By T. R. Robertson
Have you heard the terminology of yes-and? It comes from the art of improv, where actors work together to spin out a story on the spot, with no rehearsal or script. Improv only works when each participant is willing to say yes to whatever their partner says and use it as a springboard for their own contribution to the narrative.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? is perhaps the best known current example of improv. The show’s host presents a basic scenario to the comedians. They then take turns, each one building on what the other has said in order to continue the story, with hopefully hilarious results.
“When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt” (Tina Fey, Bossypants).
Most of us will never take part in an improv sketch, but the principle of yes-and applies to how we interact with people in daily life. It speaks to how we align the story we’ve chosen to believe about life with the chosen stories of the people we encounter, the improvisational tale they’re spinning in their attempt to understand life.
In John 7 we see a stark difference between Jesus’ yes-and philosophy and the Pharisees’ no-but thinking.
Jesus Says Yes-And
Jesus and the Jewish leaders had widely divergent stories to tell about life. During the Feast of the Tabernacles, Jesus entered the temple area without attracting any attention—until he began to teach. Then the reaction was swift.
The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15).
Jesus’ manner of speaking quickly gave away his lack of formal education. He didn’t speak with the same academic vocabulary as the rabbis or with the usual guarded, “religiously correct” qualifiers. He spoke as someone who knew the Scriptures’ author personally. He captured their attention most when he laid down this gauntlet: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?” (v. 19)
To the Jews, the law was a collection of negatives, a list of rules about what God’s people should not do. They had constructed an intricate hierarchy of laws, erected like scaffolding around God’s Word. They also built in numerous qualifiers, ways for them to get around the details they preferred to ignore.
Jesus had a habit of turning their nos into yesses, scattering their collected edicts like a house of cards.
The Jews were still perturbed about Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath. The Talmud lists 39 categories of prohibited Sabbath activities, with a multitude of detailed prohibitions under each category. It amounted to a whole lot of No.
Jesus, though, was intimately acquainted with the Creator who initiated the Sabbath. To him, the Sabbath shouted out, Yes!
Yes, you need to take a regularly scheduled break from your labors so you can be refreshed, revitalized, and refocused on all the ways God has blessed you. And the Sabbath is about taking time to renew your commitment to saying yes to being God’s hands and feet in this world.
The Jews weren’t entirely no when it came to the Sabbath. Certain laws, like circumcising a newborn son on the eighth day, took precedent. No, you can’t do any work on the Sabbath, but it’s OK to do a few things we’ve agreed are permitted.
This was typical of the scholars’ approach to the law. They firmly said no to committing adultery. But they allowed loopholes for a man to easily put his wife aside, all the while gathering stones for throwing if a woman was caught in adultery. Instead of seeing things from God’s perspective, they saw life through their own no-colored glasses.
In the face of their no-but, Jesus counters with yes-and.
Yes, the Sabbath is important. And so are God’s laws about compassion, love, and caring for the needy. Why not both?
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” wrote F. Scott Fizgerald.
Saying Yes-And Today
The church in the 21st century has constructed our own scaffolding of selected favorite nos, while ignoring some important yesses.
Many Christians say no to the gay lifestyle and same-sex marriage, based on what they read in the Bible. Yet some carry their opposition to the point of saying no to even interacting with gay people any more than absolutely necessary. But many of those same people have made allowances for the complex causes of rampant divorce, especially when it affects their own family or friends.
Many Evangelicals say no to embracing agnostics, skeptics, and iconoclasts in their congregations, but they’ll bend over backward to make allowances for the greedy, the gossips, and the strongly partisan people in their midst.
Rather than embracing Jesus’ yes-and narrative, they’ve bought into the no-but story embraced by American culture. The daily news is filled with examples of people vehemently saying no to the people and ideas they oppose. They eagerly amplify every error and miscue, losing sight of the issues in their eagerness to vilify the individuals.
But they’re equally eager to spin the truth to excuse the blunders and flaws of the people who agree with them. They make allowances for extreme words or behaviors, as long as they advance their pet causes.
There’s a better story to believe about the world—good news about the yes-and of God’s righteousness. The only way to fully embrace that good story and make it our default is the same way Jesus did. Get to know the Father intimately. Learn to love the way he loves.
Then we can say yes to the Creator’s intent for sexual relationships and also say yes to his intent for us to be loving and patient toward all sinners. When prisoners at the prison ministry where I serve ask me if homosexuality and divorce are sins, I confidently answer yes . . . and so is my own gluttony and judgmentalism. Jesus died for all of us.
We can say yes to the clear truths of Scripture and also say yes to an open discussion of doubts and alternative applications of those truths in a postmodern world. The apparent opposites of orthodoxy and open inquiry can be interwoven to craft an even stronger story. The goal is to encourage one another to speak the truth of our doubts while together seeking the truth of God.
We can also say yes to American laws that protect the safety and rights of citizens and still say yes to the mission we’ve been given to care for the least of these. Many of the people we’re supposed to be helping will be on the opposite side of those laws.
Yes an immigrant or refugee may be illegal and still be an alien whom we should welcome and compassionately help. Yes the poor and unclothed may be benefiting from government programs which some of us would rather be cut and still be in need of our mercy and benevolence.
Jesus told the Jews to “stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).
When we jump to conclusions based on appearances, it’s generally because we’ve already made a judgment about people before we even get to know them. Our preconceptions are based on the story we’ve come to believe about “those people” who do “those things.”
We’ve bought into the narrative that no, what they’re doing isn’t right, but it’s OK for me to turn my back on them personally instead of seeking and saving the lost. We may have blinded ourselves to our no-but approach to people, but those same people most assuredly see that we’re not only saying no to their sin, but to them as well.
If you’ve fallen into that narrative, try improvising a bit. When we dismissively say no to getting involved in the lives of certain people, the story of their potential salvation comes to a screeching halt. Try listening to where they are in their life story and, with a heartfelt yes-and, nudge their plotline toward faith.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.