In this post I want to focus on decision making or what we might call the dichotomy of yes and no. Like 1’s and 0’s in computer language, life is a combination of these two words.
When tested for diseases, we long to hear, “No, found nothing! All is clear!” But a No in that situation is really a Yes to life. It’s a new lease and we love to hear it.
In spite of No being the best response in some situations, we still like hearing Yes more.
When asking for help or a personal day or permission from parents, “Yes!” sounds like a million dollars. It’s like winning a mini lottery.
But we aren’t always subject to the judgments of others or unpredictable circumstances. Sometimes, in fact very often, we sit in the Yes/No driver’s seat. Every decision we make involves a yes or a no answer. Sometimes it’s a little of both.
Even Indecision eventually becomes No.
The point is, Yes and No are unavoidable. There’s no bench warming in life. Yes and No make us a part of the game and Jesus had something to say about this dichotomy.
You have heard that it was said by them of old time, you shall not forswear yourself, but shall perform unto the Lord your oaths. But I say unto you, swear not at all. Neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool. Neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, yea yea or nay nay, for whatsoever is more than these comes of evil. Matthew 5:33-37
First let me address the problematic words. There are two: forswear and swear. They are opposites. A dichotomy of sorts.
Swearing is the strongest kind of promise you can make. If you swear to something, you have, in a sense, guaranteed it.
Forswearing, on the other hand, is what we call it when a person fails to follow through. They swear to do something and then fail to keep the promise. Or they swear something is true only to be found lying later.
Absolutes Don’t Apply
The Pharisees taught that no promise should be broken ever. They saw everything as only on or off, right or wrong, and Jesus took issue with that. The promises we make depend on more than just us or our perceptions. Future circumstances are out of our control. The way we remember things can be faulty.
I can swear to how I remember something or to what I thought was true, but I can’t swear that my memory is perfect. I can swear that I have documentation to prove I was born on a certain day, but I can’t say I clearly remember the event or that I was in a position to verify the information.
Obviously, unless you’re omniscient you can’t guarantee anything, and our lives shouldn’t be cluttered with long lists of guaranteed promises made for the sake of cultural niceties, none of which can be absolutely assured.
To use Jesus’ words, if we can’t make one hair white or black, modern hair color options notwithstanding, how could we possibly expect to control future events.
Jesus also suggested that we should never use things we don’t own – the temple, God’s throne, the earth, Jerusalem – as collateral for the promises we make. Banks won’t accept those kinds of promises for obvious reasons.
But the question is why are people prone to promise things concerning which they can’t be absolutely certain?
It’s Not Just About Honesty
There could be many reasons for overstating guarantees. We can’t discuss them all, but I doubt Jesus’ primary concern was honesty. The problem was realism, not honesty. The people making these promises may have been unthinking or illogical but they weren’t lying.
I’m sure they were sincere, probably wanted to please, but they were chronically unrealistic.
No one wants to say, “Yes, I’ll do something IF . . .” We don’t like making or receiving conditional promises. It feels more affirming both ways when we say,”Yes, absolutely, I’ll do this one for you!”
Lying is wrong, yes, and Jesus said nothing to suggest it isn’t, but honesty was a well established norm long before Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount.
Even primitive, backward, uneducated cultures had penalties for lying. Pharaoh severely scolded Abraham for lying about Sara. Why would Jesus need to reiterate that?
Jesus was addressing realism and our tendency to ignore it when making promises.
Yes-No Should Be Deliberate
Maybe Jesus was teaching us to be cautious and careful. Sometimes we are the ones asking the question. Sometimes we are the ones answering. In both cases, however, we should deliberate.
Patience is involved too. If you don’t have enough information to ask or answer in the moment, be honest about that.
Questions Have Hidden Contexts
Sometimes we need to be wary. Yes-No questions aren’t always what they seem. They may be traps:
Have you stopped beating your wife?
There’s a catch either way.
People may ask Yes-No questions only to open a topic about which they have something to say.
- Asker: Have you ever used (insert product name here)?
- You: No.
- Asker: Well, I use it because blah blah.
The implication being you should use it too.
Every question has a context, whether it’s obvious or not.
Jesus was teaching us to be cautious and reliable.
When you ask Yes-No questions, be upfront in your motivations. Make it clear why you’re asking. Be realistic in your expectations and don’t assume the answer.
When you answer, be as certain and diplomatically honest as possible. If there are conditions, state those up front. Once you’ve committed, be reliable in your follow through.
Life Is A Yes-No Dichotomy
Life is defined by a series of questions most of which involve yes and no.
- Pursuing employment is asking, “May I have a job here?”
- Applying for entrance into university is asking, “May I study here?”
- Trying out for sports is asking, “May I play on this team?”
- Offering an engagement ring is asking, “May I be your married partner?”
These are serious, life-altering questions whether you ask them or not.
Avoiding the questions is a stalemate. Walking away from a potential married partner without asking leaves you never knowing and always wondering. It wastes time and energy.
Ask for your dream job. If you get it, great! If not, embrace the adventure of what comes next.
Yes-No questions define our lives.
But that’s not the end of the discussion. There is a whole range of interesting philosophical twists with the Yes-No dichotomy.
Sometimes Yes-No has social implications:
- Do you like me?
- Do you think I’m attractive?
- Do you agree with me?
- Do you think I’m praiseworthy?
Yes? No? What?
It’s all about social endorsement. Everyone needs genuine affirmation. People don’t usually ask these questions quite so directly but in odd and various ways they do ask.
When a wife shows off a new dress, the question is implied if not stated: Do you like me? These situations are emotional vacuums. They demand responses and whatever you do is a response.
Yes Always Has Unstated Conditions
You can say Yes but you can’t guarantee it. Many amateur cyclists enter and train for races – which in a way is saying yes to competing – only to get sick and miss out. I’ve known some personally. I’ve had it happen to me. The intentions are good but conditions were not agreeable.
The organizer of a charity event may ask for 25 people to help but of the 25 only 20 pitch. Does that mean 5 were unreliable slobs? Maybe, but maybe not. It could mean they were sick or had a family accident or were called away unexpectedly. Circumstances beyond their control.
You can say Yes to anything and really mean it, but you can’t predict the future. Things happen. Plans change. That’s why live theatre employs understudies.
Always Look For The Yes
We hate to say no. There’s something negative about declining. We would rather avoid that. With a little thinking, though, you might find a yes response even when your answer is no.
If your wife asks if you like her new dress, and you don’t, just say she makes the dress look good but you’re not sure the dress returns the favor. It’s an honest answer that turns a no into a yes.
Yes Is Progressive
Yes moves things forward as safely as possible but in spite of the risks. Astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. The mission was carefully planned but there were no guarantees. Bad things could have happened. The astronauts could have lost their lives.
That happened because someone said yes.
No is conservative. There’s no risk in declining.
Yes Is Inclusive
When you say yes to loving God, you also say yes to loving your neighbor, the rest of God’s creation and even your enemies.
Yes Is Exclusive
Yes is also exclusive. You could say that Yes is sometimes a better No.
Life is never just Yes. Like computer language it’s a combination of 1’s (Yes’s) and 0’s (No’s). The combinations are endless. But here’s the point. You can have a No without a Yes but never a Yes without a No.
You can say no to marrying one person but the question still remains. Who will you marry?
Whoever that is, when you say Yes to that person, you say No to all others.
It’s like ordering a meal in a restaurant. It’s easier to select the meal you want than to name on the items on the menu you don’t want.
Yes Can Qualify A No
Sometimes we meet people we don’t like. Aggressive people. Contrary people. They make us uncomfortable. When they talk, we hear their nature more than their words and our response is no. Whatever they say, it’s no.
A better way is to say yes to their personhood. No person is perfect but every person is important. We endorse people even when they ruffle feathers
And we do that by giving them space. We lean-in instead of push-in.
We endorse them by asking what they mean instead of assuming the worst.
We endorse them by making arguments rather than accusations.
These are yes responses to a no situation.
Yes Is Motivating
No stymies the effort.
A chef cannot act on what you don’t want to eat. He can only cook what you choose.
Yes Can Be Angry
Yes doesn’t always have a smile. Dogs do. Yes’s don’t.
The Bible says be angry and sin not which implies that anger is a normal part of life. You’re not going to avoid getting angry, but how you respond isn’t preset. That’s a choice.
We become angry when we’ve been violated or cheated, and we should respond, but the response should resolve the conflict, not extend it.
No responses to anger include: attacking, avoidance and passive aggression. It’s a waste. If the goal is to make the other person angry in return, you’ll achieve the goal but accomplish no good.
A yes response, on the other hand, considers the grievance carefully, explains the problem honestly with humility, and respects the differences.
It’s OK to be angry but stop short of making it worse. Expressing anger breeds more anger. Venting feels good but only momentarily. Long term effects are chronically painful.
When you become angry, say that. Admit that. Clarify for others and yourself why you’re angry and try to settle the matter decently. In other words, don’t hide or show your anger. Admit it and explain it.
Yes Is Generous
We readily say yes to things that benefit us personally.
- Would you like to be healthy?
- Would you like an increase in pay?
- Would you like to be understood?
- Would you like to have friends?
- Would you like others to agree with you?
If those are the things you want, then those are the things you must give. The Bible clearly teaches that every Yes for yourself must be a Yes for others too. We know the phrases:
You reap what you sow. (Galatians 6:7)
Do unto others. (Matthew 7:12)
And that brings us to diplomacy.
Yes-Yes Is The Best Diplomacy
Don’t confuse acquiescence with diplomacy. Passively agreeing to anything for the sake of peace isn’t the answer.
Diplomacy involves finding two Yes’s, one for each party. The Yes’s won’t be the best choice for either but it will be acceptable to both (win-win).
When that happens, the problem is alleviated even if it isn’t solved completely.
Life involves both Yes’s and No’s but ultimately it is Yes.