Christian and Boundaries | The Voice 12.52: December 25, 2022

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The Voice

The Christian and Boundaries

In modern Western society we hear a lot today about establishing “personal boundaries.” Many books have been written on the subject from a psychological and secular perspective. The importance of establishing and maintaining personal boundaries in relationships has become a given in modern secular society; such is not surprising in light of the exaltation of the individual self above and beyond everyone, and everything, else. But what would God in Christ have to say regarding such things?

“Personal boundaries” can be appropriately discussed in terms of each of its two dimensions: understanding where one’s responsibility ends and the responsibilities of others begin, and establishing, maintaining, or eliminating relational distance between oneself and others.

While we might not immediately think of “personal boundaries” in terms of our personal responsibilities, such is the major thrust of the Boundaries series of books written by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. What they describe in terms of personal boundaries can be perceived in Scripture in terms of accountability and judgment.

From a very young age we have a tendency to conflate our reactions to people’s behaviors toward us with those behaviors: “She made me do it” or “You made me mad.” As we grow older, we can develop a tendency to blur distinctions between ourselves and others in unhealthy ways, presuming we have more responsibility for the behaviors and decisions of others than we really do. Such can lead us to experience great anxiety and also come across as domineering and bossy toward others.

Maintaining appropriate personal boundaries proves extremely important for us in terms of establishing domains of responsibility. As the Apostle Paul made clear, each one of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10-12). We will be held accountable for how we managed the gifts God has given to us (Matthew 25:14-31). We will not be judged for the freewill decisions made by other people. We will not be judged for what other people have thought, felt, or done.

Such is why every Christian does well to recognize the limits, or boundaries, of their control and responsibility. Each of us has control over, and thus is accountable and responsible for, how we think, feel, and act. We are responsible for how we conduct ourselves before other people; we should give thought regarding how we communicate to one another and toward everyone so we might be most charitably understood (cf. Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6, 1 Peter 3:15-16). When we are placed in a position of authority or influence, we will be held accountable and responsible for how we leveraged that authority and influence and whether we used it to benefit ourselves or to encourage others. Nevertheless, each person will be held accountable for the decisions they made; none should want to resort to trying to excuse themselves by saying “I was just following orders” before the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus may take matters of physical coercion into account, but we should not be surprised to find out we will be held responsible for many things which we imagined others “made” us to do.

Thus we do best to understand our personal boundaries: we are responsible for our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We are not responsible for how others speak, feel, and act toward us, but we are responsible for how we conduct ourselves and engage with them. We are responsible for how we leverage our authority and influence. As Christians we do well to recognize these boundaries as appropriate limitations, always remembering we are to live and act according to love, and love does not compel or coerce and is not self-serving (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-8). In love we empower others to think, feel, and act as they do before God, and do not presume to think, feel, and/or act for them. We can save ourselves a lot of relational distress and pain, let alone personal anxiety, when we maintain healthy personal boundaries in terms of personal accountability and responsibility, not taking responsibility for the actions of others, and not attempting to excuse ourselves by blaming others for our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

But what about the main way in which “personal boundaries” are discussed today: the establishment, maintenance, and/or elimination of relational distance with others?

God in Christ has borne some witness about maintaining some level of relational distance at times. Jesus knew better than to entrust Himself to people, since He knew what was in mankind (John 2:24). He counseled His disciples to not give what was holy to dogs, and if they were not welcomed and accepted in a town, they were to knock the dust off their feet as a testimony against them (Matthew 7:6, 10:13-15).

And yet God’s entire purpose in Christ is reconciliation, a tearing down of all that which alienates people from God and from one another. Jesus prayed for Christians to be one with one another as they are to be one with the Father and the Son and as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-23). Paul spoke of Jesus as having torn down the wall which separated Jewish and Gentile people and made them into one body through His death and resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-3:12). Such unity must be maintained with diligent effort in love, humility, peace, and toleration, and demand the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 4:1-3, Philippians 2:1-5). Likewise, alienation, division, and hostility are all the works of the Evil One and the powers and principalities over this present darkness, generally manifesting the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 2:1-4, Titus 3:3). Furthermore, the Apostle Peter strongly encouraged the Christians of Asia Minor to persevere in doing good for others even when they suffered for it (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:7-18, 4:12-19).

How, then, should Christians navigate the establishment of relational distance? We do well to explore all things through a modified version of the “Golden Rule,” pairing John 13:31-35 with Matthew 7:12: we should treat others the way we would want Jesus to treat us.

Most of us would want Jesus to remain relationally open toward us even, and perhaps especially, when we are least worthy or desirous of such a relationship. Jesus loves us and calls us toward faith and repentance, but in love does not compel or coerce us (1 Timothy 2:4), and thus we should treat others. If we are to err on our end, at least, we should err toward openness and a desire to reduce or eliminate relational distance with others.

We are called to use discretion and wisdom from God in Christ to apply these concepts in specific situations. Relationships, by their very nature, involve at least two if not more parties; we cannot force or coerce the establishment of relational unity with anyone and do so in love. Instead, we can ourselves demonstrate openness toward others. Others might well cause us to suffer; we should not respond in kind but find ways to bless and encourage. Perhaps others push us away or reject us; we should respect their decision, not imposing ourselves upon them, but can still seek the best for them as we have opportunity and remain open to them. If some of our relationships are plagued and tainted with division, hostility, and strife, may it be only because of the hostility and aggression maintained by others and not by us; may we seek, or at least be open, to reconciliation in all such circumstances, demonstrating we are manifesting the fruit of the Spirit and not making concessions to the works of the flesh. Persistent abuse, exploitation, and manipulation justifies establishing a level of distance, as unrepentant sin is to lead to the establishment of distance between the unrepentant and his or her fellow Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); nevertheless, we should still seek their good and hope and pray for their repentance and the ability to repair and reconcile the relationship.

While maintaining healthy personal boundaries in terms of personal responsibility can be seen as good sense, maintaining a radical openness toward other people will always be countercultural and counterintuitive. It only makes sense when we understand we must love others as God in Christ has loved us; just as our hope is sustained by Jesus’ openness to us despite all we have thought, felt, and done, thus we are to be open toward others in Christ. It requires the empowerment of God in Christ to succeed, for only in God in Christ through the Spirit can people find such full reconciliation to God and to one another (Ephesians 2:1-4:3). May we entrust ourselves to God in Christ through the Spirit and obtain reconciliation in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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