From lanes on a freeway to stripes on a soccer field, even children readily grasp the concept of physical boundaries. In everyday living, boundaries keep us safe … mark the path … eliminate confusion. But try applying boundaries to relationships and suddenly the obvious can seem obscure. Where do your rights end and mine begin? What if your pleasure causes me pain?
Last month, while teaching a Biblical Counseling Institute on Reconciliation, I explained how healthy boundaries are integral to the reconciliation process. Afterward, a single mother (whom I’ll call “Louise”) shared with me her heartrending story about sacrificing personal boundaries in a misguided effort to maintain “peace.”
Louise confided, “As my two children were growing up, we all walked on eggshells around Darin, their dad, hoping to avoid the next volcanic eruption. I knew Darin’s disrespectful behavior and fits of rage were out of bounds. Still I thought it best for the children if I tried to keep the peace by taking the brunt of Darin’s abuse upon myself.”
But one day, Darin’s emotional, verbal, and physical violence became intolerable, even for Louise. After a 9-1-1 call, Darin was arrested and, eventually, removed from the home. However, this traumatic confrontation paled in comparison to the heartache that followed when the her 21-year-old son, Jared, returned from college for the summer.
Instead of sympathetically supporting his mom, “Jared was livid, blaming me for his dad’s absence,” Louise recalls. “He cursed me … refused to help with chores … yelled in my face. It was as if I was seeing Darin’s abuse … lived out through my son. I was stunned, and it broke my heart.”
Louise called on her church elders for guidance. What they suggested seemed almost incomprehensible. “They said I should explain to Jared the rules he’d need to observe if he wanted to live in my home. If he didn’t choose to abide by them, they advised me to evict my son.”
Realizing her own methods hadn’t worked, reluctantly Louise followed the elders’ advice, explaining the “house rules” … and the repercussions or rewards that would follow, depending on his choices. When Jared’s behavior grew even more belligerent, Louise enlisted law enforcement to begin eviction proceedings.
At a court hearing that followed, Louise arrived with a friend. However, Jared—an aspiring law student—showed up with a personal attorney. The judge ruled in Louise’s favor. Undeterred, Jared defiantly insisted on a jury trial … funded, Louise suspected, by Darin. A trial occurred and the jury deliberated for less than 90 seconds before announcing: The eviction stood.
Louise’s “win” felt like one of her life’s most sorrowful losses. She didn’t want her son to move out. She wanted him to repent and work on rebuilding their once-loving relationship. Soon, however, the appointed day for Jared’s departure arrived. Bags packed into the new car Louise had given him just a few years earlier, Jared sat stoically behind the wheel.
“Jared, I am really, really sorry.”
“I’ll never forget this day. The day you showed me how much you don’t love me.”
“Just the opposite is true. Because I love you with all my heart, I’m letting you suffer the consequences of your actions. The way you have behaved this summer is not the way that is the best for you.”
“You know what mom? You are never going to see me again. You won’t know if I finish college or go to law school. If you have grandchildren, you’ll never know it.”
“I pray that will not happen.”
“Pray! Don’t use that word around me. How can you claim to be a Christian and evict your own son? God would never do that!”
“Well … actually… think about Adam and Eve. Because of their choice, God evicted them from the Garden. That was the very first eviction on earth. And it broke the Father’s heart. Unlike me, He was a perfect parent, and they lived in the perfect home. But they still had a choice. And their choice had consequences. Every choice does.This is your choice. You can learn from this or you can be bitter and blame it all on me.”
“Oh ….” He hadn’t thought about that.
Moments later, Louise watched tearfully as Jared drove away. It would be several years before she would see him again—first, at a family wedding … and then, with his permission, at his graduation from law school. Although the relationship is not fully reconciled, Louise doesn’t regret enacting firm, fair boundaries in her home. On the contrary, she wishes she would have done so years earlier.
Is it God’s will for me to have boundaries?
In truth, we all need boundaries with fairly administered repercussions and rewards … principles of right and wrong to give us freedom—the freedom to be all God created us to be. God has delineated these boundaries in His Word so that we would not have to wonder, feel guilty, or struggle to invent them. Be assured His will is for each of us to …
- Be treated with respect. “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).
- Be heard and taken seriously. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak …” (James 1:19).
- Express anger appropriately toward one another—when justified. “Be angry and do not sin …” (Ehttp://www.hopefortheheart.org/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=3234phesians 4:26 ESV).
- Give and receive mutual submission. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
- Enjoy the freedom to speak truthfully from our hearts, and for others to speak truthfully from theirs. “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor …” (Ephesians 4:25).
- Be allowed to make mistakes and then take responsibility for them, and for others to take responsibility for their own mistakes. The apostle Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).
- Be able to say “No” without feeling guilty. “… say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions …” (Titus 2:12).
- Refuse to do things that violate our conscience. “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12).
As a special way to express my gratitude, I want to offer you a role-play video in which I show you—word for word—how to establish healthy boundaries with a verbally and emotionally abusive person. (View the video at the top of this page). I’ve seen this strategy work time and time again. In fact, years ago, I used it in my own life. I invite you to try it … or share it with a friend. When you use this strategy, drop me a note and tell me what you think.
In counseling thousands of hurting people each year, I have come to realize that misguided perceptions and teachings about personal boundaries are rampant. That’s just one more reason why, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your continued partnership. Your gifts are helping more men and women, like Louise, to find hope even in the most difficult of circumstances. They have no way to thank you personally … but I do. And that’s something I could never do enough of!
Yours in the Lord’s hope,
P.S. If you’re in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, I hope you’ll join me for our two Biblical Counseling Institute conferences on Boundaries: How to Set Them—How to Keep Them, on March 20 and 24. You’ll find conference details at: www.HopeForTheHeart.org. The events are free … please register early. I’d love to see you there! – JH
If you’re on Facebook, I invite you to connect with me at www.Facebook.com/June.Hunt.Hope. And if you’re not, take it from me: You’re never too old to start! See you there!