Several weeks ago I flew to New York to teach the book of Galatians to 500 students at Word of Life Bible Institute. The young man who picked me up at the Albany airport asked a question I’ve heard more than once lately: “How do you get everything done that you have to do?” The question seems to assume that I am busier than most other people. While it’s true that I keep a full schedule, I don’t know very many people who aren’t busy. And I know lots of people, including a great many mothers of young children, whose daily routine would wear me out. Still, the young man had asked a good question. As I pondered how to answer, my mind recalled a German proverb that a friend had passed along a few days earlier. It went like this: “Better a friendly refusal than an unwilling promise.” Like most people, I find it hard to say no, especially to my friends. There seems to be something inside us that whispers, “If you say no, they won’t like you anymore.” That’s a childish thought and extremely self-centered. After all, what sort of friend are they if they stop liking you just because you have to say no? And where is it written that everyone must like us all the time?
Nevertheless we persist in making “unwilling promises” and then being frustrated later. We continually cram “one more thing” into an already crowded schedule, knowing in our hearts that when we say yes, we probably won’t be able to do it. It is at this point that the proverb speaks the sober truth. It is better to offer a friendly refusal with a kind smile than to promise that which we know we can never deliver.
Most of us intend to keep our promises. Our hearts are in the right place. Our basic problem is overcommitment. We promise too many things to too many people with too little thought. Joe Stowell offers a helpful word for those of us plagued with the problem of overcommitment: “I’m a classic overcommitter and have often contemplated starting Overcommitters Anonymous. I bet there would be a lot of us in the therapy sessions. We’d would sit around and say no. We’d say no in mad, happy, slow, and fast ways; in French, Russian, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Creole. We’d applaud and cheer when someone finally got up the courage to say no for the first time in his life, and we’d hold each other accountable. Want to join?”
As we rolled through the snow-covered Adirondack Mountains north of Albany, it occurred to me that in the last few years I’ve gotten better at saying no. And I’m still busy every day and I go to bed every night with work undone. The truth remains. Make fewer promises. Keep the ones you make. Don’t be afraid to say no. And don’t forget to smile either.