Christians have often struggled with how to think best 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 because they recognize that Christ 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 the impact that relating codependently has had on our lives, we are going to have to navigate this tension.
The first principle to consider is that a healthy concept of boundaries views the barrier being placed as existing between wisdom and folly rather than between me and you. I am not rejecting you or giving up on you if I refuse to participate in 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. Both responses are appropriate. Don’t allow the grieving to distract you from the warning.
A second principle when considering the concept of boundaries is that boundaries, when rightly communicated, are an invitation not a rejection. 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 what is unhealthy in the moment], 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 to your loved one to choose wisdom over folly.
A third principle is that “boundaries” can become an unhealthy concept when we use it to mean “walls” that make our relationships less authentic. This use of boundaries can come in the form of a “fake wall” when we are silent or deceitful or a “safe wall” when we are angry or fearful to keep people away. These uses of boundaries do not protect us from folly, but insulate us from authentic relationships; and serve as another example of coping mechanisms that serve well in dysfunctional relationships becoming disruptive to potentially healthy relationships.
A final principle for using the term “boundaries” well is the ability to distinguish felt needs from real needs. Because boundaries are only needed in unsafe contexts, our instinct is to become increasingly self-centered when we think about boundaries. This doesn’t mean that felt needs are less real or unimportant. It means that we should use boundaries to protect our real needs from being damaged and, if someone is living in a way that frequently places them on the other side of these boundaries, we should not expect that person to meet our felt needs. Instead, we grieve the condition of this relationship and find ways, through God and healthy Christian relationships, to fulfill these legitimate desires.
“We should be careful about saying, ‘Jesus meets all our needs.’ It makes Christ the answer to our problems. Yet if our use of the term ‘needs’ is ambiguous, and its range of meaning extends all the way to selfish desires, then there will be some situations where we should say that Jesus does not intend to meet our needs, but that he intends to change our needs (p. 89).” Ed Welch in When People Are Big and God Is Small