My friend Andrew called today.
Between his many roles at work and church and in his community, I never know whether he’s going to be playing unofficial tour guide to business partners, making airport runs, fixing someone’s bicycle, fighting a forest fire, or visiting a nursing home.
He listened as I described a new historical exhibit that I know he’d love to see. It’s just 90 minutes from his home, but with his schedule, it might as well be 900.
“I need to take some time off,” he said.
“You should!” I replied and laughed, knowing that it’s easy for me to say, but much harder for him to sort the issues out.
Though his community recognizes him as a resource, I’m not sure Andrew is truly seen. Yes, they love him, but are they tangibly supporting his physical, spiritual and emotional health? As he’s investing in their futures, have they given some thought to investing in his?
Word on the street is that singles are viewed as the workhorses of the church, flush with free time and the ideal candidates for filling all sorts of needs. Whether or not this is universally true, there was a time it was true for me.
Tyranny of the Urgent?
If there’s such a thing as a family-wide spiritual gift, then I know what ours is. I come from generations of folks with a passion to help. I’m not talking about trips to Africa or stints at the soup kitchen (though those are wonderful, too). I’m talking about the kind of folks who drive eight hours every few months to visit some isolated elderly couples. The kind who hop into their 12-passenger van, kids in tow, to help you move. The kind who let their teenage daughter spread her wings one summer and nanny her cousins whose father has cancer.
That’s how I discovered my own passion to help.
No wonder, then, that after Bible college I landed back on campus as a volunteer. I dug into some publishing projects. I pinch-hit at a tiny retirement home. (I cooked some meals; the residents regaled me with their vintage tales). And I nannied part-time for not one, but two mothers: Ellen was about to birth her ninth child; Alison had four who told non-stop stories and two with special needs.
Alison said it well: “I love everything I do; there’s just so much of it!” There was — so much. Figuring folks had weighed my schedule when they asked, I said yes to almost every request. Based on their pressing needs and my innate desire to help, I had no choice (I thought).
Have you ever subbed in the toddler room at your local daycare? Little kids are smart; they know when you are not in control. Imagine 20 2- and 3-year-old children, secure in the knowledge that you can’t leave the child you’ve got on the changing table, indulging in all the chaos those five minutes can hold. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the control I had over my time. I was fielding seemingly endless calls, switching roles (and bosses) at the drop of a hat, and feeling frazzled and helpless and overwhelmed.
Others thought I had space in my schedule; I thought so, too. But next thing I knew, I was resenting even the simplest of requests — and it showed.
So Alison took me out to lunch one day and gave me a gift: a slim spiral-bound planner. Actually, she gave me two gifts, and the second was the richer: the life lesson of owning my own choices.
She taught me not to assume that every request is reasonable, because nobody knows my schedule like I should. It’s my friends’ job to communicate their needs; it’s my job to know and communicate my own.
It was a simple lesson, but the more I unpacked it, the more profound it proved to be.
My unthinking enthusiasm for helping hadn’t taken me very far. It had already fizzled out, and I was only 24. If I was going to last over the long haul, I couldn’t count on my own zeal. I had to know and think and act on the truth about my time.
I learned that if I’m ever going to avoid resentment, I’ve got to take responsibility for my own free will. When I’m assailed by choices, it’s my job to steward the time and energy and skills God has given me,Matthew 25:13-29 my job to count the cost, my job to give a well-considered “yes” or “no.”
In fact, if “no” is never a genuine choice in my mind, I can never say a whole-hearted “yes.”
Saying “No” Without Guilt
I say “no” to some demands, not because of who I am, but because of whose I am. My time is not my own; I am not my own. There’s plenty of need in the world: my need for the significance I feel in helping and others’ for my help. But I don’t answer to need. I answer to my Jesus. Like Him, I should have just one agenda: to do what my Father is doing.John 5:19
I say “no” because I’m not God. I’m not responsible for the needs of the world. Oh, He genuinely involves me in what He’s doing, but I’m one of many tools at His command. Sometimes He uses me; sometimes He chooses someone else. And sometimes human “help” would only block His work.
I say “no” as an act of worship. In an age when technology makes the impossible seem possible, I’m tempted to live as though time and distance have no effect on me, as if I don’t need food and fellowship and rest. When I stop and Sabbath (yes, that’s a verb), I’m saying to God: “You are the Creator; You can carry on just fine without me.”
I believe that God only says “no” in order to say “yes” to something better.2 Corinthians 12:9 With His help, I want to say “no” to my own agenda so I can wholeheartedly affirm His plans. I’ll be honest: Sometimes I turn down requests for help because I am selfish, feel grumpy, or simply haven’t thought things through. But I can say “no” without guilt when my answer isn’t all about me.
Saying “Yes” Without Regrets
As I mature, I become increasingly aware of an uncomfortable fact: Saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to something else. The only way I’m able to say a “yes” that will cost me something is to follow God’s leading, because the most refreshing thing to do is exactly what He has assigned me to. (That’s when I tap into His inexhaustible genuineness and power and love.) As Jesus said, “My food is to do God’s will.”John 4:34
What does that mean, in practical terms? When someone makes a request for my help, I don’t give an immediate answer. If I can, I ask to call back in a few hours. Either way, I pause briefly and silently pray.
Why? God says that to trust in Him with all my heart is to acknowledge Him in everything: to recognize His presence and expertise, to grow to know His ways, to glance His way for help. If I do, He promises to keep me on track.Proverbs 3:5-6 I don’t have to hear an audible voice; He has many ways of making sure I’m led. I simply give Him an opportunity to turn me aside and go on with a peaceful heart.
Here are some principles that can also help:
- Take into account who God means to be and what season you are in. Ask, What must I stop doing in order to fulfill this request?
- Recognize that your gifts are for God’s glory and others’ benefit. Steward your strength for their sake.
- Don’t expect service to be debilitating. Investing in others can be God’s provision for you.Proverbs 19:17
- Release your need to be understood by others. Don’t try to be spiritual, and don’t play God. Simply follow Him.
The benefits of habitually acknowledging God go far beyond my use of time. Whenever I need to discern between sacrificial helpfulness and being imposed upon, whenever I’m considering a request, I need to know the truth so I can kindly, confidently say “yes” or “no.”
It helps whether I’m considering a romantic relationship or withstanding temptation within one. It helps me determine whether I succumb to being merely a buddy or build a healthy friendship; whether I pull my future spouse into a vortex of overcommitment or not; whether I reject married friends for not knowing my needs or teach (and learn) by sharing my life with them.
God has a way of rescuing me from hypocrisy by giving me opportunities to practice whatever I’m trying to preach. So I’m sure it’s no mistake that just when I decided to write my first draft of this article, one friend had a baby, another had a concert, and a third got sick; that my research project suddenly took on a life of its own; that I spent hours on the phone with loved ones; and that my thoughts were as unruly as a herd of happy 2-year-olds.
As I headed home from a long walk with a friend, hoping to jumpstart her early labor pains, I was thrilled with the privilege, grateful for her prayers for me, groaning over my lack of writing progress, and asking God for some insight.
Here it is:
If I were heir to billions, I’d expect to share with others.
And I am heir to that vast treasure, the unsearchable riches of Christ.Ephesians 3:8
On top of that, parents and siblings and mentors and friends have lavished me with love and wisdom, courageous example and costly self-disclosure, heartfelt prayer, constructive criticism, undeserved patience — and a lunch, a spiral notebook, and a lasting life lesson.
“Freely you have received,” says Jesus. “Freely give.”Matthew 10:8
Does the heart tally the red blood cells sent to the lungs? Do the lungs send an invoice for the oxygen shared with the brain? The Body of Christ has no need to keep accounts. What’s done for one member is done for all. What’s done for the smallest believer in Jesus is done for Him. And what’s done for Jesus is paid back a hundred times over!1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Matthew 25:31-40; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 6:38; Ephesians 3:20
I’ve learned that if I focus on pleasing people and take on too much, I may lose relationships to my own resentment. If I focus on pleasing myself and take on too little, I may lose out on the wonder of experiencing God’s power at work through me. Knowing His inexhaustible riches has freed me to help and to rest — without resentment or guilt, without fear that my needs or those of others will be unmet.
Because of the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge and mercies of God, it’s only reasonable to give myself — gladly and confidently — as a living sacrifice to Him.Romans 11:33; Romans 12:1-2
It’s His love that has tamed my time.
Copyright 2015 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.