“What value my yes if I never say no”

The Revd Graham Sykes ponders the importance of prioritising in order to live a fulfilled and effective life.

Graham enjoying a sailing trip. Photo: Clare Sykes


One of the wisest questions I have ever been asked is ‘What value is my yes if I never say no?’ I use it as a tool to apply to the question ‘would you consider taking on this or that ministry?’ Value in God’s economy cannot be measured by accountants. Storing up treasure in heaven is something that Jesus spoke of and it is predicated by what we say yes or no to.

Learning when and what to say yes and no to is a life-long process. There are an infinite number of things that I could do that are very worthy. However, my life is finite so an inability to say no has, at times, stolen the fullness of life that Jesus promised. On those occasions I have become anxious, stressed, driven and experienced deep feelings of inadequacy and failure. Stepping back from ministry for a year in 2012, I realised that is not the way God wants it.

He has a purpose for our lives. We all have a vocation or calling and every one of us is different. Knowing our special calling helps us to prioritise and say yes to those things that fulfil our primary purpose and saying no to things which do not. It is a liberating experience because we can say no without guilt.

Jesus said to his disciples “My peace I give to you”. Yet our culture is predicated on fear and anxiety. In many workplaces people fear saying no to the ever increasing demands of their employers for more hours and less money in case they lose their job or career. It creates a workaholic society filled with anxiety and exhaustion. It makes us vulnerable to exploitation. If we are not careful this cultural conditioning translates into the life of the church, where we become even more busy, driven, pressured, guilt ridden and unable to say no to more and more demands. I learned in economics that there is an ‘opportunity cost’ in everything. If I make one choice then the cost is that there are other things I can’t do.

So how do we discern our own calling? I find a good place to start is to thank God for the gifts he has given me. I seek to see myself as God sees me. Sometimes that may mean I have issues to address and at other times I recognise that I am created by God with aptitudes to certain things and a lack of aptitudes in others. If I have a skill that is God given then it is possible that God has a purpose in that. So I start by considering what God has equipped me to do. One example is that I am a natural sailor. I have been sailing since I was four and I love it deeply. I am also a story teller who loves the company of young people and helping them to explore the Christian faith. I have a calling to share my sailing by serving on a CPAS Venture — The Broads Pathfinder Cruise. It involves sailing for a week a year with a load of young people. In the evenings we worship and ponder Jesus. We share stories of how God has worked in our lives. To say yes to that I had to say no to other things for which I was less well equipped.

When someone answers a call to the ordained ministry they have to lay down other things. They need to find the time to study and train, making sure they also have time for friends and family. Inevitably some things have to go. Equally your calling may be to be a teacher, a doctor, a nurse or a civil engineer. You may be called to greet people professionally as a receptionist, to drive a lorry, taxi or bus, to clean offices or homes or to serve customers in a shop.

God may be calling you to be a disciple in the workplace. That may mean signing up for a discipleship course. But to say yes to that course, what must you say no to? You can’t do it all and maintain a good relationship with God and your family and friends. We may need the help of others in the process of discernment. Friends and family who know us well are a good place to begin. They are people who know what we are good at, who know where our heart lies. God sends some strange angels to help. Before I was a Christian I told someone they should go and work for the God they believed in instead of selling their soul to their employer. That was bold, maybe arrogant, but it turned out to be prophetic. That person has been ordained for many years, finds fulfilment in being a parish priest and has been liberated from the many other, very worthy things she could have done.

Your local clergy and Licensed Lay Ministers could be a great help in figuring out your calling. The Diocese of Oxford has a team of vocations advisers and their work is much more than discerning who is called to ordained ministry. It is about helping people to discover themselves before God and say ‘yes’ to God’s purpose for their lives. Every good ‘yes’ is because we had the courage to say a good ‘no’.

The Revd Graham Sykes is a Team Chaplain at Sobell House Hospice in Oxford and Chair of the Editorial Support Group for the Door.