When Saying “NO” Is The RIGHT Thing To Do

How do we set boundaries without building walls?

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“Can you take my kids to school for me,” my friend asks, “I woke up late.” I had invited my friend and her kids to spend the weekend at my house because I enjoyed hanging out with her. It was now Monday morning and she needed a favor . . . but she seemed to expect me to solve her problem. I had gotten up early because I wanted to spend some time with the Lord before I went to work, and if I helped her out I would not have time for that or a shower. I did not want to do it, but I wondered if I was being selfish. Doesn’t the Bible say we are to put others first? When someone asks, aren’t we supposed to go the extra mile, to give others the shirt off our back? Doesn’t Scripture admonish us to pick up our cross and die daily? So, I reluctantly agreed to bring her kids to school . . . in attempt to “do the right thing.” Normally doing the right thing felt good – but doing this favor made me feel lousy inside . . . and it was ten years before I realized why.

So here I am years later, gathered with a group of women leaders from my church. We got together periodically so we could share our victories and our difficulties in life. I was struggling this particular week because someone had asked me for help, and I did not know if I had done the right thing. Actually, I had already offered my help and was happy to do so, but the request expanded into something more . . . something that they did not really need. I knew their love language was “acts of service,” so helping them would make them feel loved . . . but it would have altered my plans for the day. The request itself made me angry inside because it was so unreasonable . . . so I did not want to do it. But once again, I wondered if I was being selfish.

These loving ladies circled around me and assured me I had made the right decision in saying “no,” but I wondered how they could be so certain. One of them is a counselor, and she said to me, “Carey, you are not responsible for other people’s feelings.” What!? I’m not? But my decision would affect their feelings, and they may not feel loved if I don’t do what they are asking! Isn’t that the point of learning someone’s love language . . . so we can speak it? Her statement was an epiphany for me. This individual in my life expected love to look a certain way, but their flawed interpretation of my “no” did not diminish the truth of my affection for this individual. So, would saying “yes” (when inside I did not have a peace or leading to do so) simply reinforce these unhealthy patterns of giving and receiving?

When I got home, I looked up Matthew 5:38-42

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Suddenly a light bulb went off for me. This scripture does NOT mean we are called to give to ANYONE who asks something of us, or to ALWAYS go the extra mile. This passage is directing us not to retaliate or seek revenge for the evils committed against us. It is not endorsing a voluntary submission to abuse (or endless requests), but rather teaching us to overcome evil with love. My situation was hardly comparable.

When I examine the scriptures, I realize that Jesus was not always nice. He did not allow others to manipulate, pressure, or take advantage of him . . . even his family (Luke 8:19-21). He did not always do what people wanted him to do, and there were many people he did not help. Jesus, in his humanity, also had limitations. There were times he even prioritized his personal needs over the needs of others, especially when it came to alone time with His Father (Mark 1:35-38, Luke 5:15-16). He always looked to “Abba” first before doing anything. I believe it was this single focus on God (for direction, affirmation, etc) that enabled him to operate in overwhelming love and grace, while remaining free of burn out.

Though the Bible clearly admonishes us to prioritize peace in our relationships, (Hebrews 12:14, Romans 12:18, Matthew 5:9) I now realize that saying “yes” to every request is not what Jesus had in mind. We often equate “keeping the peace” with righteousness, probably because society praises people who are “tolerant” and “politically correct.” However, we are not told to be peacekeepers, but rather peacemakers. It takes healthy confrontation and communication to make peace, but it must come from a place of love or we will end up building walls instead of bridges.

At times it may seem easier to yield to dysfunctional behavior than to face it.  Because we crave harmony, it feels like we should just keep quiet and allow others to mistreat us. But in reality, this is a cowardly response . . . and everyone suffers as a result.  God designed a natural rhythm of reaping and sowing, and we need to let people experience the consequences of their poor choices if there is ever going to be any hope for growth and healing (Galatians 6:7-10).

I once read that Jesus was neither passive nor aggressive; he was assertive. Unfortunately, I have often taken the passive approach to conflict, thinking this was the “Godly” way to shut down aggression. I would attempt to “love my enemy” and extend mercy to others who mistreated me, but I didn’t realize there were times when my acts of “love and mercy” were unsanctified. These acts enabled the unhealthy behavior of the other person, while denying my true self in the process. In short, I wasn’t being authentic. In his book “Keep Your Love On,” Danny Silk writes, “When you don’t have either the courage or the ability to face the truth of what you feel, think, and need, you end up communication confusing and inaccurate information – sometimes even downright falsehoods. Only those who value and understand themselves can value and understand others.” Passive people devalue themselves when they think it’s right to have no needs or requirements. But they are living a lie, because absorbing other people’s selfishness will only make them miserable and bitter, and it is only a matter of time before that lie explodes into a messy confrontation.

Henry Nouwen struggled with boundaries, which impaired his ability to give and receive love in a healthy way.  He went through a dark season of anguish and despair, but kept a "secret journal" of what he was learning.  During this season of soul searching with God he wrote, “When people show you their boundaries (“I can’t do this for you”), you feel rejected. You cannot accept the fact that others are unable to do for you all that you expect from them. You desire boundless love, boundless care, boundless giving. Part of your struggle is to set boundaries to your own love – something you have never done. You give whatever people ask of you, and when they ask for more, you give more, until you find yourself exhausted, used, and manipulated. Only when you are able to set your own boundaries will you be able to acknowledge, respect, and even be grateful for the boundaries of others. You cannot permit others to walk in and out of your life according to their needs and desires. In doing so, you are no longer the master of your own house and you will become tired and feel used. Never allow yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will. You might think that you are being generous in giving access to anyone who wants to enter or leave, but you will soon find yourself losing your soul. Claim for yourself the power over your drawbridge and you will discover new joy and peace in your heart and be able to share that joy and peace with others.” (From "The Inner Voice of Love")

Over the years, I have learned several key things about lovingly setting boundaries with others, which Danny Silk summarizes well in his book:

1) You may need to limit your time with an individual (while keeping your love on) if that person is consuming too much from you. You only have the power to control yourself, not the choices of another. “The needs of others should not control your choices . . . your priorities should.”

2) Instead of telling others what they have to do, it is better to tell them what YOU are going to do. “Healthy communication is all about providing people with honest, relevant information about how their behavior is affecting your life. It’s not about judging them or telling them how they need to change.” When standing up for yourself, this approach can create an atmosphere of respect, even in the face of disagreement.

3) We must display unconditional love while setting limits. “Unconditional love says, ‘No matter what you do, I am going to pursue the goal of connection with you.’ Anxiety naturally arises when personal differences show up in a relationship, and fear will tempt us to run away from each other. But in committing to unconditional love, we commit to keep moving toward each other even when we’re scared. We will do whatever it is we need to do to protect our connection. Sometimes you have to be willing to agree to disagree over something in order to maintain your connection.”

4) We must learn to respond to God instead of reacting to fear and pain. (2 Timothy 1:7) However, “responding does not come naturally. You can react without thinking, but you cannot respond without training your mind to think, your will to choose, and your body to obey.” When people now ask things of me, I am learning to say “let me get back to you on that.” This gives me time to pray and work through the request so I can identify if it is something God is asking me to do (that would bear good fruit), or if it is best for me to say “no.” Instead of reacting out of my emotions, I am paying more attention to my inner self, so I can respond to His voice alone. There are times when God does ask me to sacrifice my time and resources to give to another, but when He is in it, His peace leads the decision . . . and my heart rejoices in the act of giving.

5) Be careful to still say “yes” when that is the right thing to do. If our boundaries have been violated in the past, we can easily fall into a pattern of interpreting every future request in the same light (because our wounds get triggered by that individual). For some people, setting “boundaries” equates with turning off their love and pushing the individual away, but this only prevents us from experiencing the peace and healing God desires in our relationships. We have to be careful that we don’t get so good at “setting boundaries” that we stop displaying love, and then become unwilling to sacrifice ourselves for others in ways that DO honor God. We need wisdom and discernment for each situation . . . which God generously supplies when we ask. (James 1:5).

I am still a work in progress, but I am pursuing God’s healing in every aspect of my life, so I can live in the fullness of my TRUE identity. I am convinced that learning how to set healthy limits with others, WHILE STILL KEEPING MY LOVE ON, is one of the keys to unlocking His abundance in my life. As Gaultiere writes, “The better your boundaries of self-awareness and self-definition are, the greater your capacity to offer empathy and love to others. That is why it’s not ‘selfish’ or unloving to have boundaries and ‘take care of yourself.’”

Recommended reading:

Article by Bill Gaultiere: "Jesus Set Boundaries"

Keep Your Love On” by Danny Silk

"The Best Yes" by Lysa Terkeurst

Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How To Say No To Take Control Of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero

"Inner Voice of Love" by Henry Nouwen


Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

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