Today I’d like to go into a bit of depth about a subject that I believe is often overlooked and misunderstood and that is the subject of healthy boundaries; more precisely I’d like to focus on Christian boundaries. Many Christians today seem to be struggling greatly in their relationships with other people and I believe one of the main reasons is because as Christians we don’t understand healthy boundaries and what the Bible has to say about them. A lot of people seem to be under the misconception that because God has called us all to display Christian charity and mercy, that means we should all be doormats for others to walk all over. That simply isn’t true and I will tell you why a bit later in this series, but first I’d like to begin by explaining just what exactly a boundary is.
A boundary is a line that separates what is yours from what is not yours, whether that be your physical boundary (what is your body and what isn’t), your mental boundary (your thoughts, beliefs, and values verses someone else’s), and your emotional boundary (what you feel and what you don’t). Healthy boundaries help establish our individual personalities, space, responsibilities, and proper respect for one another. It is very important for us to take a closer look at all of these boundaries in our lives. Why? Because if we don’t know where our boundary lines are, it becomes all too easy for those lines to become blurred or crossed which can then lead to unhealthy interpersonal relationships.
First Step to Healthy Boundaries: Know Thyself
For a moment let’s think of our personal boundaries in the same way we tend to think of our personal property. Take a car, for instance. If you own a car then you are responsible for what happens inside that car and for every action you take with that car. If something is wrong with the inner mechanics of the car then it is solely up to you to get it fixed. If someone crashes into your car it is your job to speak up and confront the other person about the damages. If you break the rules and someone else is hurt by your car then you are the one who is liable. In this example, your car is a metaphor for yourself. You are the only one responsible for your feelings (the interior of your car). You are the only one in control of what you do with yourself and what actions you take. If you have an emotional or physical pain then it is up to you to take the steps needed to get it treated. If someone hurts you then you are the one in charge of bringing it to the other “car” owner’s attention. Likewise if you break God’s law and do damage to someone else then you are the one who is held accountable and must make reparations.
Knowing where our boundary lines begin and end helps us to know what we are responsible for and what we aren’t. So many of us suffer needlessly because we end up trying to take control or responsibility for other people’s “cars” or because we try and make other people take responsibility or control for our “cars.”
One of the basic principles of Christian teaching is that of self-control and personal responsibility. You see, God gave us all the gift of free will, the choice to choose to do good or evil. God doesn’t force His will upon us; rather, He allows us the freedom to choose our actions and behavior for ourselves. However, there are natural consequences to the choices we make. We can see this very clearly in Galatians 6:7-8: “A person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit“.
It is an easy enough concept to understand. We all know that if we work hard at our jobs we will get paid for the work we do, but if we don’t work we don’t get paid. The same goes for exercising: if we put in the effort and time to be active we will sow the benefits of a stronger body and better health, but if we are lazy and inactive we will end up with a weaker body and poorer health, etc. This same principle is also applied to our relationships. If we put in the time, effort, and love into all of our relationships we will sow stronger more fulfilling bonds, however if we become lax, distant, and negative in our relationships than it is a given that those bonds will eventually begin to sour.
Our choices, no matter good or bad, are all our own responsibility and nobody else’s. The first step in establishing healthier boundaries is to realize this. The sooner we put away our excuses and stop playing the blame game, the sooner we will begin to understand and take better control over our own behavior.
“But she made me” (Adam after he ate of the forbidden fruit)
“Everybody else is doing it” (Sodom & Gomorrah)
“But they’re wretched, horrid, people and they don’t deserve any mercy” (Jonah to Nineveh)
“I had no choice, I made a promise” (King Herod after beheading St. John the Baptist)
“But why should I have to do that when I do so much already!” (The Pharisees to Jesus)
and “What was I supposed to do in a situation like that?” (Peter’s denial of Christ)
God’s heard all of these tired excuses before and they didn’t fly with Him; what makes you think they would go over well with Him now?
We are the ones who make our own decisions and we are the ones who must live with their consequences. No amount of anger, hurt, injustice, peer pressure, manipulation, yelling, coercion, or guilt tripping can change that fact. We are all going to be held accountable for our words and our deeds despite everybody else’s. That means it is solely up to us to get real and take complete control and ownership of our own actions.
How do we do that, exactly?
Well, it starts with identifying what the things are that we love the most in our lives. What are some of the things that we tend to put the most value on? Is it money? Power? Comfort? Material possessions? Food and drink? The affection of others? Our own reputation or appearance? Do we cherish God’s opinions in our life above all, or do we pit them against man’s? Our out-of-control behaviors can be attributed to our valuing and loving all the wrong things, things that inevitably can never satisfy us because we were each made for God and when we try and replace our natural cravings for God with other things it only leaves us emptier and yearning for more.
Try and think of it this way. All humans need food and drink to survive and to nourish their bodies. However, if a human starts eating and drinking less and starts replacing his meals with other substances, the body is going to get weaker and natural side effects will begin to occur based on what substances he chooses to partake of, and if he keeps it up for a long time, he will eventually die. God is our food and drink in this metaphor. We were made to need God to sustain and nourish our bodies and souls. If we replace His role in our lives with other people or things, then we begin to destroy ourselves from the inside out. If we really want to take control over ourselves and our passions, then we are going to need God’s help to do it. It starts with prayer and self-reflection. We need to take a long hard look at what we currently value more than Him in our lives and then talk with Him about it. Are you too attached to the comforts and pleasures of this world? Are you too prideful? Are you holding onto anger and resentment? Are you simply caught up in your own insecurities and fears? Do you let your feelings rule your behavior? If so, that’s okay, face up to those feelings and attachments of yours and give them over to God. He wants to help you through them and He will help you, but you have to let Him in first.
Just pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10) and He will answer, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
That sounds great and all, but how do I gain control over all these feelings?
Feelings can sometimes be the roadblocks and driving forces of almost everything we do, but it shouldn’t be like that. Our feelings should never be ignored, but they should never be placed in charge either. Our feelings and desires can lead us to both good and bad things; because of this, it is imperative that we all allow for some space within ourselves to be able to process our feelings, desires, and natural impulses. What we need is self-restraint, not self-repression. Therefore the most important thing here is to allow ourselves this space to think and feel, without allowing ourselves to act out our feelings while we are processing them.
Let’s take anger, for example. We all get angry sometimes, that’s a natural human reaction, but we all know that our anger can sometimes be irrational and dangerous. God has warned us not to let ourselves be consumed by it, but anger isn’t always a bad thing. Even Jesus got angry at the money changers who were defiling the temple; however, even though He was angry, Jesus didn’t allow His anger to control Him and He didn’t carry it with Him afterwards and neither should we. Let’s look at (Ephesians 4:26)
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,”
This is very important because it shows us that we shouldn’t shut down and refuse to allow ourselves to feel anger. We need that space inside of ourselves to be able to let ourselves process the anger, but without stoking it or letting it take over. We all need to be able to identify why we are angry, and if it is reasonable for us to feel this way. The feelings of anger can sometimes lead us to a problem that needs confronting, and usually it is a built-in warning mechanism that tells us that our boundaries are being crossed or that an injustice has been done. Once we feel the fires of our anger start to ignite, it is important for us to take some time to examine our anger and track down the root of the problem in our lives that it’s pointing to. This is where self-control is key. You see, our anger, our feelings, are our responsibility because we are the only ones who feel them and we are the only ones who can do anything about them.
Contrary to popular belief, others are not responsible for the way we feel, despite however bad their words or actions may be. Many times you see people hold grudges for years and years towards a person even though the person may be dead. In this instance, the deceased person can never atone for or try to soothe the other person’s feelings. The person with the anger is the only one who can get rid of it. He is the one responsible for dealing with his feelings of resentment and he is the one who needs to learn how to let that anger go. The same goes for us with any of our feelings. As I mentioned before, though, our feelings are important and they need addressing, not repressing, but this is where it is up to us to take the initiative to own up to our feelings and to see what exactly they are trying to tell us about the relationships we have with others.
Remember how God gave us all free will? Well, that means we have the freedom to choose to do good to our neighbors or bad. And unfortunately, dealing with other people’s bad behaviors towards us can be a natural consequence of that freedom. We can only control ourselves, we can’t control others; therefore it is imperative for us to learn how to set strong and clear boundary lines between us and other people.
Taking complete ownership over our own “cars” will help us to better be able to say to others “This is my car, not yours, and I will not allow you to treat it this way any longer”. This is important because we need to be able to say yes to things that are good for us and no to things that aren’t. Likewise we need to be able to define what relationships in our lives are nourishing us and which ones are poisoning us.
“But separating ourselves from others and putting up boundaries doesn’t sound very Christ like,” some may say, and to those people I say, “You couldn’t be more wrong, my friend.” You see, Christ is our role model for healthy boundaries. God Himself gave us free will. He never forces us to do His will though it is perfect. He gives us instructions, He warns us of the consequences of our own choices, yet He doesn’t force our hands. He gives us space to choose, however He clearly states that if we choose evil then we will no longer be welcome into His “home.” This is God’s boundary line. He will not allow Himself to be treated poorly forever. In fact He will literally separate Himself forever from those who choose to persist in crossing His boundaries and who persist in doing evil. This does not make God cruel or unmerciful in any way because He sets these boundaries to protect love from the very forces that seek to destroy it. It would be more cruel if He allowed evil to wreak havoc on the good for all of eternity. God sets this healthy boundary between heaven and hell to keep everyone safe; however the key thing to take away here is that God doesn’t set out to put people into Hell. He tells them what He will allow and what He will not and then He allows them to choose for themselves what they will do. When people cross His boundary line, when they purposefully seek to do evil, then God says, “Okay, I didn’t want it to be this way, but you chose this and here are the consequences of your actions” and then He lets them live with their consequences.
In this way we too need to be able to put up healthy boundaries to protect ourselves and to protect others in our lives. Take for instance this domestic setting: Let’s say one adult roommate refuses to work. They are capable of getting a job, but they decide to just mooch off of the other adult roommate’s earnings. This in turn puts a huge financial strain as well as an emotional strain between the two adults. In this case the working adult needs to be able to put up a healthy boundary and tell the other non-working adult, “This is my money, not yours. I’m happy to help you in the ways that I can, but you are going to have to get a job and help with this financial burden or else you need to find another place to live because we can’t keep going on like this.”
This is a healthy dialogue because the earning adult is not completely casting off the non-working one, he is giving him a choice. A choice to pull his own weight. If he refuses, then the natural consequence is for him to leave because the money cannot stretch to support them both. This in turn protects the earning person from being drained financially and emotionally. It also helps the working adult to process their feelings of anger or resentment and to deal with the root of the problem in a safe, effective way. The non-working person was crossing major boundary lines by assuming that the earning person’s money was theirs. It was not. Therefore the working adult had to take ownership of their own finances and put up the boundary line to remind the other person of what is theirs and what isn’t.
The most important thing in this situation is the consequence. “Get a job or leave.” The non-working person must now choose whether to respect the other person’s boundary line or not. If he doesn’t, he now knows what that consequence will be. However, boundary lines are only as strong as the person who puts them up, so it is up to the working adult to follow through with the aforementioned consequence. If he doesn’t, then the boundary line might as well not exist. The non-working person will realize that there will be no consequence if he doesn’t get a job and therefore won’t be inclined to change the dynamic of the current situation; this in turn will end up breeding a more strained relationship between the working adult and the non-working one.
This is why we all need to learn how to properly set our boundaries and learn how to effectively enforce them. This is what I will go into more depth on in the next installment of this series. Until then I’d like you all to make a list of the most important relationships in your lives. Take a close look at the relationships you have with those people and try and determine if you have boundary issues with them or not. What are your initial feelings when you think of that person? Is it love and fondness or is it stress and weariness? Take some time to delve deeper into those feelings. What makes you love that person or feel uncomfortable with that person? Allow yourself to process those feelings and ask yourself why you feel that way towards that particular person. Can you spot the healthy boundaries or crossed boundaries in your life? Write down what you feel your feelings are telling you about those people and then keep them somewhere handy, you are going to need that list for the next installment. Until next time.
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