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 just because we want to model grace. Others resist the concept of boundaries to emphasize that Jesus crossed all barriers to rescue us in our rebelliousness; likewise, Christians are called to model this same love to the lost world.
Both perspectives make valid points. As we think about wisely applying the implications of forgiveness, we need to discern how to honor what is right in both approaches. Let’s consider four principles that can help us think wisely about boundaries and forgiveness.
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 you and me.
After forgiveness, the hesitancy in restoring trust is not whether I’m willing to have anything to do with you but, rather, 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 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. A chapter a day will get you through the whole book in a month. As you read, underline every use of the word fool, foolishness, and folly (or comparable language). Pay attention to the instructions that accompany the fool-family of words. They are cautionary. One means of God’s protection for you is his warning against folly. We appreciate the protection but at the same time are grieved when adhering to the warnings creates distance between us and those we love.
Boundaries Are an Invitation
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 expectation; for instance, have an argument via text message], but I will be happy to [describe a healthy alternative; for instance, meet you at a restaurant to discuss our differences].” 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 conditional. Forgiveness does not commit me to an unwise 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.
Boundaries as Emotional Walls Are Unhealthy
The word boundaries can have many different meanings. Sometimes the word is used to refer to emotional walls we put up against anyone getting close or really knowing us, in order to protect ourselves from hurt.
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 protect us in dysfunctional relationships are often disruptive to healthy relationships. Ask yourself, “What did I learn I must do to ‘keep the peace’ in the destructive relationship?” You might answer never share my opinion to prevent anger, avoid new people to prevent jealousy, or don’t try new things to prevent being shamed if you fail.
Now ask yourself, “What impact does withholding my opinion, avoiding new people, or abstaining from new activities have on the possibility and quality of 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.
Boundaries Aren’t for Everything
The benefits associated with setting boundaries do not mean that boundaries are a universal tool for relationships. To use the idea of 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. Sometimes people disappoint us. That’s sad but not dangerous. We don’t need to create a boundary for that. If we treat as dangerous everything we don’t like, people will begin to treat us like the relational “boy or girl who cried wolf.”
This doesn’t mean that felt needs are 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, 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 other ways to fulfill these legitimate desires.
This article was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Thinking Well about Boundaries.” The webinar will be Thursday October 14th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.
These are great events for:
- Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
- Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
- Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
- Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
- Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times