This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”
Christians have often struggled with how to think about boundaries in broken relationships. Some use the word boundaries to communicate that Christians don’t have to be doormats because we want to model grace. Others resist the concept to emphasize that Jesus crossed all boundaries to rescue us in our rebelliousness and believe Christians are called to model this same love to the lost world around us.
Both seem to be making valid points. As we think about wisely applying the implications of forgiveness after a significant offense, we need to discern how to honor what is right in both approaches. If we think of the two approaches as two friends, we want to see the validity in each rather than choosing sides.
We will do this by considering four principles that can help us think wisely about boundaries and forgiveness.
Principle One: Boundaries Separate Wisdom from Folly
Boundaries, by definition, divide things. The question is: what is being divided? If we think of boundaries as dividing people, it is hard to reconcile the two approaches above. But a healthy concept of boundaries views the barrier being placed between wisdom and folly rather than between me and you.A healthy concept of boundaries views the barrier being placed between wisdom and folly rather than between me and you. Click To Tweet
After forgiveness, the hesitancy in restoring a relationship or trusting again is not whether I’m willing to have anything to do with you. Its whether you will honor the principles of healthy relationship. When an addict insists on carrying cash or a controlling person refuses to seek outside advice, they are violating how wisdom would curb their destructive patterns.
I am not rejecting you or giving up on you if I refuse to participate in or enable foolishness. However, if you insist on living foolishly, you will find yourself on the other side of my boundary from folly. In this sense, a synonym for boundaries would be “reasonable expectations” or “limits of wisdom.”
Read Proverbs. Yes, the whole book; it may be easier to read a chapter per day if reading the whole book seems daunting. As you read, underline every use of the word fool, foolishness, and folly (or comparable language). Pay attention to the verbs that accompany the fool-family of words. They are all cautionary. One means of God’s protection for you is his warning against folly. We appreciate the protection but are grieved when adhering to the warnings creates distance between us and those we love.
Principle Two: Boundaries Are an Invitation
Hopefully you can see the connection between the first and second principle. Boundaries, when rightly communicated, are an invitation not a rejection. You are inviting the other person to cross over the line from folly to wisdom. Thinking of boundaries this way will help you communicate your limits in a more receivable manner.
When you are confident in what you will and will not do, pressure from others becomes less threatening. You can begin to say, “I will not [describe the unhealthy request], but I would be happy to [describe a healthy interaction alternative].” In this sense you are not “enforcing” the boundary (as if you were the boundary police), you are providing another opportunity for the other person to choose wisdom over folly.
This is where we often get hung up. We think this approach makes our forgiveness conditional. It doesn’t. It makes trust and restoration of the relationship conditional. Forgiveness does not commit me to an unhealthy or destructive pattern of relating. If someone will not receive your invitation to healthy relationship, they are rejecting biblical wisdom; you are not rejecting them. Their refusal to move from folly to wisdom is what creates the distance.If someone will not receive your invitation to healthy relationship, they are rejecting biblical wisdom; you are not rejecting them. Click To Tweet
Principles Three: Boundaries as Emotional Walls Are Unhealthy
There is another way we use the term boundaries. Remember, the term boundaries is a metaphor, so it can be given many different references. Sometimes the term is used to refer to emotional walls we put up against anyone getting close or really knowing us.
This use of the term boundaries, while understandable after being hurt, prevents us from experiencing the kind of healthy relationships God intends to be restorative. Boundaries, in this sense, do not protect us from folly, but insulate us from authentic relationships.
From this principle we learn something about recovering from destructive relationships. The coping mechanisms that serve well in dysfunctional relationships often become disruptive to potentially healthy relationships. The rules we learn to play by in unhealthy relationships can prevent the establishment of healthy relationships. This use of the term boundaries is one that we need to learn to resist.The coping mechanisms that serve well in dysfunctional relationships often become disruptive to potentially healthy relationships. Click To Tweet
Principle Four: Boundaries Aren’t for Everything
Like anything helpful, we can fall into the “to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail” trap with boundaries too. The good benefits of principle one and two, does not mean that boundaries are a universal tool for relationships.
To use the term boundaries well, we need the ability to distinguish felt needs from real needs. Real needs are the things required to make life safe or sustainable. Felt needs are the things that make an adequate life better. Real needs are essential. Felt needs are good.
Boundaries are for unsafe contexts. If we apply the concept of boundaries to felt needs, we begin to treat everything that hurts our feelings as unsafe. People will begin to treat us like the relational “boy or girl who cried wolf” as we treat everything we don’t like as if it is dangerous.
This doesn’t mean that felt needs are not real or unimportant. Healthy relationships seek to honor felt needs. But the means for doing so is awareness-building, compromise, and balanced give-and-take for each other’s preferences, rather than establishing boundaries.
It also means that when boundaries are needed – because someone is refusing to move from folly to wisdom – that we should not expect that person to meet our felt needs. They are not displaying the maturity to be relied upon in this way. Instead, we grieve the condition of this relationship and find ways, through God and other healthy Christian relationships, to fulfill these legitimate desires.
Questions for Reflection
- Which of the four principles of boundaries captured the way you most naturally thought of the concept or most frequently heard other people use it? How do all four principles together help balance the concept?
- Think of several relationally challenging situations that remained strained after forgiveness. What would a balanced application of these four principles look like in those situations?