The Alphabet of Grace: Y is for Yes

In 2005, Danny Wallace, a freelance radio producer for the BBC in London, was recently divorced and bored at work. Then a woman on a bus randomly advised him to “Say yes more” and Danny’s life began to change.

If this sounds familiar it might be because you’re thinking of the 2008 Jim Carrey film, Yes Man, about Carl, a recently-divorced bank loan officer who has become so socially withdrawn that his few friends suggest he attend Yes!, a self-help seminar run by a motivational speaker. In the seminar, Carl learns his life will be better if he simply says “yes” to very question, invitation or enquiry he receives.

Yes Man was (very) loosely based on Danny Wallace’s book of the same name. And while the fictional Carl finds himself in some ludicrous situations by always saying “yes”, Wallace also found his world expanded when he took up the challenge and says “yes” to everything for a whole year. He bought every product and agreed to every new credit card he was offered by telemarketers; he said “yes” to attend a meeting of a group that believes aliens built the pyramids in Egypt; he accepted every social invitation; and he furthered his career by saying “yes” in every work meeting he was in.

And, lo and behold, just like the fictional Carl, Danny Wallace’s life started to get better. As Wallace wrote, “Probably some of the best things that have ever happened to you in life, happened because you said yes to something. Otherwise, things just sort of stay the same.”

I heard Danny Wallace being interviewed years ago and he was asked whether he regretted any of the things he said “yes” to, and after explaining he had wasted money on a few products he didn’t want or need, he told the story of agreeing to have the windows on his London apartment double-glazed. But when the glazier arrived to do the measuring and quoting he discovered, to his astonishment, Wallace’s windows were already double-glazed. The burly glazier didn’t find it amusing at all.

As silly as Danny Wallace’s yearlong trial was (and as even sillier as the movie version was), saying “yes” to everything is just an experiment in enthusiastic consent. It’s a concerted effort to lean in to life, to open yourself to new possibilities and opportunities.

But I’m also aware that saying “yes” to everything could be really dangerous. Being able to say “no” is essential. We might need to say “no” to sexual advances, or to unreasonable requests from our employers. Think about the times you’ve said “yes” when you would’ve liked to have said “no” instead. Some of us have been raised to please others by regularly saying “yes” when we want to say “no” — by agreeing to things we don’t want to do but feel obliged to do. Always saying “yes” can allow other people to take advantage of us, and we have needed to learn how to say “no” in order to protect ourselves.

But Danny Wallace isn’t suggesting people follow his lead. His yearlong experiment was a stunt, of sorts. But it did convince him that often we say “no” when we really should say “yes.” And the more yeses we can say the more we open ourselves to others and to sometimes surprising openings.

The key is to be open to new and interesting requests or opportunities and then to be able to reflect clearly on that opportunity and then either give enthusiastic consent or not, as the case may be.

Some years ago, the NSW Department of Department of Communities and Justice in Australia launched a strategy for reducing sexual assault, part of which included a community education campaign about consent. Called the YES? + YES! = YES campaign it was designed to affirm the power of a clear expression of consent, where YES? (asking) + YES! (enthusiastic consent) = YES (better sex).

The promotional material associated with the campaign explains,

“YES? + YES! = YES is about getting an active, excited and definitive YES. It’s not about avoiding a NO. The purpose of the campaign is to educate and clarify the language and behaviour of YES, and by it’s absence, NO. This campaign is about developing confidence, particularly within the younger generation, helping them to understand that It’s ok to say NO, and it’s ok to say YES!”

When I first heard about the campaign I thought it was a pretty useful rule of life, actually. The “yes” with the question mark implies we need to hear or offer invitations with honesty and clarity. The “yes” with the exclamation point refers to response of a person who has considered the invitation seriously and deliberately and is consenting enthusiastically. And the third “yes” is the affirmation that the decision was a good one.

It might seem like a big leap from consensual sex to the Christian faith, but Yes? + Yes! = Yes sounds a lot like the way God has engaged with people. God invites the patriarch Abraham to leave his own country and people and journey to an undesignated land, where he will become the founder of a new nation. Abraham says “Yes!” He obeys the call unquestioningly and together with his wife, Sarah, he jorneys to Canaan and becomes the father of Israel.

God asks Moses “Yes?” in the burning bush.

God asks Isaiah, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Yes?) and the prophet replies, “Here am I. Send me!” (Yes!)

Jesus asks his disciples, “Follow me,” and they drop everything and do so.

Jesus invites the stricken Apostle Paul to “get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And Paul says “yes!”

All the great callings and commissions in the Bible start with yes.

Or more accurately, they start with a clear, unambiguous invitation. Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Paul — none of them were constrained or forced against their wills. God reaches out, invitationally, solicitously.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say, all the great calling and commissions in the Bible start with “yes?”

Biblical faith therefore is always is always expressed in consent, sometimes solemn, sometimes enthusiastic, but always wide-eyed and in accord.

I think this is why manipulative preachers and fear-fueling evangelists are so offensive. They claim to represent Christ, but their invitations often aren’t made in good faith, and the response they elicit is usually self-serving or based on ignorance. The invitations that truly come from God are usually gentle. They are insistent but tender, and the invited one is given the choice to accept or reject the offer. Because accepting an offer you know you have the freedom to reject is true acceptance. Jesus isn’t like the Godfather, making us an offer we can’t refuse.

As Billy Graham once wrote, “God created human beings, not robots. We don’t have to accept the freedom he offers us through Jesus Christ. He gives each person the free will to accept or reject His salvation. Likewise, those who choose Christ are not forced to obey him at every turn. But God makes it clear: the best life is one that’s devoted to honoring him.” 

That’s why Christians must always offer others the freedom of choice. Non-consensual religion is cultish. Church leaders must always lead with a “yes?”

Paul did. When writing to the wealthy church leader, Philemon, to request he accept his runaway slave Onesimus back into his household as a brother, he says “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” (Philemon 8-9) And he continues: “But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.” (14)

Recently, we have seen too many cases of prominent Christian leaders engaging in bullying behavior, employing manipulative tactics, benefiting from power imbalances, signing people to non-disclosure agreements, and even demanding sexual favors from immigrant employees. They profit from the fears and anxieties of their staff and church members.

And yet at the same time, we are in a cultural moment where the power and beauty of genuine consent is being championed.

Why wasn’t the church always leading the way with “Yes?”

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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2 thoughts on “The Alphabet of Grace: Y is for Yes

  1. I’d never thought about it like this before Mike! Thanks – really insightful.

    Underscoring your point about manipulation and fear, I think that resonates across all of our lives; if we’re made in the image of God, then presumably we have an in-built recognition of a genuine offer of “Yes?”. It’s also why manipulation and coercion, whether in sexual violence or any other form, is so abhorrent; it runs against the grain of the influence of the imago dei and stifles a part of our very being… people who perpetrate such things actually deny a fundamental part of our humanity.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post! BTW, I’ve enjoyed this whole series.

    1. Thank you for supporting my writing. That’s a great thought you shared. My mind was heading in that direction as I was writing it, but I didn’t get around to articulating it as succinctly as you have.

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