Is the word “no” always negative?

No one like the word “no.” In my roles as parent, pastor, in the past as a teacher, I found that the word “no” often has negative connotations. Christians can sometimes be most clearly defined that the things they say “no” about. The Christian life can sometimes feel just like a bunch of things we are not allowed to do. In these past few blog posts we have been thinking about grace, and how grace works out in our lives. I think Paul’s words to Titus are really helpful in understanding this connection:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”[i]

Titus 2:11-12

Paul’s logic here is something I find immensely helpful and refreshing. It is the grace of God that helps us in holiness, helping and guiding us, teaching us to say no and live holy and godly lives in the world. In this sense, Paul sees this grace almost as a person who walks with us, teaching us to say no to the things that are opposed to holiness.[ii] At that point you might consider whether, in that sense, God just sounds like a kill joy. For example, I remember going with my family to Centre Parcs. When my daughter saw all of the amazing things you can do there, she was very excited. She said, “Dad, can we do archery”, to which my response was “no”. Then she said “Dad, can we do the climbing walls”, to which my response was also “no”. She continued to ask whether we could go paintballing, pottery making, or horse riding, to which I am ashamed to say my answer was “no”, “no”, and “no”. Then, she said to me “Dad, are you just going to say “no” to everything this holiday?” The first question I could give a confident “yes” to. Maybe that’s the picture of God you have in this passage? A schoolmaster figure following you around simply saying “no” to all the fun things you’d like to do. However, the Father that Paul paints in Titus 2:11-12 for us is one who, through grace, teaches us to say “no” to the things that lead to death and “yes” to the things that live to life in all its fullness.

Paul also sees positive elements of how the grace of God helps us to “live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.”[iii] God’s grace helps us to say “no” to somethings, but a thunderous “yes” to growing in holiness. The final phrase “in this present age” likely means that Christians are called to live out this grace infused holiness in a broken and hostile world.[iv] To paraphrase Paul’s words in Titus 2:11-12 we might say “the grace of God teaches and guides us to say yes to holiness in a world hostile to it.” Paul then goes on to say in verses 13 and 14  that we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”[v] These phrases again make clear that the death of Jesus is centrally important. First, through the death of Jesus we are redeemed and saved. Second, through the death of Jesus God made a holy people for himself. A people with a zeal to be holy and do good things. This zeal, holiness, and desire to do good come through the crucifixion of Christ on the cross 2000 years ago and the outpouring of grace that event brought into our lives.[vi]

              Paul also says elsewhere that “God’s will is for you to be holy”.[vii] There is a sense in which many of us ponder what God’s plan for our life is. Whether that is for the next day, week, month or year. Sometimes the specific answer to that question can take many hours of prayer, Bible study, and discernment. But then there are more general answers that apply to every Christian. In that sense, we can know from the Bible that God’s will, plan, and purpose for your life and mine is to become more and more like Jesus. For example, when I got married to my wife we didn’t know then that we would have four children, move nine times in nine years, be involved in four different Churches in four different locations, or anything else along the way. But we did know that certain things would happen. We knew we would live together. We knew we would try to love one another. We knew we would like children, moving, and adventure. But we didn’t know the specifics. Imagine if I’d have spent the early years of my marriage solely trying to locate the eight specific houses I would live in rather than simply loving my wife. That would be crazy. Marriage isn’t built around certain events or locations; the Bible teaches us that marriage is built upon a loving relationship that echoes and illustrates the Gospel itself. The same is true in the Christian life. I think we need not spend all our time thinking about great plans we may have for the future and neglect the general command God gives every Christian. Be holy.

So, perhaps, this brings us back to our title question. Is the word “no” always negative? It can feel like it! The reality is also that as a Christian there may well be things that we really want to do, yet we know that we shouldn’t. There may be other things that we musn’t do, even if we desire it with all our heart. On reflection, I don’t think this is anything less that Jesus himself calls us to when he says “deny yourself, pick up a cross, and follow me.” It’s no less than what Bonhoeffer said “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” This sounds impossible!! But the words of Paul to Titus remind me that it is God’s grace that enables me at any and every point to continue to follow Jesus.

[i] NIV, Tit 2:11-12

[ii] Donald Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 220.

[iii] NIV, Tit 2:12. Also: Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles, 220-221.

[iv] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 34, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 311.

[v] ESV, Titus 2:13-14. (emphasis added)

[vi] Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, 314-316.

[vii] NLT, 1 Thess 4:3.

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