I used to say no to 95% of speaking and “let’s meet for coffee” and “please read my book” requests. Now it’s over 99%. The standard reply my assistant gives is one I came up with fifteen years ago: “Randy has to say no to the great majority of good opportunities so that he can say yes to the very few God wants him to do.”
I believe this with all my heart, though it took me many years to learn it the hard way. Back then I would say yes to speaking engagements two years away, since the calendar was open, then the time would come, and I’d be buried in a book project and asking myself why I ever said yes to the speaking.
I once felt guilty about declining most requests, so I was reading a dozen books a year for endorsements, saying yes to friends who wanted me to speak, meeting people who were coming through Portland, etc. But then I was always behind writing my own books, and writing is my primary calling. Now I decline nearly all speaking requests (I travel and speak maybe five times per year, and often there’s a second angle to what I say yes to—staying extra days to see my kids and grandkids, getting vacation time with Nanci, etc.).
My advice is to care about people but use discernment, and don’t live to please them. We are to live out our lives before the Audience of One. In the end, His approval is the one that matters. If our goal is to hear others say, “Well done,” we won’t have time, energy and perspective to do what we need to do to hear Him say it. Paul said, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
The key to a productive and content life is “planned neglect”—knowing what NOT to do, and being content with saying no to truly good, sometimes fantastic, opportunities. This happens only when you realize how truly limited you are, and that you must steward your little life, and that of the best things to do on the planet, God wants you to do only a miniscule number (He’s infinite, you’re finite, remember?). I used to feel very bad about turning down great opportunities, but when I would say yes I would have to do all that extra preparation and travel, and then there’s recovery and catch-up time, so that speaking somewhere for 2-3 days can essentially take away two weeks of my life—two weeks away from book-writing.
I have horror stories of being talked into quick-turnaround writing projects and especially speaking events. For example, I once agreed to go to Seattle, as I live in the Portland area and was told “You can fly up at 3:00 PM, have dinner with us, speak and then be back at your house at 10 PM.” I finally said yes, and walked out of the meeting that night to thick fog. With cancelled flights then and the next day, and six hours on a Greyhound bus stopping every twenty minutes, I made it home exhausted, 36 hours after leaving. I learned a lesson that has proven true repeatedly: everything you say yes to takes far more time than they think, or you think!
Now, in the limited times I do speak, to minimize or eliminate preparation time, I make my coming contingent on doing Q&A’s, which I do with my Bible open in front of me. I turn to Scripture repeatedly, since it’s God’s Words not mine He says He will use to accomplish His purpose (Isaiah 55: 11). By having less prepared to say, I give God more opportunity to speak. I tell them, “I’m a writer, not a speaker, and to find the time to prepare, travel, speak and recover would take too much time from my writing.”
By saying no to speaking and appointments and any writing that’s off-center the great majority of the time, I tell the Lord, “I want to be available for you to surprise me with those occasional wonderful things you want me to say yes to but which I couldn’t anticipate and couldn’t ever have done if I’d said yes to many of those good things people wanted me to do.” That has happened often in the last number of years, in both writing and speaking, but had I not been ruthlessly saying no to all those good things, I wouldn’t have had any room to say yes to those few great things, often unforeseen ones, God wanted me to do.
On occasion I’ve received an email back after saying no that tells me, “We’ve been praying and God has made it clear you are the one who should speak to us/meet with us/read my book/write my book.” My response is always the same: “If God has spoken to you, He can speak to me too. Ask God to tell me what you think He told you, and if He does, I’ll do it. But unless He makes it clear, the answer remains no.” So far God has never changed my mind, turning a no to a yes.
Jesus says to his Father, "Here I am, I have come to do your will” (Hebrews 10:9). HIS will…no one else’s. May that be true of us too.
Learn to say, "No," and it will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin. —Charles Spurgeon
This article from Desiring God gives excellent insight on this topic as well.
You Must Disappoint Someone: How to Say No to Good Things, by Jon Bloom