the skill of saying no (+ a brief book review)

Have you ever thought about your ability to set boundaries? I always thought I was pretty good at it, considering how disciplined I was when it came to school work. I was mostly a straight-A student all the way through my education. As I got older, I learned to structure my time better (i.e. I stopped waiting till the last possible second to start projects). I even got up at 5 a.m. for a year and a half to go to classes at 7 a.m.

But socially? I was always kind of a wreck. In elementary school I spent years being “friends” with people who repeatedly gave me the silent treatment for things out of my control, yet I begged them to be my friend again. I was slapped, shoved, and even bitten by one girl almost daily for an entire year, and all I did was cry and hope she would start being nice to me. In college, a girl I considered a friend was only interested in being around me when she needed something — like the time she tried to pay me to do her prob & stats homework — and, in retrospect, I realized that had defined our relationship for years; however, I naively hoped that if I showed an interest in what she liked, she’d want to be my friend for real. I did things in the name of ministry (and fitting in with my youth group/college group) that I didn’t really want to do, but I pretended it was amazing. To this day, I often find myself saying yes when my brain is screaming NO.

My track record isn’t great.

When I heard about the book Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend, I was immediately interested, so about a week ago I checked it out and read part of it. I say “part of,” because I was disappointed to find some seriously sketchy theology fairly early in the book. For instance, according to the authors, we have boundaries separating us from God, and He honors that by not overstepping our human boundaries… I’m sorry, what?! Do they really think we have anything that the almighty God doesn’t know, see, or give? Are there things He’s not allowed to do because it might hurt our feelings? There was also a pretty liberal use of scripture citations without context, and sometimes even scripture in quotes without telling readers where in the Bible it came from. SUSPECT. It often seemed as though they found verses that kinda seemed to back up their points in an attempt to demonstrate that what they were saying is absolutely true. Like I said, sketchy. The concepts about setting boundaries — and what a lack of boundaries looks like — were fascinating, but I’d honestly rather read a secular psychologist’s book and view it through the lens of the Bible than to read one where scripture is twisted to say what the author wants it to say. I can’t in good conscience recommend the book.

So… did anything good come from reading 103 pages of Boundaries?

The first few pages of the book detail a day in the life of a person without boundaries, and, holy cow, it hit close to home. I wish I still had the book just so I could quote this section. This woman is guilted into taking important time away from her family so that she can tend to her lonely mother’s repeated unannounced visits to her house. She looks forward to a women’s weekend conference with her church so that she can have some valuable quiet time, only to agree to step in as the conference’s coordinator after the original coordinator dropped out. A friend calls to talk about her difficult day, taking up the woman’s entire lunch break, without asking how she was. The list goes on and on.

At first glance, these things may not look so bad, or at least they look normal enough — even unavoidable. The sad and oh so real thing is that this woman gritted her teeth and took on more than she could handle physically and emotionally, all because she felt it was her Christian duty. After all, we’re supposed to sacrifice ourselves for each other, right? Even if we’re exhausted and have other responsibilities, wouldn’t it be selfish to turn down someone else’s request because of something happening in our own lives? This woman chided herself for even considering denying what other people asked of her. She was needed, she thought, so it didn’t really matter what else she had going on in her personal life.

Except that she was sleep deprived. Her marriage and children suffered from her inability to say no to others who “needed” her and to hold her children accountable to rules. And, above all, she resented the sacrifices she “had” to make… yet repeatedly chose to say yes to whatever was asked, believing that she was serving God, wondering what was wrong with her that kept her from feeling happy about her selflessness.

I’ve seen this so many times. Frustration at having to give up an entire Saturday to be a speaker at a church event designed to encourage other women. Frustration at having to coordinate all the church nursery volunteers because you were the first person considered after the former coordinator stepped down. Frustration at having to lead a praise band when you’d rather be working in other areas of the church. How often does “serving God” come from a place of “have to” and resentment?

I would argue that many people, particularly Christian women, fail to understand options. Because they’re known to have talents, they feel trapped into using them at every single opportunity, and they lack the ability to say, “Thank you, but I need to pass on this one. I need this time for my own walk with Jesus/marriage/relationships.” It’s like we pride ourselves on being the busiest, most frazzled church workers who treat every request as if it’s a command and still try to claim that it’s a joy. We should absolutely use our gifts and abilities to glorify God and help others — but joyfully. When joy is missing, it’s bondage rather than service. And, more often than not, we put ourselves in this bondage.

When it comes to serving others, particularly in the church, we tend to put each other on the spot when it comes to filling jobs, and it’s difficult to say no. We want to be a team player and show that we love Jesus and people. But whether you’ve been asked to head yet another committee due to your true leadership abilities, or you’ve been asked to serve in the nursery just because you’re a living breathing female, I believe it’s better not to do it at all than to do it with resentment in your heart, without true, joyful worship.

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
– Luke 10:38-42, ESV

One thought on “the skill of saying no (+ a brief book review)

  1. Haylie says:

    I actually read that book too! Lots of good stuff in it. I tend to disagree though when you mentioned doubting the integrity of their use of Scripture and what they said about God having boundaries. I don’t think they meant he literally can’t do certain things; I think they were saying he respects the boundaries that we chose via the fall. Does that make sense? Like, we have free will, so that’s a boundary. And that doesn’t mean God isn’t sovereign, obviously. And it’s not all black and white (because of course, not being God, we don’t get his ways a lot of the time, etc). I know it’s not like, a PERFECT beyond perfect book, or anything, but those things didn’t bother me. But to each their own! And at least you were able to still glean a lot of truth applicable to your own life! So that seems like a good thing. 🙂

    I felt the same way. Even though I deal with people’s emotional baggage or manipulation or even just a request to help with something better than I used to, I STILL have to work at examining things like- am I responding to this out of guilt? Is this in alignment with what God is saying to me? Etc. It really helped me understand some healthy ways of dealing with boundaries through God’s perspective.


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