Let Your Yes be Yes and Your No be No

I’ve always been intrigued and challenged by the ideas expressed in two scripture verses about simply saying the truth. In Mark 5:37 and James 5:12 we are directed not to use oaths but let our yes be simply be yes and our no be simply no. I’m sure there are some theological nuances that I don’t understand at work here but what is challenging about this for me is that I have a hard time in conflictual situations just saying my truth (especially saying no) in love.

Look at a few examples that may be familiar for you:

People at work gossip about another person and it makes you feel uncomfortable

A friend turns bitter when her husband dies and it is very difficult to be with her now though she calls you frequently

A neighbor has asked you to take care of his three dogs whenever he travels and you don’t feel you can take it on any more

Your spouse has changed dramatically and is manipulating you to keep bailing him/her out of trouble without changing his/her behavior

You are in a couples group you’ve been in for ten years but you are newly single and feel that the group no longer welcomes you


In these situations I mostly use the most convenient ways out; I usually hedge or find excuses or use a cold or illness as an excuse not to get together, anything so that I don’t have to deal with the truth of the situation as it affects me. It’s hard, first of all, to be honest with myself about what I’m feeling or what I want out of the situation and what I’m willing to risk to do something about it. Then it’s hard to be honest with another person without using anger or resentment or bitterness as a motivator. Underneath all of this is usually fear and hurt, fear of loss, fear of retaliation, fear of abandonment, fear of being hurt, fear of vulnerability. In some families this fear of vulnerability is so strong that family members pick fights with one another right before they are about to part so the parting will be easier. It seems easier for them than saying that they will miss one another.

It’s hard to be sincerely honest without unintentionally hurting or irritating someone. But then Richard Rohr adds another dimension to our yeses and nos. He suggests that we ponder sacred yeses and sacred nos. So, for instance, if we are facing into a difficult situation and we bring God in, how would that change how we deal with our responses. God does not ask us to be a doormat nor does he inspire rage. Jesus was quite honest with people, especially in conversations in which he wanted them to think and grow.

So I’ve asked this question of God; how can I be honest, be grateful for the other person, be graceful and yet establish with them what I need in order to be in a more whole place within myself? Letting go of friends who no longer fit is an especially hard situation for me as is having boundaries with someone who is threatening to me. I’ve found that my intention is the most important thing to attend to. If my intention is healthy, it will work out in both of our best interests.

Here is my four-part way of addressing relationships that need to change. It can either be done in person or by a note.

*I am so grateful to you for…(Be prayerful about my intent and state my gratitude for what has been good about the relationship).

*I sense that…(State what is happening now or what has changed in the relationship without blame or shame. State how it is affecting me, not about what they are doing. Sometimes we just have less common ground, or we’ve gone different directions or I don’t feel like participating or I can’t handle the requests. The message can usually be heard better if I can keep it neutral but truthful).

*I realize this may mean…(Bear the consequences and be clear about my willingness to do that. Say what I can do and what I can’t do. In other words I need to give up what they have that I need or want so I can let go freely with no dangling issues).

*I wish you…(Bless them on their way or suggest a next step that would be helpful for you both without trying to control or chastise or be right. Humility counts for a lot here, knowing that both parties are involved in this conflict).


The result? Usually I feel as if I have preserved my own integrity and taken care of myself in the process. I am also grateful for what was meaningful about the relationship. I am less likely to be hooked in by others’ issues once I use this practice and I usually feel a stronger sense of inner power as well. And God usually either enriches the relationship or replaces those I have let go of with others who are more compatible.

I remember a situation in which a woman came to me to talk about her husband’s hurtful behavior towards her. I helped her sort it out and she sincerely appreciated it. In fact, she told her husband how good it was to talk with me. A few years later she died and her husband approached me to give me something she wanted me to have. In the process I felt that he was pursuing me in ways that were not comfortable for me. At one point he put his hands on my neck inappropriately and it sent shivers down my spine. I have a history of dealing with abusive men so it alerted me to do something right away. I wrote a note to the man thanking him for telling me that his wife wanted to give me a gift because she appreciated our friendship. But I said that I didn’t have any interest in becoming better friends with him. I wished him well and thanked him again for the story of his wife. I never got the gift she had left me but it was worth it not to have to deal with his behavior towards me. I felt clean and detached and relieved. Afterwards I felt God smiling at me for noticing this red alert and doing something about it.


Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What current person or group are you engaged with because you “can’t get out?”

What is not life-giving about it?
What feelings are lingering within you that you need to work though in order to change or leave?


Try writing a “sacred no” letter to this person or group. Use the four parts: I am so grateful…Now I sense that…I realize this may mean…I wish you…