Saying Yes and Saying No

“Christian asceticism is not spiritual boot camp, but neither is it effortless. Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project.”

— M. Shawn Copeland


Thoughts and questions to help you consider this practice

Tough decisions and persistent effort are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy.

If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying "no" to that which crowds God out and "yes" to a way of life that makes space for God.

Training for faithful living

Many of us long to grow stronger in the Christian life; we want to learn how to say "no" to what crowds God out and "yes" to making space for God. But are we really ready to exert ourselves?

Spirituality is not a spectator sport. We can't simply rely on others to get in shape for us. The spiritual life requires personal effort over the long haul. How has our culture trained us instead to expect immediate results for our efforts?

The word "asceticism" comes from the Greek root askesis, signifying exercise or training. The ancient practice of Christian asceticism comes from the training early Christians imposed on themselves in order to be deliberate and purposeful toward Christ's abundant life. What notions does asceticism conjure up for you?

In what ways might the following practices be a training ground for a lively spirituality: shared communal life; gathering to remember Jesus; meeting the needs of strangers, the infirm, the imprisoned, and the poor? Where in these practices would you need to stretch yourself? How could you be an encouraging coach to others?

Pros and cons of Christian asceticism

Consider the stories of Christian ascetics such as Julian of Norwich, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, or the walker known as Peace Pilgrim. What aspects of their lives attract you? What aspects disturb you? How does the passion and intensity of Christian ascetics call into question our society's demand for order, control, calculation, and propriety?

Sometimes renunciation can become an end unto itself. Does turning our hearts towards God's abundance require us to reject life's simple daily pleasures? When does saying "no" lead us closer to God with greater openness and compassion for others?

A whole and holy life

How does having relatively unlimited choice in our culture make it harder to say "yes" and say "no"? When is it sometimes easier to have no choice, or to have choices made for us?

We make promises about change — famous New Year's resolutions! — but when they begin to feel like deprivation and loss, our good intentions falter. Why is a life-affirming "yes" necessary to making an effective "no"? What fears, new tasks, or changes might tempt you to pull back when you want to say "yes"?

Jesus calls us from certain behaviors, but always offers an alternative: "Come, follow." What's the most demanding "yes" you ever said? What Gospel stories remind us of ourselves by telling of people who hesitated, who were drawn to Jesus' radical compassion and wisdom, but were shy of his passion?

Strengthening our "yes" or our "no"

  • Through prayer: Who is someone you believe knows how to pray? Reflect on what you know of this person's prayer life, or ask the person to talk with you about it. Consider how prayer might strengthen your ability to say "yes" or "no" to something. To what must you say "yes" or "no" in order to come to prayer?
  • Through examination of conscience: How do things stand between you and God? To what are you really saying "yes" with your life? What kind of person are you making of yourself in your daily choices?
  • Through faith-sharing groups: Do you have adequate spiritual nourishment or emotional support for the "yes" you seek to say? To what do you think your community needs to say "no"? Is God inviting this community to say any particular "yes"?

Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our "yes" or our "no" is a lifelong project. It means learning to live in passionate discipline, choice, and action. What ways to practice might help us find support and challenge, courage and correction?

  • Reflect on how children develop the capacity for saying "no!" at an early age. What's at stake in their "no"-saying? When do young children say "no" but really mean "yes"? As adults, to what do we say "no" but mean "yes"? To what do we say "yes" but mean "no"?
  • "Just Say No" has been used as a slogan for anti-drug and sexual abstinence campaigns with teens. How do you rate the effectiveness of these campaigns? In saying "no" to drugs and premarital sex, to what are teens encouraged to say "yes"?
  • Identify five things you say "no" to on a regular basis. What is the larger context of life-affirming "yes" for each "no"?
  • Consider a form of social injustice that concerns you. What would be required to say "no" to this injustice? What "yes" would be tied to the "no"? Reflect on what this "yes" and "no" would mean for you as an individual, as a family, as a group or community.
  • List the "yeses" and "nos" that regular Sabbath-keeping would require of you. Commit to keeping the Sabbath free from work, commerce, and worry and free for worship, rest, renewal, and communion with others. Deeper engagement in other Christian practices would also require a set of "yeses" and "nos."
Photo of man with raised hand in front of face
bible study group
  • Strengthen "yes" and "no" through prayer. Choose a time for daily prayer (early morning, mid-afternoon, before supper, late in the evening). Resolve to keep this time, even if you must put it in your calendar or set a reminder.
    • What do these indicate to me about my relationship with God, with myself, with others?
    • To what or to whom have I said "yes" or "no" this day, this week, this month, this year?
    • What motivated me to say "yes" or "no"?
    • What obstacles did I encounter?
    • Am I afraid that saying "no" may require me to give up more than I bargained for, or to grow in unfamiliar ways?
  • Strengthen "yes" and "no" through faith-sharing groups. Form a faith-sharing group of 4-8 people who are willing to hold one another accountable for your "yes"-saying and "no"-saying. Be open to hear and respond to challenges to reconsider your "yeses" and your "nos." Determine how often you will meet and what commitments you will make to keep to the schedule. Meet for a meal, followed by personal testimony and prayer; meet after weekly worship, to practice keeping the Sabbath together. Incorporate Bible study, or shape your faith-sharing around service or struggles with a specific justice issue.

Worship Materials

"I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."

— Deuteronomy 30:19


Leader: Revealing Light, show our sightless feet clear paths of right and mercy.
People: Spirit of God, breathe on our hearts, make us your new creation.

Leader: Cleansing Fire, sear away our hesitancy about proclaiming your love.
People: Spirit of God, breathe on our hearts, make us your new creation.

Leader: Rushing Wind, whip away our wraps of violence and shame.
People: Spirit of God, breathe on our hearts, make us your new creation.

Leader: Peaceful Dove, wing us into the reign of God on earth.
People: Spirit of God, breathe on our hearts, make us your new creation.

All: Amen!


Send us out on your breath, O God! Uphold us; move us by the wind of your love. With your Spirit's energy, let us help you renew the face of the earth!

— Lani Wright, Cottage Grove, Oregon

Photo showing a silhouette of a directional sign at sunset

I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three-in-One, and One-in-Three.
I bind this day to me forever
by power of faith Christ's incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan river,
death on the cross for my salvation,
his bursting from the spiced tomb,
his riding up the heavenly way,
his coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun's life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
an eye to watch, the might to stay,
an ear to harken to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
a hand to guide, a shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
the heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,
of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Maker, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the God of my salvation;
salvation is of Christ the Lord!

Text: attributed to St. Patrick, trans. Cecil F. Alexander

Photo of a person's hand holding a compass


Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak

"Lord, speak to me, that I may speak in living echoes of Thy tone..."
Text: Frances Ridley Havergal

Be Thou My Vision

"Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O ruler of all."
Text: Tr. Mary E Byrne

Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley

"You must go and stand your trial, you have to stand it by yourself,
O, nobody else can stand it for you, you have to stand it by yourself."
Text: American spiritual

Books & Films

Read more about The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance
The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance
Dorothee Soelle

Exploring the religious impulse known as mysticism — the “silent cry” at the heart of all the world’s religions.

Read more about The Passionate God
The Passionate God
Rosemary Haughton

Incorporating the language of medieval Romance, along with history, theology, and experiential wisdom, Haughton offers a profound portrait of the love that animates the Christian story.

Read more about The Cost of Discipleship
The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century, illuminates the relationship between ourselves and the teachings of Jesus in this classic book on living as a Christian.

Read more about Bonhoeffer

This feature-length documentary by Martin Doblmeier tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian who was imprisoned and executed for his resistance to Nazism.

Read more about The Wisdom of Each Other
The Wisdom of Each Other
Eugene H. Peterson

An illuminating example of friendship as a vital way God answers our need for guidance, encouragement, affirmation, and correction.

Read more about Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears
Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears
Ronald Rolheiser

With his trademark blend of insight, compassion, and honesty laced with humor, the author teaches that it is possible to experience freedom instead of anxiety, solitude instead of loneliness, and a generosity of spirit that returns to the giver far more than it costs.

What Others Are Doing

Read more about Les Carpenter: Improv saved my priesthood
Photo courtesy of Les Carpenter
Read more about Robert Saler: ‘Why don’t I get a vacation, too?’ How to talk about clergy sabbaticals
Bigstock/PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek
Read more about Sister Joanna takes the final step to monastic life
Before reciting her vows, Sister Joanna kneels before Sister Anne Marie, superior of Valley of Our Lady Monastery.


read more about Practicing Our Faith: Learning to Say No (and to Say Yes!)

Practicing Our Faith: Learning to Say No (and to Say Yes!)

Martin Copenhaver

This sermon based on Deuteronomy 30:19-20 and II Corinthians 1:15-22 was preached at the Wellesley Congregational Church on March 21, 1999.