Saying No

Saying no is hard. But if we don’t, we may harm ourselves as well as others. How can we say no without offending others or losing friends?

“Just Say No” was an advertising campaign in the U.S. war on drugs during the 1980s and early 1990s. First Lady Nancy Reagan championed the slogan during her husband’s presidency. It aimed to discourage children from engaging in recreational drug use by offering ways of saying no. Eventually “Just Say No” expanded to violence and premarital sex.

Saying no to things that harm

Sometimes if you do not say no, you can end up hurting yourself. How often have you been faced with situations where you knew you should say no, and may even have wanted to say no, but you didn’t? For many of us it happens often, even every day. So how do we deal with these situations?

Oftentimes the challenge is saying it without offending others or losing friends. It’s natural to not want others to think badly of us. Yet if we refuse to say no, we can hurt others or ourselves. We may find ourselves being taken advantage of by failing to say a polite but firm “no!”

Here are some samples of painful rationalizations some have faced:

  • “I knew he was driving too fast and drinking, but I didn’t know what to do.”
  • “I knew it was illegal, but the others wanted to anyway.”
  • “I didn’t agree with the crowd, but I didn’t want to stand out as different.”
  • “I shouldn’t have given in, but everyone else was doing it.”

Situations like these place us in compromising positions with our beliefs, family standards, safety or personal desires. Yet there are reasonable and friendly ways of saying no. The next time you face the challenge of knowing you should say no, consider some of the following responses.

Go by the rules

Put your refusal on an impersonal basis. When faced with invitations to smoke, try drugs, get drunk or engage in immoral or illegal activity, explain that your family has set specific rules that you choose to follow. Therefore, the answer has to be no. Doing it this way helps counter being pressured into something, whether at school or with friends.

Often you will find your friends will respect you more for taking a stand. Going by the rules can help a lot when you’re confronted with people who drive dangerously, drink illegally or otherwise exert an unwanted influence over you.

“Just-say-no Joseph”

An excellent example is in the story of Joseph, a talented, handsome young man who, though a slave, managed the estate of Potiphar, an Egyptian noble. Things went well until the noble’s wife tried to seduce him.

The biblical account describes how she repeatedly tried to tempt Joseph to have sex with her. However, he refused, telling her: “There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he [Potiphar] kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).

She persisted. “So it was, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he did not heed her, to lie with her or to be with her. But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside, that she caught him by his garment saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside” (verses 10-12).

After repeatedly saying no to adultery, which he knew would be betraying not only his master but also his God, Joseph had only one option: to flee the scene. Centuries later, the apostle Paul wrote: “Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).

Joseph politely refused when pressured by the boss’s wife to do wrong. Her desires were, first and foremost, against the rules of Joseph’s spiritual Father—God. Pursuing an adulterous affair was also violating the fundamental rules of society and family. Joseph was consistent in refusing—he was playing by the rules established for the good of everyone. When she continued her sexual advances, he avoided the source of temptation by keeping away from her. When she finally trapped him alone in a compromising situation, he fled the scene.

Joseph paid a high price for doing the right thing. Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape, and he was thrown in jail. But in the end, God rewarded Joseph for his sterling character in saying no to sin. He eventually became the second most powerful man in the kingdom of Egypt.

Making “no” erosion-proof

We can learn what not to do from a tragic love story—the story of Samson. He foolishly became romantically involved with a woman named Delilah (Judges 16:4), whose name has become synonymous with temptation. He became caught up in undisciplined passion, opening the door that allowed him to become entrapped by a Philistine plot.

His enemies set him up by paying Delilah to lure and betray him (verses 5-6), and on three occasions she kept begging Samson to reveal the secret of his great strength. For a while he was able to put her off; but finally, worn down by her constant prodding to prove his love for her, he caved in.

Samson’s story is a fascinating—and heartbreaking—account of what happens when we stay around people who are continually trying to erode our character (verses 15-17, 21). If you are continually having to say no to someone who is trying to get you to compromise your values, it’s probably time to say no to the relationship. True friends don’t try to erode your commitment to doing the right thing!

Offering an alternative

Saying no when pressured usually requires taking a stand against the rest of the crowd. But sometimes there are others in the crowd who may feel the way you do but don’t have the courage to take that stand. One of the best tactics in a group is to not only say no, but to suggest another alternative. Maybe you could say, “I don’t want to do that, but why don’t we … .” You may find others supporting your option and may just end up saving everyone a lot of trouble.

Asking others to walk in your shoes  

Another way of courteously saying no is by helping other people appreciate your position. You don’t have to come across as being better than anyone else, just explain your principles and put the question back on them: “What would you do?” For example:

  • “I have a good relationship with my parents—they trust me a lot, but what you’re asking me to do is to risk everything I’ve earned. Why should I do that?”
  • “I made a promise to myself and my family that I would never ride with anyone who has been drinking or has alcohol in the car. What do you want me to do, break my promise to them and go with you?”
  • “I made up my mind a long time ago that I don’t want people lying to me or about me, so why should I lie to the boss for you?”

In virtually every situation in life a “no” answer can be explained this way, and the responsibility can be turned back on those who are pushing you to do the wrong thing. You can do it kindly; and actually, saying no is more readily acceptable when done in a warm and friendly manner. Reasonable people will understand why you have to say no to their request. Unreasonable people … well, if they’re unreasonable, doesn’t that tell you something about whether or not you want them to have any influence on your life?

It takes courage to say no

No one ever said it was easy, but the penalty for saying yes when we should have said no will create even tougher circumstances to deal with. It takes courage to say no, but being firm when being pulled to go against your principles always pays off in the long run! It can keep you out of trouble in the short term, and it will build inner character that will last for your entire life!

For more instruction on how to say no, see “Dealing With Difficult People.”

About the Author

Graemme Marshall

Graemme Marshall was a church pastor for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, before his death in 2015.

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