I always feel guilty when I have to say “no” to things. I grew up believing that you don’t say no to callings, to service, or other things like that in the Church. My husband has no problem saying “no” to things and thinks I am too giving. I want to be Christ-like and not be selfish with my time. I do understand that I can’t do everything, so I do decline some requests, but I can’t figure out why I’m still struggling with a feeling that I’m being selfish. Where is the balance and how can I know that I’m truly consecrating everything to God when I still say “no” to things?
The fact that you feel guilty for longing to do more says much about the desires of your heart. It’s not easy to have limited time and resources when our hearts long to be there for others. I understand your dilemma, as I sit across from people in need on a daily basis and often find it difficult to say “no” to their very real and present needs for my time and energy past the time allotted to them.
Your question reminds of the thought shared by Ann Morrow Lindbergh in her book Gifts From the Sea:
The inter-relatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather…modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched; but body, nerve, endurance and lifespan are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot marry all of them, or bear them all as children, or care for them all as I would my parents in illness or old age. Our grandmothers…lived in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time.[i]
She wrote this in 1955 when the “inter-relatedness of the world” was much less complex than it is today. The strain on our bodies and emotions to respond to needs has multiplied tenfold. Here are some ways I’ve learned to quiet the feelings of guilt when I can’t respond in the way my heart desires.
First, validate and nurture your feelings of compassion even if you can’t respond to the actual need. Sometimes when we can’t respond to a need, we become indifferent so as to minimize our pain of leaving them without the support we had hoped to give them. Even though the Savior gave the Nephites extra time when he initially attempted to leave as recorded in third Nephi chapter 17, I imagine his bowels were still “filled with compassion” when he eventually left them.[ii] Just because you have limits to what you can accomplish, the longings and feelings of your heart can be still be deep.
Second, remember that even though Jesus had to leave, he promised his followers that he could always be with them through the Comforter. His promise was to leave them with another Comforter that would “abide with [them] forever.”[iii] His promise was that he would “not leave [them] comfortless.”[iv] It’s a common reflex to believe that if we can’t respond to someone’s need, they won’t be okay. My father told me that when he was a bishop, sometimes he couldn’t respond to people’s needs right away and would have to wait until a later time to visit with them. He noticed that, in most instances, the Spirit of the Lord would work on them, support them, and even inspire them to solve many of their own issues before they even met with him. He said that he learned to trust that the Holy Ghost would not leave them comfortless, even if he couldn’t get to them right away.
Third, in addition to the ministry of the Holy Ghost, recognize that others will be inspired to meet the needs of those struggling. You are one option in an infinite universe of resources our all-knowing Heavenly Father can use to bless his children. If you can’t be available to help in this moment, know that others will most assuredly step in and help at the right time.
Fourth, understand that sometimes it’s good for people to struggle and not have immediate solutions and fixes to their dilemmas. I’ve noticed that it’s almost unbearable for anyone to have to struggle with anything these days. Just because someone is struggling with something doesn’t mean that something is wrong. A butterfly fighting to escape the confines of their cocoon depends on the hydraulic pressure developed from the struggle so they can take flight as soon as they are free. Many social commentators have documented the fallout on our kids and society from our fear of allowing others to struggle.[v] I had a professor in graduate school, Dr. Scott Ketring, encourage me to treat people like they’re strong. He wisely taught me that people will respond rise up to the expectation that they can do hard things. The Savior modeled this as well when he still expected those he healed to take an active part in their healing. I recently attended a priesthood leadership training with Elder Craig A. Cardon where he was taking comments from the congregation. One brother raised his hand to make a comment and Elder Cardon kindly redirected him, stating that he had already had a chance to contribute to the meeting, but that he wanted to give someone else a chance to comment. I appreciated his willingness to set this important boundary with this good brother so others could contribute. I believe it takes great discernment to know when to step in and when to back off and allow others to struggle.
Fifth, it’s important to be honest about your own limitations and protect your physical and emotional resources. Pretending you have unlimited time and energy is dishonest and weakens the support you give others. Alma wished he could be an angel and declare the word of God to the entire world. Even though this wish has been fulfilled for today’s prophets by the miracle of satellites, Alma would have run himself ragged trying to get to every spot on the earth to declare his message. He surrendered his desires to the Lord, trusting that all would be well.[vi] This is a good model to follow when we are up against our limits. For example, if you don’t have the time to spend listening to a friend who is struggling, see if you can reschedule for a better time.
Let them know you want to give them your best energy and attention. In doing so, you’re honoring the existing commitments you’ve already made to others, especially your family, so they don’t get your leftovers.
Sixth, trust in the times and seasons of the Lord. Elder Richard G. Scott taught this beautifully when he said:
We need not worry if we can’t simultaneously do all of the things that the Lord has counseled us to do. He has spoken of a time and a season for all things. In response to our sincere prayers for guidance, He will direct us in what should be emphasized at each phase of our life. We can learn, grow, and become like Him one consistent step at a time.[vii]
After Alma baptized his followers in the Waters of Mormon and formed the church of God, he taught them about consecration. He instructed them that “the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given.”[viii] Consecration isn’t about how much you have to give, but how much you’re willing to give if you had it. Your desire to give all says everything about your commitment to consecration. Since we all have limited time and energy, our only offerings may be our desire to be there for others. Your offering is just as acceptable as someone else’s offering who may physically have the resources to meet a need you long to meet.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, New York: Pantheon, 1955
[ii] 3 Nephi 17:6
[iii] John 14:16
[iv] John 14:18
[vi] Alma 29:1
[viii] Mosiah 18:27