Part One: When I Say No, I Feel Great

How often do you say “no” to an opportunity to serve because you want to stay home, sit on the sofa, watch soap operas and eat bonbons? Not very often, right? I’ll wager that whenever you say “no” to one person, it’s not so you can be lazy or indulgent. Chances are, you say “no” to one person because you want to say, “yes” to someone else. Most of us are anxiously engaged in good works all the time. If we have to say “no” to one opportunity to serve, it is often because we are saying, “yes” to another.

Resentment occurs not because we say “yes” when we should have said “no”. Resentment occurs when we say, “yes” to the wrong people. Resentment occurs because our conscience is telling us, “You really have no business being here. You really need to be elsewhere.”   The challenge for anxiously engaged Latter-day Saints is to discern what Elder Dallin Oaks described as “good, better and best choices.” Even more difficult than discerning what we choose to be good, better and best, is to be comfortable with our priorities, even when other people aren’t.

In my personal life my simplified priorities are: family, church and work. This means that my clients are often disappointed because I won’t see them during the evening hours. Those are my hours to be with my family. I have had to tell clients “no” on many occasions when they want me to work late. But at the same time, I am telling my family “yes”.

Likewise, when my husband, who is in the Stake Presidency, was asked to go to the stake center to conduct interviews for temple recommends, but chose instead to attend his daughter’s dive meet, he may have disappointed some members to whom he said “no”, but he thrilled his daughter to whom he said “yes.”

It’s terribly tricky to determine to whom it’s appropriate to say “yes” and to whom it’s appropriate to say “no”. But one of the tricks to making this call is staying attuned to feelings of resentment. If at any time you feel resentment about the choice you made, you may have said “yes” to the wrong person.

The bishop I mentioned in my last column who left the church had teenage children at home whom he was neglecting. The children were becoming more and more wayward and he didn’t feel like he could tell the church “no” in order to care for his own family. Had he told the church “no” and his family “yes” he may have avoided resentment and the whole family might all still be active today.

Therefore, the first occasion on which we need to say “no” is when someone else needs us to say “yes”. There will be some disappointment on the part of those to whom we say “no”, but we are responsible for determining our own priorities. Other people do not know our situation the way we do. 

Serving Within Our Means

The next occasion on which its important to say “no” occurs when we must say “yes” to is ourselves. It is entirely appropriate to say “no” to someone else because the person who needs us to say “yes” is yours truly.

When we say, “yes” to somebody and the cost to ourselves personally are too great, I call that “serving beyond our means.” We can’t show up at the bank and write a check for more than we have in our account. We can’t show up at the blood bank and give away all our blood. Yet sometimes we give when we do not have the capacity to give. Consider the high priest who helped move large boulders to create a bulkhead for a less active member. He pulled out his back and spent weeks in rehabilitation. Consider the temple worker who invited a wayward teen into her home. His rebellious behavior caused her such anxiety she need a prescription to calm her nerves.

When service compromises our physical or emotional health, we must say “yes” to ourselves, and “no” to the person who does not understand our priorities. Elder Neal Maxwell said, “When we are not carrying our own cross we need to be at the foot of someone else’s.”

I am reminded of the mother of four who left her little ones at home alone with chicken bones strewn all over the floor so she could help a new member paint. That’s not service. That’s abdicating one’s own responsibilities.

So far we have discussed the first two occasions on which we must say “no”

1) When saying “no” to one person allows us to say “yes” to someone else

2) When we have been asked to serve beyond our means

The last three situations where saying “yes” can lead to resentment have an important element in common so we will address them as a group. The last three occasions on which we must say “no” are as follows:

3) The person asking us to serve won’t take “no” for an answer

4) Our service is taken for granted

5) We are taken advantage of

When we try and try to tell someone “no,” but they are so persistent that we say “yes” just to get them off our back, it can lead to tremendous resentment. I know a woman who was asked to play the violin in church. She said “no” and gave all kinds of excuses… didn’t have time to practice, her health was poor, etc. Nevertheless, the importuner persisted until the violinist gave in and played a number in Sacrament Meeting. It was obvious she hadn’t practiced, and didn’t want to be there. The service was miserable for everybody because the importuner was too stubborn to take “no” for an answer.

The resentment in this case occurs not because the violinist couldn’t have practiced, or couldn’t have played a number she enjoyed playing. The resentment occurred because the violinist didn’t make her own decision as to whether or not she wanted to serve. The importuner didn’t respect the violinist’s agency in determining her own priorities.

Notice, in the last three situations, the presence of the word “take”

3) The person asking us to serve won’t take “no” for an answer

4) Our service is taken for granted

5) We are taken advantage of

The word “take” implies that someone was robbed. It implies that the giver didn’t give permission. It sounds as if the importuner stole a free agent’s agency. 

Honoring Our Agency

In reality, no one can “steal” our agency. Our agency is the one thing that is truly ours to give (Neal Maxwell, again). Because someone is super-persistent still does not mean we have to give in and say “yes”. We may have to devise a strategy to avoid their badgering, but we don’t have to give in and say “yes”.

The same principle applies when we become resentful because we believe our service is “taken” for granted. We have responsibility only for how our service is “given” not for how it is “taken”. If we serve with pure motives (compassion for the person needing help) not because we want to be appreciated, or recognized, or lauded, then it doesn’t matter how our service is “taken”. We do not give based on how well we believe our service will be received. We give regardless of how our service is received. We can’t dictate anybody’s appreciation. But we can determine our own motives. No one can “steal” or “rob” or “take away” our pure motives.

Situation number five, Being “taken advantage of,” also implies that someone can force us to say “yes”. Although no one can force us to say “yes,” if we choose to say “yes” when we really should have said “no” we will feel resentment. The key to avoiding resentment is to have the courage to say “no” when “no” is warranted. And “no” is warranted when we need to say, “yes” to someone else, including ourselves.

When faced with a dilemma: “Do I disappointment my fellow man by saying “no” or do I disappointment my Heavenly Father by harboring feelings of resentment toward my fellow man,” I’m a lot more worried about disappointing my Heavenly Father. I want to have good, positive feelings toward all his children. I can only do that if I determine my own priorities, and I don’t allow other people to dictate those priorities.


JeaNette Goates Smith is the author of the newly released, Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance.  Her website is