The Holy No

Post Author: Ashley Updegraff

For Christmas last year, my husband gave me a “NO” button. It’s big, it’s red, and when you push it, a loud voice says (in one of eight ways), “No!” It was a silly stocking stuffer, meant to make me laugh and roll my eyes. But even silly gifts can impart a deeper meaning. My husband knows that I have a hard time saying no, and he thought the reminder—sitting right there on my desk, staring up at me day after day—would be helpful. 


Saying no is hard for many of us, particularly for women. We don’t want to let people down. We want to show that we can handle it. We want to come across as accommodating. So we take on work that isn’t ours to do, we fill our schedules with commitments we don’t have time for, we let people treat us with less respect and kindness than we deserve, and we go underpaid for years, in part because saying no doesn’t come easily. 


And if we do manage to say no, we soften the blow. We make up fake excuses to get out of that meeting we don’t want to attend. We dole out less-than-authentic encouragement when we think someone’s brilliant idea isn’t, actually, brilliant. We shrug off an inappropriate comment or action, laughing awkwardly and walking away. We don’t want to say no bluntly and directly. It’s hard. It doesn’t feel kind, or good, or right. 


I wonder how our Christian narrative has played into the relationship many of us have with saying no–and how this narrative might offer another way. Our foundational story—Jesus coming back to life after death—communicates that there is always room for hope. There is always room for reconciliation. There is always room for improvement. There is always room for something new. It’s expansive, this narrative. It allows for endless opportunities and possibilities. 


This expansiveness is what I cherish most about the faith I live and teach and preach. I have the word “hope” tattooed on my wrist as a constant reminder that our God is always capable of doing a new thing. The end is never really the end. Even in death, life wins. Even in grief, love wins. No matter what, there is something more, something better, something new, waiting. This truth is beautiful and powerful and transformative. It is, perhaps, the most important gift we have to share with the world. 


But there is a shadow-side to this belief and the way we’ve interpreted it.


It has formed us to be a people who can’t say no. 


The stone, after all, has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. Possibility is endless. Who are we to roll the stone back and seal off the tomb with our “no”?  Who are we, in the words of the United Church of Christ, to “put a period where God has put a comma”?


But maybe we should. 


Maybe saying no is just as holy as saying yes.


God, after all, says no.


God says no to murder and deceit and adultery and the worship of other gods in the commandments given to God’s people as they enter into a new, freed reality. 


God says no to Moses, denying him entrance into the Promised Land after years of wandering the wilderness.


God says no to remembering our sin, telling us over and over that God will forget our iniquities the moment they leave our lips in confession. 


And Jesus says no. 


Jesus says no to Satan in the wilderness, not just once but three times. 


Jesus says no to the money-changers at the temple trying to extort those who are simply trying to offer a sacrifice to God.


Jesus says no to a group of people about to stone a woman, forcing them to examine their own sin before casting judgment on hers. 


But the biggest “no” of all comes as God says no to death. 


In that very story that we interpret as God’s forever and final “yes,” God actually says no. The stone has been rolled away, the tomb is empty, possibility is endless—all because of God’s “no.”


Sometimes saying no can be the healthiest thing we do. Sometimes saying no honors our boundaries, energy, emotional health, and discernment better than anything else. Sometimes saying no, bluntly and directly, can be the holiest thing we do, full stop. 


No begrudging agreement. No niceties. No commas. Just, no. Only, no. No, period.   


No to that idea. No to that program. No to that meeting. No to that behavior. No to that relationship. 


Because let’s face it, not every idea is good. Not every program supports the mission of the congregation. Not every meeting is productive, not every behavior is appropriate, and not every relationship is healthy. 


So, no. No. NO. 


What if we stopped viewing “no” as prohibitive and started seeing it as freeing? What if we stopped viewing “no” as rude and started seeing it as assertive? What if we stopped viewing “no” as closing a door and started seeing it as opening one?


We have a beautiful, powerful story to tell. It’s a story about the endless possibilities of new life made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s true. 


And it all started with “no.”


A Blessing for Those Who Say No


Blessed are you who say no.

Blessed are you who close the door,

who end the chapter,

who say there is not enough—

not enough time, not enough resources, not enough energy—

and who refuse to create more.


Blessed are you who call a thing what it is: 

A dead end.

An epic failure.

A terrible idea.


You have looked deep within and taken stock.

You have been honest with yourself and others.

You have not sugar-coated things or softened the blow or forced the idea.

You have examined the possibilities, counted the costs, and analyzed the benefits.


Be at peace with this tiny word that spells freedom.

Let the release it provides wash over you.

Be assured that it is a sacred thing you’ve done, saying no.

It is holy and brave,

and so are you.


Blessed are you who say no.

Rev. Ashley Updegraff is an ordained pastor in the ELCA, and currently
serves a congregation in the Minneapolis area. She knows that life is
messy (take her for a cup of coffee and ask her how!), but she also
knows that God shows up in the mess. Reminding herself and others of
that is her full-time job. She also mothers her big blended
family, loves adventures with her husband, Aaron, and reads whenever she
can. She writes at 

Image by: Ashley Updegraff
Used with permission
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