Last month this blog addressed the struggle of living from a “victim mindset” which is something we can ALL encounter on occasion. As promised, this month the focus is on setting appropriate and healthy boundaries as we endeavor to break free from that victim mentality, while also seeking to honor and love God and others as ourselves. First we must seek to forgive those who have harmed us, just as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32), then we create limits so as not to be foolish and harmed again (Proverbs 26:11).
"Forgiveness does not mean excusing." - C.S. Lewis
The ability to forgive has something to do with setting boundaries, and it should always proceed it, because it is difficulty to set healthy boundaries from a place of resentment, bitterness and a broken spirit. In the absence of forgiveness, our boundaries will be harsh, cruel, cold, unfair/unjust, and maybe even look more like walls (see final paragraph). If you find yourself waiting to forgive until there is repentance or apology from the offender, then you have engaged in a cheap form of forgiveness, and the process of setting boundaries will feel as though you are being victimized all over again.
Why is it important, and even Biblical, to set limits and boundaries with others?
There is an area of common misunderstanding and confusion within the Christian faith (and really everywhere) about setting boundaries. Here are some of the passages that relate to the topic, and the subsequent confusion (all NIV):
- Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
- You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Galatians 5:13)
- She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, “I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord’s servants. (1 Samuel 25:41)
- Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)
- Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)
- Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)
It is immensely important, perhaps even critical to our faith, that we serve others. It is a command, and also a response to the love and grace that we receive from God. Lest we forget that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and was delighted to do so (Matthew 26:14-39, Luke 22:24-27, John 13:1-17). And yet, we can martyr ourselves to such an extent that we are no longer able to serve or love well – we lose ourselves in the needs of others, and sometimes those needs and requests may come from a place of brokenness, sin or even evil. The aid offered after a request from another may be enabling or reinforcing of negative or sinful behaviors, so of course we want to proceed appropriately. Yes, we can harm ourselves and others by helping for the wrong reasons!
One of many examples in the Bible can be found in John 11. This is the story of Jesus responding to Mary and Martha about their brother, Lazarus, who is quite literally at death’s door and in need of miraculous healing. What did Jesus do? He waited two days to go! Why wait, Jesus? We know from the reading that He declared, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive Glory from this.” We also know that Jesus was on mission and did nothing without the approval of His Father (John 5:30), so therefore we can surmise that Jesus heard from God on this and knew how to respond, regardless of the urgency of the request. Simply put, it was not time for Jesus to go and attend to His loved ones, and He had the task of setting a healthy limit with them.
It is fascinating to read the Gospels and see that Jesus was completely and totally intentional in His choices about where to go, what to do, who/how to heal, when to speak, etc. (Again, John 5:30). Oftentimes we think of Him as this person who was so perfect and so loving that He offered up all He had, all the time, to anyone who asked. But this is only partially true. Remember that Jesus often asked people if they wanted to be healed before He healed them, and it would have been literally impossible to be everywhere He was requested to be during his time on earth. Jesus had decisions and choices when it came to the needs and requests of others, and He was purposeful in His response. After all, He is perfect.
Jesus has boundaries. God has boundaries.
As Christians, we understand the consequences of our actions when we choose to live outside of God’s boundaries and expectations. To say that God does not have boundaries is to really misunderstand the Bible and God’s very Spirit. We see boundaries being laid out in Genesis as he creates and defines the world, and then for Adam and Eve in garden. It is always the heart of God is to make known the best He has in store for His children, and it is of the utmost important that we pay attention.
As is displayed for us by Jesus, we need to learn to understand our own hearts and why we set (or do not set) boundaries in our lives. If a person has purposefully or negligently hurt you, then it is wise to set limits with them (e.g. “You may not borrow my car, because last time you returned it with an empty tank of gas, and I’m not confident I can trust you…want to talk about that?”).
Of course, if their “hurting” of us is actually a redirection upon our own lives or behaviors due to our brokenness or sin, then we would be better off accepting the correction and analyzing our hurt. Ask them, and then pray…
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24).
It’s true. Sometimes others are setting boundaries with us. Perhaps it is about something we have mishandled, or even done out of negligence, to harm them or ourselves. This is where humility comes in. There is an open and vulnerable interplay between people that we often do not do very well, but we are wise to grow in this and do our part to communicate our own needs and understand the needs of others. Certainly, this is a component of sanctification (becoming more Christ-like).
If the harm was caused from a place of another’s sin or cruelty, then we pray to forgive and begin the process of limit-setting as a means to guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) and lovingly state concern and correction to the other.
An important word of caution about building walls, which are essentially an immovable boundary. Healthy boundaries are set from a place of love, grace and mercy, and they will most certainly adjust based upon responses and behaviors of others. A wall is built when we are more concerned about our own self-protection than the will of God for us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Sometimes we mistake our walls for boundaries.
We must resist the enemies advance in our hearts to build walls rather than boundaries. Walls separate, while boundaries honor. When we make statements like, “I’ll never allow that person to be close to me again.” we are limiting the power of mercy and the ability of God to change a person from the inside out. We do believe God can transform human beings, right? We wisely test these things with those who have damaged us in order to discern growth, maturity, humility, and a heart that will honor yours and others. If the offender has been healed, there will be evident fruit from their lives. If not, the boundary remains, with the hope and prayer that they will one day be restored and that a healthier relationship can be reinstated.
God is for you and will bless your journey to find ultimate freedom in forgiveness.
Feel free to connect with us at Trailhead Christian Counseling at 970-510-5851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Kail, MA, LPC, LCPC (Owner/Counselor at Trailhead Christian Counseling)
Want to explore more about healthy boundary setting? Here are some great resources:
Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend
Keep Your Love On by Danny Silk