One of the beautiful things the world sees in Christians is our willingness to help out—to do good for others. After all, this is part of that beautiful letter of Paul to the church in Ephesus:
For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.Ephesians 2:10 CSB Emphasis mine.
Doing good is a part of who we are as his disciples, and we carry this with us in cross-cultural service. However, doing good does not mean we never say no.
One of the things that leads to burnout and a longing to return home is the exhaustion we experience by saying yes to everything asked of us. If a national friend asks us to do something for them, we see it as an opportunity from God to do good to his glory. If a colleague asks us to take on an administrative task for the group, we say yes, because we want to be a good team player. Sometimes we find ourselves saying yes without asking God if this is a “good work” he’s prepared in advance for us or someone else.
Reasons to say no.
What are your current priorities in service? Are you at the language-learning stage, having to work a secular job to stay in the country, or in full-time ministry or evangelistic work? We all have tasks and needs that cause us to pause from a priority, but when a request takes us away from our focus for a longer period, we need to stop and think before we respond. If teaching a person English hinders me from studying their language, then I need to say I can’t do that right now. Maybe when I’m better able to survive in their language, I’ll be able to give some time to their need for English. Another way to say no to that is to direct them to a person who can help. I need to be careful that time-consuming requests don’t cut into my scheduled duties.
Other reasons to say no relate to the rules of our organization or sending body. A person may ask me for financial help or to serve as a signatory on their immigration documents. Being a guest in their country, my stay could be jeopardized by either request, so we need to find a way to refuse with grace.
There are also those who become a “thorn in the flesh” through intrusive visits or requests of our time or money. Seek wisdom from the Lord and colleagues in how to end such practices. When a pastor from my region of service called and wanted some advice from me, a red flag went up, knowing that men should be seeking wisdom from men, not women, and certainly not me as a widow. I soon came to see that his real goal was financial and directed him to seek help from the many other local pastors from his country in our area. I also had to stop answering his calls, as he was persistent for a season.
So, as you evaluate whether this “good” you’re asked to do is in line with your current priorities in service, it’s also important to study how to say no within the cultural context of your area.
How to say no.
As with my pesty pastor, one way to say no is to deflect. This keeps us from directly refusing help while offering options. This is especially important when dealing with people of the opposite sex. It’s important to know that as a Christian, it is very acceptable to decline meeting with someone of the opposite sex because of your religion. For those living in the Arab or Muslim world, this would be easily understood and accepted. It also offers an opportunity to give a positive witness as a Christ-follower, when speaking of our need to walk with integrity.
Another way to say no is by being unavailable. Use your calendar to schedule everything in your life, from language lessons, to outreach visits, to family time and rest. In planning ahead, you are able to share with confidence that you are busy at that time. Being unavailable includes not answering your phone. Just because we have phones with us 24/7, does not mean we have to answer them. Silence your phone or turn it off when you are studying or spending time with your children or spouse. If a person can’t reach you, they can’t ask you.
Think about how you’ve said no in the past. Talk to a colleague or national believer about the best ways to say no and when it’s appropriate. People in every culture say no in some way, even if they don’t use the word. Find out how they do it, and don’t be afraid to imitate them when you need to refuse a request.
Don’t try to keep up with other colleagues or nationals.
God has made you uniquely fit for the task he’s given you in ministry, and with that comes specific responsibilities. While a veteran colleague may be able to accommodate unexpected requests from nationals, you are in a different place in your journey of service, so don’t try to keep up. Saying no is not a sin or a dirty word, so be confident in using it with the Spirit’s guidance. Not only do we pray for discernment for doing good, but for the things we need to refuse as well.
Jesus refused a request from his own brothers to go to Judea by saying “My time has not yet come.” As the Son of God, he knew when to act and when not. We can do the same, by the power of the Spirit, by his…
Grace and Peace
To find out more about saying no, check out my latest book Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service. It’s available in e-book and paperback formats.