I love to play hangman when I’m trying to introduce a new topic or idea to my clients. For instance, when I’m doing financial skill-building and want to introduce the idea of budgeting, I will make them guess another word that better describes what a budget is. That’s because that “b-word” sounds so restrictive and unattainable. If, instead, they can think of a budget as a p l a n, it sounds less restrictive, less about what they cannot do. Budgeting sounds more reasonable and attainable when it sounds like a plan for how to actually spend their money.
Similarly, boundaries are sometimes misunderstood. Many Christian singles think of “boundaries” as a tall, thick iron fence—restrictive, guarded, almost paranoid; designed to keep one holy, chaste, and funless, though sometimes only barely, until the wedding night. Boundaries are a lot more practical than that, y’all!
Let’s start clearing up the confusion by reviewing a simple definition of the word boundary. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the concept of boundaries encompasses:
1) something (such as a river, a fence, or an imaginary line) that shows where an area ends and another area begins
2) a point or limit that indicates where two things become different
3) unofficial rules about what should not be done: limits that define acceptable behavior; and
4) something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent; a dividing line. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boundary accessed 5/21/2016).
A boundary, for us my friends, is something that marks what is on our side of the fence that we should definitely be taking care of. How many of you have a fence around your back and/or front yards? Why is that fence there? “Well, it’s to keep other people out,” you might say. “I don’t like them walking through my yard on their way to the store. Or to think it’s going to be easy to rob me. And to keep out the neighbor’s dog, who loves to dig in his own yard, I don’t want him digging up my yard. Oh, and skunks. I don’t want skunks walking around in my back yard. And I don’t want the other neighbor’s kids using my back yard to play in and cluttering up my yard/drowning in my pool/picking my flowers/breaking my window/getting my dog worked up.”
I would ask you, “Is that all you have a fence for?” Then you might respond something like this, “No, of course not. I want to keep my patio furniture back here. And my plants. I want some privacy when I am having a family barbeque. I respect others’ privacy and I don’t want to see what they’re doing in the privacy of their back yards. My dog/my toddler will get out if I don’t have that fence, and I don’t want him or her getting out. This fence marks where my property is and where my neighbor’s is.”
So we can readily explain what we have a fence for. Why is it so difficult for many of us to have emotional fences that do the same thing for us: distinguish, guard, shield, protect?
Some of us think that, because we are Christians and called to be peacemakers according to verses like Matthew 5:9, Romans 12:18, and Hebrews 12:14, we should agree with everything anyone says or asks us to do if it’s not strictly a doctrinal issue. We don’t understand that we are called to be a good steward, or manager, over every single thing He has given us to manage. When we mismanage His gifts, it gets us into trouble. Let me illustrate with an occurrence that is very commonplace.
Suppose you’re at work and a known gossip and pot-stirrer stops by your desk and wants to share some juicy gossip about a new co-worker. She loves to talk and she’s very friendly and outgoing. You know if you get on her bad side by not wanting to listen, she’ll make sure you’re the topic of a nasty gossip session this afternoon. Yet if you let her hang around, not only will she waste a large chunk of your time, you won’t get your work done. Plus, she’ll taint your view of this new coworker you’ve only met once and who you had a neutral to positive impression of. What do you do?
You see how practical and everyday boundary issues are? Now let’s go over your options with Ms. Gossip.
You could shut her down right away and tell her you don’t want to hear it, whether abruptly or gently. Know that she will probably forget about the juicy gossip over her new coworker and now focus on you.
You could ask her to come back later or meet you for lunch. She might get offended initially, but at least you aren’t putting her off completely. She’ll be happy to come back to you later and you’ll get your work done for now. However, you won’t stop her flow of toxicity from seeping into your heart and life. And you won’t stop her from returning to you with future poisons.
You could listen to her and try to pray out her polluting words out of your brain. Good luck with that one and, BTW, I don’t believe in luck.
Let’s try something more innovative. You could listen to her for a minute, then say, “Wow, that’s pretty heavy!” If your supervisor is an ethical, fair-minded person who would actually put a stop to it, you could then tell Ms. Gossip, “I’m glad you are so concerned about Tom and learned this about him before he sticks around too long. Does the supervisor know about this? Let’s go right now and bring this up with our supervisor, we can’t have that happen here!” Stand up and start walking to your supervisor’s office. Ms. Gossip might leave skid marks running the other direction.
If your supervisor is part of the problem and not part of the solution, you could tell MG, “Wow, that’s pretty heavy! I’m glad you are so concerned about Tom and learned this about him before he sticks around too long. If all this is true, he probably needs some help. Let’s go to Tom and bring this up with him, see if there’s anything we can do. Maybe he’s open to me praying for him or something.” Stand up and start walking toward the new guy’s office. It’d be worth it just to watch MG faint on the floor or sprint the other way.
In the last two scenarios, you are demonstrating loving limits that may eventually put an end to Ms. Gossip’s unwanted lip service at your expense. Let’s pick apart what’s on your side of the fence and what’s on hers.
First of all, if the gossips in your workplace always feel free to stop by and waste your time on all the latest office gossip, and they know you claim to be a practicing Christian, they’ve probably already talked about you, so it’s too late to prevent any of that. Second of all, why are they comfortable coming to you with their trash? My single Christian friend, who are you trying to impress or please?
The Lord says that there are many important things on our side of the fence regarding speech. These include speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), having no fellowship (not contact; see 1 Corinthians 5:9-10) with darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14-17), letting no unwholesome word come out of your mouth (Ephesians 4:29), discerning the intents of destructive and evil speech (Proverbs 10:18 & 23-25, 11:9, 15:26, 16:27-30, 17:4, 26:20-28, and 29:25; Hebrews 4:12), and demonstrating fruit of the Spirit such as kindness, goodness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
We may not be able to stop what happens on the other side of the fence, but we are definitely responsible for what we generate on our side of the fence, including our reactions. I must admit, I often have trouble, not with setting boundaries, but with my reactions. It has taken me a very long time to get as sturdy as I have on this front!
You or I may not be able to stop Ms. Gossip from talking about us or others. You’ll have to be good with that. But learning to keep up your side of the fence so that she is less inclined to come to you with her trash is the balance to learn. When you change the menu and absolutely will not bring back the old favorites, either the other person will accept what’s on it or go eat somewhere else.
You see, when you learn to set and maintain firm limits, it allows you to:
- keep your conscience clear,
- become a better manager over all He has given you,
- focus your energy and resources on what you are actually responsible for,
- choose where you will expend energy and resources outside your fence instead of being compulsively manipulated or coerced into exhausting them,
- discern lies, manipulations, errors, and deceptions from reality and truth,
- be free to grow in Christ,
- more accurately reflect His character and truth,
- deflecting stress and anxiety from others’ irresponsible behavior, and
- win a hearing for the gosPEL (not gosSIP).
You can see, can’t you, how you could generalize our illustration on office gossip to dozens of other relationships needing better boundaries?
It could be how your children talk to you or treat you. It could be a ministry associate pestering you to do more and more at your church. Your date could be pressuring you to have sex when you know it’s wrong. Maybe you have a neighbor who likes to borrow your stuff and not give it back, or he’ll return it broken. Or maybe you have a “friend” who often calls and begs for money and favors because she’s several days from payday and she’s already broke. You will have to learn how to set and maintain better boundaries in all your relationships so that you can calmly and wisely choose exactly when and how to help.
What have you let others throw on your side of the fence that you need to throw back? Which of your poor choices and resulting natural consequences can you take full responsibility for so you can recognize where your “chooser” is broken and learn to start making better choices? Whom have you shielded from the consequences of their poor choices, which resulted in a broken, twisted, and painful history of your suffering for the sins of others while they go free? Who do you have to say “No” to more often, and who do you need to outright remove from your life? What in your life have you been seriously neglecting that you need to regain control over?
Our ability to be responsible for ourselves is a key life concept to develop and internalize. We can blame others for the previous badness they poured into our lives only if, as adults, we can accept responsibility for allowing them to do it.
My single Christian friends, boundaries are as important to our walk as singles as they will be if and when we get married. Many of us have problems that have carried over from previous marriages due to our inability or unwillingness to set and maintain firm boundaries. Learning now instead of later to set firm limits will prevent old mistakes as well as new ones from taking over our lives to the point that they limit the good that the Lord could do because of having to suffer consequences. Pray and proceed with caution, my dear friends, and we’ll see you here next week.
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