By Karen O’Connor
I remember the day I learned about relationship boundaries—not from a book or lecture, but from a painful personal experience. I had befriended a visitor at the church I was attending. She needed someone to confide in, a ride here and there, and a family to embrace her until she found a job and a place to live.
My husband and I got onboard. We invited Vickie to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. We bought her a Christmas gift, drove her to and from church services, and picked her up from appointments. Over time, however, I began feeling overwhelmed by her constant phone calls, bids for attention, crying jags, and a general invasion of my life.
Every time I decided to pull back, I felt guilty. The least I could do was share my overflow with this poor soul who had so little. When I found out she’d been drinking, I was even more determined to help her. I told her about Alcoholics Anonymous, took her to a prayer meeting, and spent hours talking to her about how she could straighten out her life with God’s grace. Nothing worked.
But there came a day when I couldn’t take one more phone call or give one more ride or listen to one more sob story. I was worn out, and I broke down in tears on the phone to my minister. I felt like a failure.
That day he taught me one simple lesson I have never forgotten, and it led me to what I now know about creating personal boundaries. “Karen,” he said, “if what you are doing for Vickie brings you energy and joy, then you know it’s from the Lord. But if it’s wearing you out and causing you to cry, then it’s not from the Lord and you need to stop. Release Vickie to God.”
I thanked him, breathed a huge sigh of relief, and told Vickie I could no longer help her. From that point on I began paying attention to God’s voice instead of mine when it came to relating to others, including my children and husband.
Setting boundaries is good for you because . . .
When you know who you are in Christ—your strengths as well as your limitations—you’re in a better position to love, care about, and nurture yourself and others without wearing out. You won’t overstep, overtake, or overdo. You’ll give out of your fullness, instead of out of your ego. That means you can say yes or no to requests and opportunities without feeling guilty or overwhelmed. What freedom!
“All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37).
Setting boundaries is good for others because . . .
When your family, friends, colleagues, or mentees see your boundaries, they will begin to look at their own “property lines.” They’ll discover more of who they are, what they believe in, care about, and feel. Both you and others will find that taking care of one’s self first is not selfish or unloving. Quite the opposite. It is being authentic and honest and an example of how to care for ourselves as God directs.
One year my young adult son got into debt over an unwise choice. He came to me for a loan—not the first, I admit. He needed $500 right away. By that time I knew and understood what it meant to establish a healthy boundary between us, so I turned him down. He was furious with me and accused me of being an uncaring and unfeeling parent. I nearly caved in at the sound of his harsh words. But I knew it would be a mistake to allow him to manipulate me. I’d already bought him a used car, a desk, and a uniform for his new job. That was my limit.
I told him plainly, “I’ll always love you and pray for you. But no more loans. I trust that you can work out this dilemma on your own.” He slammed down the phone. Two weeks later he called to apologize and said the best gift I could have given him was my refusal to send money. He’d worked out a way to pay off his debt.
“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Setting boundaries is good for your relationship with God because . . .
When you are attentive to yourself, you are in a better position to hear what God is telling you to do or not do. For example: One evening my husband and I enjoyed a meal with some new friends. Edna talked about a situation in their family that was painful and challenging. I found it easy to empathize with her and asked how she handled it. “I stayed out of it,” she said, smiling. “It’s not in my boat.”
Her husband, Bill, agreed. “That’s right. We’re learning to take care of what’s in our own boat and leaving other people—even if they are related to us—to take care of what’s in theirs.”
In other words, hands off other boats. Oh, but sometimes it’s more fun to row another’s boat, picking and choosing what I think they should keep and what to toss overboard. And sometimes I take their stuff into my boat so they won’t have to row so hard. Alas! I am my own worst enemy—the pirate at the helm, ready to take over someone else’s ship while my own is sinking.
When I row for others or take their burdens and put them in my boat (ex: children who have left the church, a relative living a lesbian lifestyle, a couple living in debt), I am doing for them what only they (and God) can do. I am assuming that I know more about how to resolve their problems than God does. But most importantly, I am taking my eyes off rowing my own boat and not maintaining the things I am called to carry.
“For each one should carry their own load” (Galatians 6:5).
Setting boundaries is a good way to stay close to Jesus because . . .
He taught us by example from his own life on earth:
• He ate natural foods, got enough sleep (including naps), walked everywhere, and took time to be alone.
• He never hurried. Even when he heard that Lazarus had died, he did not rush to the grave. He took his time and arrived ready to perform the miracle of raising his friend to life.
• He trusted the Father’s will, even when facing of the tyranny of the cross.
• He made time for communion with his Father, despite the crowds.
• He responded to baiting questions with insightful questions of his own without becoming defensive.
• He spoke up for the little children who crowded around him instead of allowing the disciples to pull them away.
• He responded to his mother’s request to turn water into wine, but he did so when the time was right.
Jesus also taught us how to set boundaries by providing clear directions:
1. Ask questions instead of giving advice. “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matthew 20:29-34). “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:1-14). “Do you believe?” (Mark 9:17-27).
2. Offer grace and forgiveness. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
3. Speak honestly and directly. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
4. Stay away from deceivers and manipulators. Jesus cleared out of the temple those who were exploiting the poor through corrupt money changing (Matthew 21:12-17; John 2:12-16).
Setting healthy boundaries takes time, commitment, study, and practice. As we’ve seen, the Bible shows us how. For some additional practical and spiritual help, consider the Christian series on this topic by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend (www.boundariesbooks.com) and the series by Allison Bottke (www.settingboundariesbooks.com).
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California.