Don’t Say No: The Ludicrous Nature of Faith

Saying No comes at zero cost; saying Yes could very well cost everything you have.

Sam Bush / 9.14.21

How would you define faith? Does it require action or is it simply a form of trust? Is it better illustrated as taking a leap or sitting down in a chair? The word is used 270 times in the Bible, but its definition is endlessly debated. For such a familiar word, it feels difficult to translate into everyday life.

My wife and I recently moved our family from the town we called home for the past sixteen years. It was a daunting life change as both of us felt deeply rooted to our house, church and community. As our moving day approached, a friend of mine offered a three-word nugget of advice for after the move: “Don’t say no,” he said.

His point, I think, was that being strangers in a strange land would lend itself to living in a hermitage. There is a tendency to hunker down when the winds of change come swirling — even figuring out mundane tasks like where to buy groceries can feel overwhelming. But my friend was advocating for a certain kind of openness to the strange, to prioritize the vulnerability of being subject to another’s ideas and desires. Not saying no wedges a foot in a door that would otherwise stay closed. It’s an unsettling place, to be sure — saying yes to a party invitation or a lunch date could invite either blessing or burden — but it has a way of dispelling fear and embracing curiosity.

I was reminded of one of my favorite passages in Atul Gawande’s timeless book, Being Mortal. Bill Thomas was a young family doctor who wanted to transform a failing nursing home in upstate New York. After exhausting every other possibility — readjusting medications, ordering more physical examinations — he concluded that the missing ingredient was life itself.

In an insane, real-life experiment, Thomas proposed filling the nursing home with plants, animals and children. He wanted to tear up the lawn and replace it with vegetable and flower gardens. He wanted to install a playground and invite staff to bring their kids to hang out after school. He requested to bring in four cats, two dogs and 100 birds to live with the residents. And he wanted to bring them all in at the same time. The idea sounded crazy because it was. Thomas knew that the staff wouldn’t be on board with such a cultural overhaul:

None of the other staff members in the meeting are on board and Thomas says, “Would you just hang with me?” And the administrator says, “You’ve got to prove to me that this is something that has merit.” And that was just the opening Thomas needed. They didn’t say “no.”

What happened next? Pandemonium. The birds were delivered without any cages and were left to fly freely around the beauty salon on the ground floor. The nurses were less than thrilled with cleaning up dog poop. Eventually, however, things began to change:

People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking. People had been completely withdrawn and non ambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, “I’ll take the dog for a walk.” Researchers studied the effects of this program over two years. The number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the control nursing home. Deaths fell 15 percent.

To say that Bill Thomas’ staff wasn’t completely on board with his idea would be an understatement. They would have much rather preferred to maintain the miserable status quo. And yet, when he proposed something almost too outrageous to believe, they didn’t say no.

Call it a stretch, but the nursing home staff’s irritable but ultimately agreeable response to Thomas’ proposal seems like a realistic illustration for what it looks like to trust God. What else is faith but one’s hesitant surrender to God’s insane experiment? What is it besides throwing caution to the wind and saying OK, fine? Of course, we are only open to the absurd when all other alternatives are exhausted. The birthplace of faith is often at the grave of our own strength and ability.

One could even say that the entire Christian life is nothing but a strange, bumbling adventure after a person simply says “Yes” to Jesus.

The word No is deeply embedded into the human psyche. It’s often the first word we learn as children. Our culture prizes it as an expression of self-care, individualism and nonconformity (i.e. the noble alternative to being a Yes Man). Saying No comes at zero cost; saying Yes could very well cost everything you have. Of course there are plenty of reasons to say no to things, but a life lived out of No feels like a sad one. A life marked by Yes, however, can feel very similar to faith.

There are very few times when Jesus said “no” to someone, when he refused to help, refused to heal. And there was never a time when he simply walked the other way from a person in need. His “yes” was given to everyone — particularly those who were well-acquainted with hearing “no.” Jesus was the divine “yes” to the “no” of the world. The “yes” of Jesus took him across Galilee, into Judea, and finally to his death on a cross. He did not flee from his accusers, but accepted their judgment. His life was not self-determined so much as poured out for the many.

Faith is simply being grasped by God’s word of “yes”, a response of “amen” to the gospel. Where the “no” of self-protection, boundaries, and miserly judiciousness once reigned, the life of faith approaches the world with an unconditional openness to whatever may come.

It’s been three weeks in our new city and my wife and I have yet to turn down a social invitation. Each one carries with it a low-level risk. As we schlep our kids out of the car, we usually share a glance that says, “Well … here goes nothing!” Because that’s all we have right now in that given moment: a gracious dinner invitation and a mustard seed of faith. Only God knows how the evening will unfold, but there’s a chance the friendships made from a simple three letter word will last a lifetime.