I remember that summer vividly. I was headed into high school, and had just wrapped my hormone-charged little brain around Jesus’s servanthood, His death to self. I remember leaning over my cafeteria tray, discussing with my camp counsellor what it would look like to live that way ourselves.
She looked alarmed over my fervour (I’m sure my husband can relate): But Jesus doesn’t want us to be doormats, she countered.
At the time, I just couldn’t see it. What did Jesus hold back? The concept of “boundaries”—setting limits on how much I’d give others, or how much they could take—seemed a post-modern reflex against living radical and poured-out. I didn’t see a whole lot about boundaries in the Gospels.
Now I see it all over the place. Jesus set boundaries over His Father’s house, forcing out people who’d abused a space that should have been protected (John 2:13-16). Jesus, while still compassionate, didn’t heal everyone. When He did heal, it wasn’t always right away what people wanted—like healing from lameness—and was more what they needed (first and foremost, spiritual healing; see Luke 5:17-39). And Jesus didn’t let others stone him; He gave up His own life at the time God had predetermined (John 10:18).
For Him, love didn’t always mean “yes”, even when He was able.
Sometimes it meant “no.”
I still occasionally reside in Doormat Land, partly because it is such a cozy place for my cowardice. “Love”—at least the feeling of it—is a lot easier if you give people what they want. Generally, people like you a lot more, and you don’t have to suffer while people struggle through the painful work of dying to themselves.
At times I have been guilty of thinking that if:
- I can do what someone asks, or
- if it is easier for me to do it, or
- if it would cause pain or hurt for me to say no, or
- the opportunity is there to help someone,
I should say yes. But an opportunity does not always mean I am called by God to do something.
So why would I set boundaries? Here are some memos to myself.
1. Boundaries help me say “yes” to what’s truly important
Practically, this might be as simple as When I say yes to what my mom wants, I could be saying more of a no to my spouse. Or it might be, My friend always asks if I can watch her kids during her projects. But after a few too many of those, I start bristling with my own kids.
Life is a bit of a pie graph. Currently, my pie graph is full, with slices totalling 100 per cent. I do not have any “eat bon-bons and watch soap operas” slices. Often, I think I can subtract from the “sleep” slice or the “leisure” slice. But then, sometimes the “happy wife” or “fun mom” slice transforms into “exhausted wife” or “irritable mom”.
Stand up for your marriage, your kids, your family; be faithful to things to which you’ve already committed and people who are already counting on you. And keep in mind that the needs of NOW are not always more important than the needs of TOMORROW.
2. Boundaries help me care about what’s best for the person
It’s that whole “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” thing. Working in poverty development has driven this home: “Easy money” for the poor rarely helps them claw their way out of poverty. On the contrary, it cements them there.
Parenting, too, requires a good long game. It says we care more about nurturing a thriving, healthy adulthood than pacifying the fit our kids are winding up to throw in the middle of the grocery store.
And what about friendships? Sure, maybe your friend needs help with that resume the night before the interview. But maybe this is also a pattern of procrastination you’ve known (and perpetuated) since high school.
Love enough to have the courage to diligently, studiously seek out and do what this person needs in the long-term—not just keep the peace (see Proverbs 29:25, John 12:43, Romans 12:2, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4).
3. Boundaries esteem the image of God in me and the people I love
They say, Hey, we’re all created in God’s image. So that means justice is pursued not just on your behalf, but mine, too.
We see a lack of boundaries (and injustice) when we don’t stand up for the image of God in the people we love—when we allow others to be disrespected and treated shabbily, and we don’t do our part to protect them. It could be the isolated, ashamed wife whose husband neglects to stand up for her when she’s consistently berated or made fun of. Or it could be the colleague bullied at work, or the person derided for their race or gender or lack of assertiveness.
God draws clear connections between loving Him and how we love, treat (Matthew 22:37-39; Isaiah 58:2-14), and speak to (James 3:9-10) His image bearers.
Boundaries means speaking up and taking a stand instead of allowing others to trample over us.
4. Boundaries help me recognise the ways I’m using others to fill myself
A disordered love–Romans describes it as putting created things above the Creator (Romans 1:22-23)–is stealthy. The holes in me disguise themselves as truly good uses of my time, my energy, my cash, my love. Unfortunately, anything out of its proper order is robbing someone.
Setting boundaries means I’m compelled to recognise the disordered love in myself—for example, if I’m always saying yes simply because I’m needy for approval, or because I’m more comfortable with avoidance, because saying yes is simply easier than saying difficult no’s. (Boundaries also compel me to recognise disordered loves in others.)
Our unchecked longings leave us vulnerable. Often, in our most raw moments, when we’re stressed or grieving or unmoored, that unsatisfied version of ourselves leaves us clawing to be okay. We keep seeking broken, leaking ways of filling the holes God isn’t filling in us.
God puts it this way: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Our lack of boundaries can reveal that we’re really seeking our fulfilment in something or someone other than Him.
5. Boundaries move me away from feeling out of control—so I can love more deeply
Rather than feeling like I have no choice, that it’s just my role to follow, that I just need to sacrifice and obey—I can choose whether I want to say “yes” or “no”. I’m not forced or controlled by others’ constant needs or demands, which breeds resentment and a bitter helplessness.
I can think carefully and make decisions about how best to love in this situation—and love a lot more deeply and voluntarily. Loving becomes a valuable choice, rather than an obligation.
Here are some questions that can help you discern how and when to set boundaries:
- When I’m gut-level honest, why do I want to say “yes”? If I think I’m being completely unselfish—what do I actually gain? (e.g., someone thinking better of me; keeping the [surface-level] peace; distance, so I don’t have to deal with my own emotions or theirs, etc.)
- If I’m saying “yes” only out of guilt or fear, how can these be properly addressed?
- Considering what would serve and love this person well in the long run, am I really helping them toward righteousness and holiness? Or am I choosing an “easy” answer, an easy way out? Could I be standing in the way of this person dying, in a good way, to their selfish desires?
God commands us, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Boundaries help us to cut out what’s evil and selfish from our relationships, glorifying God rather than our feelings of safety and false peace, or someone else’s satisfaction.
Get more loving by saying no.