Why do you spend your time doing what you do? Why do you say yes to doing some things and no to doing other things? Are you saying yes and no to the right things? These are unnerving, exposing questions to ask.
Most of us would like to believe we say yes and no to our time commitments based on objective, logical assessments of what appears most important. But that is very often not the case. Very often we make these decisions based on subjective assessments of what we believe others will think of us if we do or don’t do them.
How other people perceive us — or how we think they’ll perceive us — has an extraordinary influence on how we choose to use our time. Coming to terms with ways we seek people’s approval or fear their disapproval will force us to face humbling truths about ourselves and may require repentance and uncomfortable change.
But given how brief our lives are, and how limited our energy and other resources are, we need to heed what God says to each one of us through the apostle Paul:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15–17)
And one way to carefully examine our use of time and energy is to invite the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and see if and where we are inordinately influenced to say yes or no out of a fear of man.
A Surprisingly Clarifying Question
I attended a conference recently where ministry leaders on a panel were asked to describe how they remain focused on their core calling while deluged with demands. One of the speakers posed this question to us: “Who are you willing to disappoint?”
At first this might seem like a negative and perhaps unloving way to decide what we should or shouldn’t do. But it really isn’t. It’s actually a clarifying question. It isn’t asking us who are the people we will choose not to love. It’s asking us what we are really pursuing in our time commitments. Whose approval are we seeking? God’s? Other people’s? Of those, whose?
I think this is what Jesus was getting at with Martha in Luke 10:38–42. Martha was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40). I imagine nearly everyone in her home that day thought she was doing a good thing. Martha herself thought this, which is why she requested Jesus’s support in exhorting Mary to get busy helping. She didn’t seem to be aware of her own motivations. But Jesus was. He saw the deeper motivations in both Martha and Mary.
Martha was “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41). Martha’s time commitment was being motivated by anxiety, not love. Given the context, it’s reasonable to assume her anxiety stemmed from what all her houseguests would think of her if she stopped waiting on them and did what Mary was doing.
Mary had “chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:42). Superficial observers of the situation might have concluded Martha chose the good portion and Mary was being inconsiderate. I would guess Mary felt this irony. She knew Martha very well. I imagine she knew she was disappointing Martha by listening to Jesus instead of helping serve the guests. But in that moment, Mary was more willing to disappoint Martha than to disappoint Jesus. And Jesus commended her.
The exposing question for Martha was, who was she willing to disappoint?
We Serve Those We’re Unwilling to Disappoint
And that’s the question for us too: who are we willing to disappoint? Or, who are we unwilling to disappoint?
We all choose to serve those we’re unwilling to disappoint. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it certainly can be a bad thing. God actually designed us to function this way. He made us to be motivated by what we love, and we always fear to disappoint the one(s) we love.
Now, I know the apostle John said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But he was addressing a different kind of fear, the fear of “punishment” or condemnation. John meant that God’s children no longer need to live in terror of God’s wrath.
But perfect love does indeed produce a certain kind of fear:
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
This kind of fear is not merely the terror of wrath, but the fear we have when we don’t want to disappoint the one(s) we really love. The kind of fear that “serve(s) the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2) is the fear that comes from the thought of disappointing the one we treasure most. We fear to lose the treasure.
Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve
But serving those we’re unwilling to disappoint can be a very bad thing, even a tyrannical thing, if our loves are idolatrous. If, whether out of anxiety, selfish ambition, narcissism, or some other sinful love, we are motivated by someone else’s approval over God’s approval, our service can become our destruction.
And the thing is, like Martha, we might not be fully cognizant of our own motives. We might think we’re doing good things when we’re not. One indicator to look at is how often we feel “anxious and troubled.” Notice I didn’t say “weary.” It’s clear from the New Testament that a heavy workload, and even suffering and persecution, can be given to us by God. But an anxious, troubled spirit might mean what’s motivating our busyness are efforts to please the wrong persons.
If that’s true, we’re likely due for a reevaluation of our time commitments. We should ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and try our thoughts (Psalm 139:23). We should ask ourselves the hard question: who are we willing to disappoint? Or who are we unwilling to disappoint? Are we unwilling to disappoint God? Are we unwilling to disappoint others? Are we unwilling to disappoint our own selfish preferences? These questions can help us untangle motivational knots.
And if we’re tempted to avoid facing the answers, let’s remember that life is too short and God is too precious to give our years and our strength to the fear of man. Joshua exhorts us from the ancient past: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Let’s respond with him, “We will serve the Lord” with all our heart and soul in the gladness of love-inspired fear (Deuteronomy 10:12; Psalm 100:2).
Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) serves as author, board chair, and co-founder of Desiring God. He is author of three books, Not by Sight, Things Not Seen, and Don’t Follow Your Heart. He and his wife live in the Twin Cities with their five children.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “You Must Disappoint Someone: How to Say No to Good Things.”
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