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The Most Useful Word In The Bible

Genesis 39:7-21

The editor of a prominent literary magazine asked a group of authors to respond to three questions. He asked first: “What is the most beautiful word in the English language”? He got almost as many different answers as there were authors responding to the question. His second question was: “What is the most misused word in the English language”? A slight majority of those replying indicated that the most misused word is the word “yes.” The third question was: “What is the most useful word in the English language”? Almost unanimously the response was that, used in the right way, the most useful word is the little word “no”.

Now we are sufficiently sophisticated as Christians to understand that there is power in positive thinking. The world shall ever be grateful to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale for pulling that concept from the pages of the Bible and writing it upon our lips and our hearts. However, while we may readily recognize the power of positive thinking, I do not believe we often enough recognize the power of negative thinking. That is to say, just as we can use the word “yes” in our lives to strengthen us, so we can use a “no” to strengthen us when we direct that “no” at those things in life which would tear us down and make us less than God would have us to be.

So how do we use that little word “no”? How do we employ the power of that kind of negative thinking in our lives? I would suggest that there are four key principles to guide us, and I wish to select four scenes from the Bible to illustrate them. Let’s begin here …

The first principle is to say “no” courageously.

Take the story that I love in the Old Testament, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It is found in the third chapter of Daniel. Those three young Hebrews were told by the Babylonian king that they would have to bow down and worship the king’s golden idol or they would be thrown into a fiery furnace. And what was their response? “No, we will not do it.” The furnace was heated to seven times its normal temperature and still they would not yield. Courageously they said to the king, “Our God is able to deliver us. He may not deliver us from the furnace, but He will deliver us from your hand whether we escape the flames or get burned to a crisp is beside the point. All that matters is that we shall remain faithful to our God. Therefore we are saying ‘no’ to your command.” And you remember, don’t you, that when the three young men were thrown into the fire, they were not burned. Why? Because a fourth figure walked with them in the fire, and that fourth figure appeared to be the Son of God.

Catch hold of that great truth, dear friends. Those who claim the power of negative thinking, those who say “no” to that which would make them less than God wants them to be, those who say it courageously are those who discover the presence of God in their lives. I once believed those citizens of Germany were telling the truth when they said that they did not know what went on inside the concentration camps. And then I visited several of those camps like the one at Dachau, built immediately adjacent to the town. As I stood there, it suddenly dawned on me that you can’t burn 6,000,000 people without the stench of it filling the land all about. And what about the man who delivered the bread or the milk to the camp, or the mailman who carried the mail to the commandant’s desk, or those who rode their bicycles past the barbwire gates? Did they not know? Yes, they knew. They had to know. Some said that they were forced to go along, but frankly, I think no one can ever be finally forced to do anything. There is always another option even if it’s only death. Thank God, there were a few like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said “no.” There came that Sunday morning when the guard came to Bonhoeffer’s prison cell and said, “Come with me.” You see Bonhoeffer’s “no” had landed him in the concentration camp and now it was going to cost him his life. It is reported that he knelt calmly at the feet of the gallows to pray, after which he courageously mounted the steps to die. He could say “no” courageously even at the cost of his life because living within him always was that fourth figure—Jesus the Son of God.

The second principle is to say “no” wisely.

This principle is best illustrated by the story of the temptation of Joseph. In the Bible, we are told that Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. This was a particularly devilish temptation for several reasons. First, because Mrs. Potiphar was a rich and powerful woman, Joseph could have used her to great advantage had he yielded. Secondly, because Joseph worked at her home, the temptation was continuous day-after-day-after-day. Thirdly, because Joseph was separated from his family and his friends, he had no one to encourage him in resisting the temptation. And fourthly, because Joseph was a slave and slaves were supposedly without virtue, no one would have blamed or condemned Joseph had he yielded to that temptation. But Joseph did not do it. He said, “No, I will not sin against God.” With that he fled the house. He went out so quickly in fact that Potiphar’s wife had hold of his coat, and he left it behind as he ran. He was saying “no” wisely. He got out of there!

There are those of us who know how to say “no” to temptation, but when we do we just cover our eyes and peek through our fingers. But saying “no” wisely means to get away from the place where you can even peek at the temptation. I remember with sadness counseling a man with an alcohol problem. He looked like he was going to straighten his life out. He did well for a time. He joined AA. He stayed off the bottle. He got a job. He seemed to be putting all the pieces together in his life, and I was very hopeful. However, when I went to see where he was working, my heart sank. I knew that tragedy was ahead. You see, he had taken a job in the machine shop right next door to a small bar. We have to learn how to say “no” wisely. That means we have to use our heads. We have to get away from that which has ensnared us in the past and might ensnare us again. It is said of Joseph that when he followed this principle, the Lord was with him. I want to tell you today that the Lord will be with you if you follow this principle in your life.

The third principle is to say “no” powerfully.

I hearken back here to the wise counsel of a dear retired-minister friend of mine who once said to me, “The closer you get to Jesus, the harder the Devil will work on you. That means you’ve got to talk tough to the Devil.” Well, my friend is absolutely right, and there’s a Biblical story to underline the truth. Go back to the first chapter of the Book of Esther. Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, was having a feast for his closest friends and supporters. It was quite a bash—lasting for seven days. It took place in the royal palace—a structure of splendid proportions and exquisite beauty. Every detail is included in the Book of Esther. Now on the seventh day of the feast, the king wanted to do something spectacular so he commanded his chamberlains to bring forth his queen, Vashti. He wanted her to dance for his friends so that they could gaze upon her great beauty. But the Bible says simply, “Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.” So there sat King Ahasuerus amidst all the splendor of his palace—it all belonged to him. It was guarded by legions of soldiers—all of them at his command. He was surrounded by a host of friends—all of them there to honor him. He was the picture of power, and yet he did not have the power to control Vashti. She said, “Let the king command if he will, but he does not control me. No, I will not do it.” She said it powerfully. Martin Luther must have studied the story of Vashti because he certainly knew how to treat the Devil. Visit the castle where he lived while he was translating the Bible into German and you will find on the wall a large ink blot. That’s where Martin Luther threw his ink well at the Devil when the Devil was approaching him. Oh yes, he knew how to treat the Devil. In his greatest hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” he tells about the onslaught of the Devil and then he says, “One little word shall fell him. Dost ask what that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He.” You see when the Devil is treated as the Devil ought to be treated, Christ is present in the treatment enabling us to say “no” powerfully.

The fourth principle is to say “no” frequently.

This principle is supremely illustrated by the example of Jesus Himself. He frequently said “no” to the Devil. There is the wilderness scene where the Devil came at Him from three directions—and yet from every direction Jesus met him with a “no.” And then there is that scene on the road to Caesarea Philippi where Peter voiced the temptation for Jesus to become an earthly king, with earthly power, ruling an earthly empire. And Jesus cried in response, “No, get thee behind me, Satan.” Then there is Calvary with all the physical weakness and all the emotional distress that would be present during those dreadful hours and there the Devil attacked. That’s the way the Devil works, you know. The Devil delights in attacking us in our most vulnerable moments. And so it was that the Devil attacked Jesus on the cross, “If you claim to save others, why can’t you save yourself? If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. Exert the power that should be yours.” But even from the cross, Jesus was able to say,” No.” And I would contend that He was able to say it then because He had said it so many times before.

And Jesus encourages us to learn from His experience; to say “no” in the little things that come our way in life so that we build up a great reservoir of negative power which can be applied when the big temptations strike—even if they strike us in our weakest, most vulnerable moments. In the South Seas, the natives believe that the strength of every enemy they kill enters into them thus increasing their own strength. Well just so, every time we say “no” to temptation, no matter how small the temptation may be, we are reinforcing our ability to say “no” when the time of real testing comes. So like Jesus, we need to say “no” frequently to those things which would make us less than God wants us to be. And Jesus gives us the power to do just that. I have seen His power enable an alcoholic never to touch another drop. I have seen His power lead a businessman to say “no” to unethical business practices though it cost him dearly. I have seen His power enable a hopeless drug addict—hopeless, did I say, not in Jesus Christ -say no to drugs so that he broke his habit completely. I have seen His power enable one caught in the destructive web of homosexual relationships to break free into new life and to new joy in Jesus Christ. That’s the power that there is in the true “no” of Jesus Christ and here is the miracle. That power belongs to everyone who belongs to Jesus.

You see, when Jesus came into this world He did not ask for much. He asked only for enough ground on which to plant a cross, and then He stretched Himself out on that cross and took upon Himself the pain of every temptation that has ever been or ever will be visited upon the people of this earth. And in His dying and in His rising He said once and for all, and forever “no” to the power of sin and evil. Not only that, but when He said it, He sent the power of that “no” rolling down through the centuries so that everyone who owns Him as Lord, and who claims Him as Savior may say “no” with Him—and say it with the same power and the same authority and the same effect. So say it, Christian. Scribble it, Christian. Sing it, Christian. Shout it, Christian. When in the Name of Jesus Christ, we say “no” to the temptations which beset us in life, then by the power of Jesus Christ, we can make it stick!

Thanks be to God, who gives us that victory through Jesus Christ. Amen and Amen.

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