This is a collection of essays by Teddy Roosevelt, America’s 26th president. Roosevelt is a fascinating character, and I have read several of his biographies, most notably the trilogy by Edmund Morris. I was first turned on to Teddy when I read his famous “Man in the Arena” quote at the beginning of John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart. Since then I’ve seen it in a number of other places, and no doubt you have seen it, too.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.-Theodore Roosevelt

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We’re wrapping up the first week of the New Year, as well as the first week of the Year of No. It’s been a pretty good week for me, as far as saying “No” to my entitlements goes. I started off by naming my entitlements and indulgences, which has helped me to stay focused on what I’m saying “No” to, as well as to provide perspective about how often I’m saying “No” and why. If you haven’t taken the time to sit down and name your entitlements and indulgences, I highly recommend you do so. Clarity is the first step toward victory.

As far as my entitlements go, I haven’t eaten out except for work or family events. I’ve forced myself to find food around the house, or to eat something before I leave for work at night so that I won’t be tempted to stop at Wendy’s or Chipotle. My pop consumption is less than half of what it was last year. The other temptations that I face occur less frequently, but the concept of the Year of No has been at the front of my mind, so I’ve been intentional about taking ground on those issues, too. 

Saying “Yes” to our indulgences and entitlements today makes us far more likely to say “Yes” to them tomorrow.

Like many of you, we are snowed in today. Many of us treat days like this as special, like a birthday or a holiday. This means that we might allow ourselves to indulge in certain pleasures that we may not otherwise. We give ourselves permission to indulge because we believe that these indulgences are what make special days so special. But the danger of indulging is not in what it means for today, but what it could mean for tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Saying “Yes” to our indulgences and entitlements today makes us far more likely to say “Yes” to them tomorrow, which makes it more likely we say “Yes” the next day, and so on.

The other thing that can happen on snow days is we can go a little stir crazy. Our kids have been out of school for almost three full weeks now, and because of the weather here in the Midwest we’re all stuck indoors. Together. Tensions can run high. You might be tempted to yell or lash out. You might be tempted to grab your phone and lock yourself in the bathroom for an hour. Days like today are the ones when my resolve is most tested. What can we do to overcome the temptations of these “special” days?

Titus 2:11-12 says, “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.” God’s grace teaches us to say “No.” If you’re snowed-in at home today and tempted to indulge, remember that it’s not clenching your fists and gritting your teeth that helps you say “No,” it’s the grace of God. God has grace for you today to say “No” to the ungodliness of your indulgence and entitlement and to say “Yes” to self-control. When you’re tempted today, ask God for grace.

Self-discipline requires both grace and vigilance. We can’t do this on our own, but through the grace of God we can do this. We can become more like Jesus by making these small decisions toward self-discipline. God gives us the power to make these choices in his grace. But we must be vigilant. Character development doesn’t happen on accident. When we allow things to get out of balance today, our starting point for tomorrow is that same out-of-balance point. In other words, we lose hard-fought ground when we indulge ourselves. But when we continue on the path of self-discipline, we gain a great victory because we have overcome the tiny temptations that beset us each day, and on the sort of day when we are most likely to indulge ourselves.

Many of us have formed habits of permissiveness that manifest themselves in times of stress, or on special days when we just want to relax and take a break. We have rationalized our indulgence. 

The reality is that we don’t need to indulge in order for a day to be special. Our problem is that indulgence is an everyday occurrence.

I’m going to smoke this cigarette because work was really stressful today.

The kids are home from school so we’re just going to lay around, watch movies, and eat cookies all day.

The little ones are finally asleep and now I’m going to binge on social media for the next two hours.

Special days call for special grace. Instead of permissiveness, focus on what God has set you free to do and become. You don’t have to be enslaved by the old temptations anymore. There is grace for you, and in that grace there is great power. Use the time you have to form new habits rather than fall back into old ones. Special days are unique opportunities to become the new you!

There has been a pretty great response to the Year of No so far. Lots of folks have been sharing on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #yearofno. I’m really excited about what God might do in the lives of folks who begin to say “No” to their daily entitlements and indulgences. Small acts of self-denial make room for larger works of God’s kingdom. Denying yourself always leads to finding life. 

Small acts of self-denial make room for larger works of God’s kingdom.

The first step of self-denial is naming the things to which you feel entitled or in which you indulge. As I said in the Year of No introductory post, “clarity is the first step toward victory.” We can only overcome that which we clearly and continually name.

Most of the things that we are naming here are not bad things (though some of them could be). They are little things that we feel entitled to throughout the day. They are things that have gotten out of balance in our hearts. They have become too important – so important that we think we deserve them or need them to be content. I’ve decided to post mine online. If you’re having trouble identifying some of your entitlements, maybe reading mine will kickstart your thinking.

1. Eating whatever I want, including eating out and drinking Coke too much.

As things with Zeke spiraled downward and the chaos of our lives escalated, eating out became normative. At first it was an act of desperation and exhaustion, but soon it became the one opportunity I had to experience daily pleasure. It soon formed into a habit and an expectation, and now it’s time to break it. I’m concerned that I’m reaching a critical point in my physical health, so it’s time to start saying “No” to eating out and drinking pop all the time.

I want to return to a time when eating out and enjoying finer foods was an act of celebration rather than an everyday occurrence. I want to be a healthier man for my wife and kids. This, I’ve found, is one of the toughest fights I’ll face this year. The stomach (and tastebuds) is a powerful force, one that is not so easily denied. The temptation will come in manipulative forms: You didn’t drink a Coke for lunch, but you can have one as a snack. You’ve denied yourself long enough, it’s time to enjoy a treat. No!

2. Remaining relationally and emotionally distant.

I’m an introvert, so I tend toward being relationally distant as it is. I enjoy the world of ideas more than, you know, interacting with other humans. But as a pastor, my introversion is one of the main detractors from my ability to minister to others. I’ll never be the outgoing type, but I need to push myself toward being more engaged with the people that God has brought into my life. Saying “No” to my right, as an introvert, to be withdrawn and relationally aloof is important for my character development this year.

3. Binging on Entertainment

We can only overcome that which we clearly and continually name.
My Meyers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, and one of the things that INTJs do when they’re “in the grip” (meaning, when they’re under stress) is binge on entertainment. For me, this comes out in Netflix binges or engrossing myself in a video game. On days like today (New Year’s Day), I’ll lay on the couch and watch football for ten hours straight. (Or I would have before I had kids.) In the midst of the binge, the troubles and stressors are forgotten. By engulfing myself in entertainment, I enter into a false reality, and all false realities cut me off from my true self.

Stress is a part of my life. It’s difficult to avoid stress when one of your children is slowly dying. Being “in the grip” has become the new normal. But binging on entertainment, which is essentially disengaging from reality, does not help me to develop the kind of character God is busy forming within me. To partner with God in my own character formation, I need to learn to say “No” to the entertainment binges in which I try to escape.

4. Sleeping In

This is a tough one because Breena and I both have to get up multiple times each night to care for Zeke. It’s been a long time since either of us have gotten a decent night’s sleep, so you can understand how it can be tempting to sleep in every day. The problem is that we have three other kids, and all of them like to get up pretty early. They need to be cared for, and we can’t effectively do that while sleeping in our bed. (Curse you space-time continuum!) I can’t be the dad they need from my bed, so getting up and getting the day started is vital, both for myself and for my kids.

I hope that by naming my entitlements you’ll be able to be more aware of, and be able to give names to, the small things you feel entitled to, or indulge in, as you go about your day. Remember, the Year of No is not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important.

Facebook does this “Year in Review” thing now, which is pretty cool. I tend to forget about some of the things that I post on Facebook, so it was nice to stumble upon a couple of thoughts that I put up there. These were too long to tweet, apparently, but I must have wanted to get them out before I lost them. They are reflections on how the kingdom looks in the world:

God’s kingdom does not come through political or social activism, nor through “standing up for what’s right,” but only and always through his people embodying the crucifixion and resurrection by laying down their lives, setting aside their rights, forgiving sins, and breathing life where there was death.

I’m not exactly sure what inspired these thoughts, but I think this was somewhere around the time that I was reading Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson. My worldview has also been significantly modified this past year, especially in the ways in which I understand the kingdom’s relationship with this world.

The WAY of God’s Kingdom (the How, the Methods, the Ethos, the Spirit) is fundamentally opposed to the WAY of the world. Because the WAY of the world is victory, winning, and the survival of the strong, the Kingdom of God can only enter this world through loss, suffering, and death. God’s Kingdom does not enter the world through the ways or with the aims of the world, i.e. by the world’s methods. God’s Kingdom comes on his terms and in his ways, which are most clearly demonstrated in the crucifixion of his son. God’s kingdom comes through the weak upending the strong, through the foolish shaming the wise, through crucifixion that leads to resurrection.

New Year’s resolutions are a great idea. The start of a new year is the perfect time to make important changes in your life, changes that will help you to become the person you want to be. A healthier diet. Regular exercise. Reading the Bible every day. All of these are important things that will shape your character for good.

The heart of self-discipline is the ability to say “No” to the wrong things so that you can say “Yes” to the right things.
At the heart of almost every resolution is the issue of self-discipline, and the heart of self-discipline is the ability to say “No” to the wrong things so that you can say “Yes” to the right things. I need to learn to say “No” to the things that steal my time, my health, and my character so that I can become the man God wants me to be. And I think most of us want to become the person God wants us to be.

We want to instill practices in our lives that make us better people. We want to form good habits and participate in daily spiritual disciplines. We want to eat better and work out more. Hence, New Year’s resolutions.

The Problem

But I’ve discovered, after trying this every year for about 20 years, that turning on a dime is nearly impossible. Most of us are like battleships. We need a lot of time and energy to change course. Of all the resolutions I’ve made over the years, I was only ever able to keep one of them. (I read through the whole Bible in 2011, so I’ve pretty much punched my ticket to heaven.) That’s about a 2% success rate. Yikes!

Most of the people I know are close to that number with the resolutions they’ve been able to keep. While some people are significantly better at keeping resolutions, most of us feel lucky to have stuck to one or two in our entire lives. All of this failure makes me want to stop trying. Maybe you’ve reached that point. I know I have. I’m ready to try something new.

New Year’s resolutions don’t work because we’re not used to living lives of self-discipline.
Resolutions don’t work because we’re not used to living lives of self-discipline. It’s a me problem. I enjoy certain things in life, and have come to believe that I am entitled to them.

Whether it’s eating out or sleeping in, the pleasures of life are no longer something I enjoy occasionally, but rather pleasures to which I feel entitled every day, every meal. The problem isn’t that I’m not saying yes to the right things; it’s that I’m saying yes to the tiny pleasures of life all the time. Saying “Yes!” to these tiny pleasures, these entitlements, too often leaves no room to say “Yes!” to the things that create character in your soul.

I drink Coke at almost every meal.

I get on Facebook and Twitter dozens of times each day, at work and home, stealing time from my vocation and my family.

I read sports blogs instead of good books.

I watch Netflix instead of exercising.

This list could go on and on. While these things are not bad in and of themselves, and they can be part of a healthy and balanced life, what I’ve discovered is that the development of my character is won or lost in a thousand tiny decisions each day. Trying to cut out sugar, Coke, or Facebook all at once on January 1 just doesn’t work for most people. It has never worked for me. So I want to try something new, and I’d like to invite you to participate with me.

The Solution

The development of my character is won or lost in a thousand tiny decisions each day.
I’m calling 2014 the Year of No. It’s not the Year of No Netflix, or the Year of No Fast Food, or the Year of No Shopping. I’m not quitting anything cold turkey. 2014 is just the Year of No – the year of saying “No!” to something to which you feel entitled each day. It’s the year of celebrating small victories of self-discipline and self-denial. Radical, immediate life change is very rare. More often than not, life change is a long, slow process of saying “No!” to your entitlements which then opens up space for you to say “Yes!” to the practices and disciplines that allow for character development.

In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus said:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

I’m convinced that following Jesus is not a decision I make once, but is a long series of decisions made everyday. It’s not a prayer I pray once, but a persistent prayer of “No!” against the entitlements and temptations of my heart. You have to learn to say “No” before you can say “Yes.” You have to lose your life before you can save it.

I need to learn to say “No,” but I know that I can’t learn it all at once. I’ve tried that. But maybe I can learn to say “No” one decision at a time. I don’t need to cut Twitter out of my life, but I do need to learn to say “No” when I’m tempted to scan through it eight times at work or while my kids are awake. That’s what this is about: cutting back what is out of a balance rather than cutting it out of my life completely. I know myself too well to think that I can do the latter at this point, but I remain optimistic about being able to do the former.

The Plan

So here’s my plan.

Identify some of the things to which you feel entitled, and write them down. It could be anything. Eating out. Watching TV. Sleeping in. Drinking alcohol. Buying clothes. Facebook. Comments sections on news websites. (Okay, that one you should cut out completely!) Wherever you find yourself indulging, that’s where your entitlement lives. Identify your entitlements, write them down, and keep them somewhere you’ll see them everyday. Clarity is the first step toward victory, and writing is important for remembering.

Say “No!” to one of your entitlements every day. Have a glass of water at lunch instead of Coke. Stay off of Facebook or Twitter while at work. Put your phone away when you get home and interact with your roommates, spouse, or kids. It’s not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important. This is how you win the battle for self-discipline: denying one little entitlement at a time.

Share your experiences – the victories and the failures – using the hashtag #yearofno. At the risk of being both cheesy and self-congratulatory, I think it’s important to share this stuff with each other because self-discipline isn’t something I can do by myself. I’ve tried that already, dozens of times, and failed every time. We need each other for celebration and accountability. So when you say “No!” to that second dessert, or cigarette, or Netflix binge, share it on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #yearofno so we can all celebrate with you. (Of course, if your entitlement is social media, find an appropriate time to share it. Hint: Not when your kids are asking for your attention!)

It’s not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important.
This is not a resolution. This is not about quitting something cold turkey. This is about strengthening your will through tiny exercises of self-discipline. It’s about denying yourself in small ways every day so that you can become the person God wants you to be. It’s about denying yourself so that you can find true life.

If this is something that you would like to do, you don’t have to sign up for anything or even tell me. You can just start saying “No!” to your entitlements and use the hashtag on Twitter or Facebook. Then, if you see someone else doing it, you can offer them encouragement and support. Feel free to share this post so that other folks can know what you’re doing and participate, too.