Have you ever entertained the following thoughts?
- If I tell my friend I won’t lend him any more money, I am being selfish and not very “Christian.”
- If I refuse to “bail him out” again, I am not being “long-suffering.”
- If I assert myself in a relationship, I fear being not loved.
- If I disagree with what my parents want, I am not honoring them like the Bible commands.
- If I try to discover who I am, I am focusing too much on myself, and the Bible says to focus on others.
These scenarios have a common theme: The conflict between loving someone and wanting to require responsible behavior. How can we love others and deny ourselves, yet not be taken advantage of or controlled?
On one hand, we feel if we love someone, we should continue to be long-suffering and accept the person just as he is, hurtful behavior and all. So we continue to give, feeling that is the “Christian” thing to do. On the other hand, he behaves in a way that hurts our relationship. As the hurt and resentment grows, we feel the need to do something, but don’t know what.
The Bible teaches two sides of love. One side of love accepts and forgives people just as they are. The other acknowledges truth and requires righteous behavior.
God cares enough about us and his relationship with us that he will not allow destructive behavior to hurt us or to destroy the relationship. His righteous nature has requirements for behavior in relationships, and he will step into a problem situation with someone. He loves and requires change to take place. He has limits to what he will put up with. This is where someone will experience God’s discipline, which draws them back to him.
So, in reality, there is not one side that wins out in God’s eyes. His love and his righteousness go together. Indeed, it is as the Psalmist has said: “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). God wants us to be like him. He wants us to have boundless love for one another. But at the same time, he wants us to require righteous behavior from one another in our relationships.
When we think of righteousness and limits, we are referring to something called “boundaries.” Basically, a boundary is a property line. It defines where someone’s property ends and where someone else’s begins. If you own the property, then you are the one who has control over it, and you are the one we can hold responsible for what goes on there.
For example, your neighbor cannot look over the fence and tell you that he does not like your landscaping and that you have to change it to meet his expectations. Certainly he can give an opinion, but the choice is up to you because it is yours. At the same time you have control over your own property, you also have the responsibility for the property. If your grass needs mowing, you cannot say to your neighbor, “My grass is too high. You have to come over here and cut it for me.” Responsibility, ownership, and control all go together.
Our souls and personalities have boundaries and limits as well. God has created us to know where we end and someone else begins, so that we know who is responsible for what. Your soul has very clear property lines, and just as you are to take responsibility for your physical yard, the Bible teaches that you are to take responsibility for your soul and its contents, just as your neighbor takes care of his. If either one of you steps over the line and ignores your responsibilities, then it is the responsibility of the other one to let him know. This is what boundaries are about: the lines of ownership and responsibility, and how to manage them.
What boundaries protect
"Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). We are to take constant, diligent ownership and stewardship over our souls, and be careful what is going on there.
But what are the elements of our souls that we are to watch over? They include things like:
For example, if I am angry, it is my problem. I must take responsibility for it and resolve it in a biblical way (Ephesians 4:26). If my behavior is out of control, I must take responsibility for that and develop restraint (2 Peter 1:6). And the same is true for the rest of the things that are part of my soul. They are aspects of my property that God requires me to take responsibility for and to have control of, for he will hold me accountable (Romans 14:12).
Boundaries and each other
Ideally, when someone hurts another, the one in the wrong should confess this and make amends with the other person (Matthew 5:23,24). A mature person sees when he is in the wrong and changes his behavior (1 Corinthians 11:31). But sometimes he doesn’t and he has to be corrected by others. That is where boundaries with each other become important.
If we do not see when we are wrong, then it is up to others around us to tell us (Galatians 6:1). This is truly an act of love and it should be done with compassion and humility. Then if we are wise, we’ll accept the correction and change our behavior. That process is part of the loving discipline of God as he helps to improve us through our friends (Hebrews 12:5-13; Matthew 18:15).
But, if we have been told and still refuse to listen, the boundaries get even stronger. The Scriptures speak of many different kinds of limits that can get invoked in the process, such as group confrontation (Matthew 18:16,17), separation (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11), deprivation of good things (2 Thessalonians 3:10; Proverbs 26:5; Matthew 25:26-28), and others. But the key thought is that it is not godly to allow evil to go on when someone is in denial of their sin.
We owe it to each other to love correctly by disciplining each other: “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12,13). Even though it may be painful, it is the best thing for us in the long run.
Some principles of boundaries
In the Bible, many principles of boundaries are given to help us develop righteous character. Here are some of the more prevalent ones:
- Limits- The requirement to live within one’s own limits, and to enforce limits and consequences with others.
- Truth- The ability to speak the truth and be honest clears up a lot of boundary problems.
- Respect- Not only must we enforce and live out our own boundaries, we must learn to respect others’ boundaries and freedom.
- Sowing and reaping- Our choices and behaviors have consequences and reality outcomes, and we must enforce these and allow them to discipline others.
- Activity- Boundaries are an active way of living. To be someone with good boundaries, the passive position in life and relationship must be surrendered.
Reflecting God in our boundaries
The dilemma we feel between being loving and requiring responsibility is not a dilemma to God. The only dilemma to him was what to do with the penalty aspect of sin, and he solved that with forgiveness. We did not have to pay the price for our sin againsh Him. But he does not allow the sin to continue. In fact, the reason he comes to dwell in us by his Spirit is to enable us to desire his will and obey by faith.
God requires righteous behavior from us and will intervene in our lives to make sure it happens (Hebrews 12:5-11). One of the ways he does this is through our helping each other grow by setting the kinds of righteous boundaries we have talked about. We are actually God’s agents in this matter. We are to forgive, just as he forgives, but we are to require responsibility from each other and ourselves (Luke 17:3,4). If we don’t require this responsibility and forgiveness, we will be held responsible both for the lack of confrontation as well as the lack of forgiveness (Leviticus 19:15, 17).
In this integrated stance of love and limits, grace and righteousness, we are living out the true nature of God. These kinds of boundaries with each other will ensure safer, more productive relationships, greater spiritual growth, and a deeper living out of the salt and light that is needed to transform the church and the world.