college friend and business associate. It had been years since they had seen each other, and Cynthia watched as they         embraced enthusiastically. His friend said, in effect, “I am so glad you are doing some work with our company now. When Lois and I heard about it we thought it would be perfect. We want to invite you, and of course Cynthia, to get a   spectacular seafood dinner down at the Wharf.” Cynthia’s father responded: “Bob, it’s so great to see you. Dinner at the wharf sounds great!”

Cynthia was crestfallen. Her daydreams of trolley rides and ice cream sundaes evaporated in an instant. Plus, she hated seafood and she could just imagine how bored she would be listening to the adults talk all night. But then her father continued: “But not tonight. Cynthia and I have a special time planned, don’t we?” He winked at Cynthia and grabbed her hand and they ran out of the door and continued with what was an unforgettable night in San Francisco.

Cynthia recounted this story to Greg McKeown just weeks after her father, Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), had died. Now that Stephen Covey was gone, this was how his daughter remembered him.

I want every father to hear what this daughter said next: Covey’s decision to tell his friend and business associate “no” and keep his date with his daughter “bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me.”

Fathers and mothers, these “spontaneous” decisions imprint our children for the rest of their lives. It’s what they’ll remember about us—with sighs of fondness, or winces of hurt.

The thing is, these decisions aren’t really “spontaneous.” They spring from the solid values we hold most dear.

To be there for our spouse, to be there for our kids, means we have to be willing to disappoint other people. It might be an extended family member (your own parents, perhaps). It might be a boss. It might be a friend. In many cases the reality is, we can’t say “yes” to love unless we say “no” to pleasing someone else.

I hate saying “no.” I am a coward when it comes to saying “no.” I have said the wrong kind of “yes” much too often, because I am a people pleaser and want to be known as a “nice guy.” That is as sinful as being a jerk who doesn’t care what people thinks. It is rooted in selfishness and vanity.

When my son was a young teenager and I was traveling a good bit, he was at a youth camp when one of the leaders found out who his dad was. He cornered Graham and said, “We’ve been trying to get your dad to come and speak for us but he hasn’t yet. I know we can’t pay him much, but could you put a little pressure on him?”

Graham’s response shocked me. He told me he said, “No. I won’t ask him to do that, because if my dad speaks for you and you can’t really pay him, that means he has to be gone another weekend, away from us. It’s how he earns our living. And I don’t want to give up another weekend with my dad so he can be with your group.”

My thirteen year old son had more courage then, than I often have now (all of my kids have surpassed me in so many ways). It had hurt me to tell this group “no.” After talking with Graham, telling them “no” started to feel really good.

Love means having to say no to the lesser things so that we can say yes to the best things.

If you need half as much work on this as I do, I’d highly recommend both McKeown’s book (it’s a not specifically a “Christian” book, but it’s filled with truth) and Susie Larson’s new book Your Sacred Yes: Trading Life Draining Obligation for Freedom, Passion, and Joy. Susie writes as a committed Christian sister, and her book rocked my world, humiliated me (in a good way) and pointed me toward Christ’s redemption and healing focus.

When you subscribe to Gary’s blog, you will receive blog posts directly to your e-mail inbox. You will be one of the first to learn about the latest in Gary’s writing.

7 responses to Love Means Learning to Say No

  1. LOVED this post. Sharing this post with the Future Marriage University (FMU) community at

    Also, a book on this very topic I found IMMENSELY life-changing for me was “Choosing to Cheat” from Andy Stanley.

  2. Echezona Okafor May 22, 2015 at 7:19 am

    Thank you sir!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. It hit home with me and the things that my family has been going through lately. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing, Gary! 🙂

  5. Thank you for this good word, Gary!

    A sermon by Andy Stanley on choosing who to cheat on (work? family?) broadcast by FOTF had a huge impact on me a few years ago. He also wrote a great book about it:

    My ex-husband courted his hobbies, his profession, and eventually other women at the expense of his wife and children. He said “Yes” to the least loyal while saying “No” to the most loyal. Tragic decisions that we are still struggling to heal from.

    • Great, wise counsel, Gary! Now…..for us, for me to apply it. Knowledge does no good without application. This (people pleasing/saying no) has been a life-long struggle for me. Especially now with my hubby on Disability, I have to work and I have two aging parents who have health issues and they live out of town. I’m juggling my hubby and our home, my two part-time jobs and caring for my parents. I’ve hired help for my parents, but that’s only Mon thru Fri so weekends, I’m on the road to lend them a hand. My only sibling lives 5 hours away so he cannot physically help. It’s difficult saying “no” because each situation is truly a need.I pray for wisdom and discernment to know how to navigate these choppy waters of life, not only for myself but for others that are also in my situation.
      Thank you for the book recommendations!

  6. Lindsey Pennella May 21, 2015 at 10:55 am