Jesus and Boundaries

Boundaries are all about relationships. Because we live in relationship with others, we need to define where we begin and end. Boundaries define who we are in connection with our other relationships.

We may feel hateful, selfish, or unloving, however, to set these limits in our relationships. Setting a boundary means that we say “yes” to some things, but it also means we say “no” to some things. We may fear that the “no” is contrary to faithfulness to God. Maybe we feel this way because we don’t appreciate the “no” that others give in relationship to us.

“We judge the boundary decisions of others, thinking that we know best how they ‘ought’ to give, and usually that means ‘they ought to give to me the way I want them to!” (Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries, p. 89)

Jesus lived perfectly in relationship with God and others. Taking time to see how He set boundaries in His relationships gives us courage to establish boundaries as well.

1. Time alone with God.

Jesus spent time alone with God, even at the expense of satisfying the desires of those around Him. He often said “no” to the crowds in order to say “yes” to His greater need of spending time with His Father.

“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for Jesus, and they found Him and said to Him, ‘Everyone is looking for You.’” (Mark 1:35–37, ESV)

Simon and the others with him were literally hunting for Jesus. Their reason for such an intense search was that “everyone was looking for Him.” Jesus established a boundary. He was saying “yes” to His need to spend time with God, but that meant He was saying “no” to the crowds who wanted to see Him. In the same way, we need to establish boundaries to fulfill our need to be alone in rest and prayer with God, even when it means that we say “no” to the desires of others.

2. Purpose for life.

Another clear example of Jesus setting boundaries in relationship with others is when He said “no” to others in order to say “yes” to His purpose.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21–23, ESV)

Even though Peter (and the rest of His friends) saw the purpose of Jesus differently than Jesus did, Jesus didn’t give in to their expectations. He said “no” to their expectations and “yes” to His purpose.

3. Demands from family.

Jesus also set boundaries with His family. The brothers of Jesus approached Him to let Him know what He needed to do. They were telling Him that if He is going to be known, then He needed to move to Judea and make Himself known to the world. Jesus could turn things around if He went to the most popular festival in the land. So His brothers urged Him to go to the festival. Jesus, however, said “no” to the motivation of His brothers and “yes” to what God wanted Him (John 7:3-8).

Just as Jesus set boundaries in His relationships, we also must do the same. As we say “yes” to who God has made us to be and who He wants us to be, we must also say “no.” Through boundaries, we define clearly who we are in relationship with others.

So stop, take a breath, and pray:

“God, by Your Spirit, give me the wisdom and courage to submit to the boundaries that You set in my life and my relationships.”


Sowing and Reaping

If I put my hand on a hot stove, then I feel the pain of that action. That’s just common sense. The same principle applies to other areas of our life. It is the biblical principle of “sowing and reaping.”

1. The law of sowing and reaping.

Whatever a person sows, he’s going to reap (Psalm 126:5; Prov 22:8; Gal 6:7-8). This is a biblical principle of cause (what we sow) and effect (we will reap). For example, imagine that one of your friends is a constant gambler. Day after day, week after week, and year after year, they gamble and get into financial trouble. They have sown irresponsible behavior, and they reap the financial pain.

This law of sowing and reaping is important for healthy relationships. When we understand the pain associated with specific actions, we are less likely to repeat the action. But, if we intervene to take away the negative consequence of bad behavior, then we create an unhealthy environment for our relationships.

For example, if a child doesn’t study or do homework at school, he or she gets a bad grade. That’s also common sense; unless the child somehow believes that his or her parent should intervene with the child’s teacher and “get” a good grade. Some parents feel that it’s their responsibility to take away the consequence of irresponsible actions of their children. The problem is that we set our child up for continued bad behavior. Because they haven’t felt the pain, they continue to put their hand on the hot stove.

2. A biblical example of establishing boundaries.

Boundaries show us where we end and someone else begins in our relationships. God marks the boundaries to show us what is our responsibility and the things aren’t. We see Paul addressing these issues of ownership when he writes to the believers in Thessalonica.

“But we urge you, brothers, to do this [love one another] more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you,” (1 Thessalonians 4:10b–11, ESV)

There were people in the church in Thessalonica who were sowing irresponsible behavior. They weren’t working to make a living of any sort. Sitting around idle, they would use spiritual platitudes and phrases to excuse their laziness. The consequence of their behavior was financial devastation. They were touching a hot stove.

But, instead of the irresponsible people experiencing the consequences of what they had sown, they depended on others to bail them out. The principle of “sowing and reaping” didn’t change, but the one who sowed irresponsibly didn’t experience the painful consequence of their behavior. Someone else stepped into the situation and took the financial burden for them.

So, Paul calls us to reorient our way of relating to one another. In love, we should set up boundaries (live quietly, mind your own business, work with your own hands), so that those who sow irresponsible conduct reap the fruit of hardship. Instead of owning the consequences of their bad behavior, we love them enough to let them feel the pain of their irresponsibility. We don’t own the consequences for them. If they touch the hot stove, then they feel the pain so that they don’t touch the hot stove again.

“Establishing boundaries helps codependent people stop interrupting the Law of Sowing and Reaping in their loved one’s life. Boundaries force the person who is doing the sowing to also do the reaping.” (Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries, p. 85)

In our relationships, we should set up these types of boundaries, so that whoever puts his hand on a hot stove would feel the pain of that action. When people behave irresponsibly, then they should reap the consequences, so that the pain of the consequence would help them see the problem with bad behavior. Sometimes we’re like the people in Thessalonica: we take ownership of the consequences for those who have sown the consequences.

Boundaries tell us to stop interfering, to mind our own business and work with our own hands. Boundaries help us understand that we do not own the consequences of another’s actions. Boundaries make sure that the person who behaves irresponsibly experiences the consequences of their behavior. Boundaries force the person who is doing the sowing to experience the reaping.

So stop, take a breath, and pray:

“God, by Your Spirit, give me the wisdom and courage to submit to the boundaries that You set in my life and my relationships.”


Toxic People

At Yellowstone Park, there is a geyser by which you can set your watch. Every sixty-five minutes, out of a 170-foot shaft in the ground, a spray of boiling water comes gushing to the surface. Old Faithful is not the largest geyser. It doesn’t shoot water the highest. But it is the favorite of all geysers because it is faithful.

We love the company of faithful friends, people with whom you can set your soul. Sadly, there are relationships that aren’t like that. There are people who are faithful only to themselves, who think only of themselves, and who treat us with disrespect. These are toxic people that lead to noxious relationships. 

We can’t have healthy relationships that are infected with toxic people, so God helps us set up boundaries. As we read Jude’s letter in the New Testament, we discover that he had to deal with these types of relationships. Listen to how he describes them.

“These people are discontented grumblers, walking according to their desires; their mouths utter arrogant words, flattering people for their own advantage.” (Jude 16, HCSB)

God establishes boundaries in our lives and relationships so that we might live a life faithful to Him and satisfying to us. He helps us today set up boundaries in our lives to keep out the toxic in our relationships.

1. Who are the toxic people in our lives?

Toxic people are discontented with their life, and they grumble against most things, especially those things over which they have no control. They are constantly finding fault in everyone including you. They lead their lives according to their own desires and interests without any consideration of God’s needs or yours. Toxic people can be charming at first, but their agenda is to use flattery to achieve their selfish interests.

In the Old Testament, the word that defines toxic people is “scoffer” (lēṣ). The scoffer is a person who acts with self-centered arrogance in relationship with others.

“A proud and haughty man—“Scoffer” is his name; He acts with arrogant pride.” (Proverbs 21:24, NKJV)

The scoffer is a person who is fixed on a lifestyle that is contrary to God’s will and poisons others with that same lifestyle. They ridicule those who pursue what God wants and stir up anger and contention.

When we encounter a person who is filled with a prideful attitude, who seeks preeminently self-exalting pursuits rather than sacrificial love in relationship, who disregards instruction and correction from God’s Word, who responds to correction with vitriol, who schemes trouble without any regard for accountability, and who stirs up a fight with his words, then we have encountered a toxic person.

2. Boundaries with toxic people.

When we identify toxic people in our lives, we need to set up boundaries. The first step is to approach the toxic person and clearly state their behavior that is out of bounds, relying on the Bible to direct the conversation. Once we address behavior that is out of bounds, we firmly tell them that we cannot continue in the closeness of relationship while that behavior remains. It is vitally important that we lovingly confront this person and demonstrate how his conduct is out of line with the way God has designed relationships.

As followers of Jesus, we strive to live for God’s pleasure, especially in our relationships. Sometimes a person is having a tough season in his life. The mangled circumstances in his life create a self-seeking mode of living, resulting in a mangling of relationships. A conversation about their behavior that is out of bounds may be sufficient to bring restoration. If not, we must cut ties with those people altogether.

“Cast out the scoffer, and contention will leave; Yes, strife and reproach will cease.” (Proverbs 22:10, NKJV)

The initial personal pain of that removal will be short compared to the pain that toxic people inflict in our lives. Because we set up this boundary, God will bless our lives and relationships, even in the difficulty of dealing with the toxic behavior of a scoffer.

So stop, take a breath, and pray:

“God, by Your Spirit, give me the wisdom and courage to submit to the boundaries that You set in my life and my relationships.”


Wrong Voices

One year while fly-fishing in the Smoky Mountains, I came across a boundary marker that said: “Area Closed.” The park rangers had set up the boundary and closed the trail because bears were unusually active. Crossing the boundary meant putting one’s life in danger, but the fishing was always good on the other side of the boundary. So, the temptation to cross the boundary was high, even though it was dangerous.

Boundaries are markers that set up lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Boundaries are essential to health in our relationships. They help us keep things that will nourish our souls inside and keep things that will starve our souls outside. God has set up boundaries for our lives and relationships to lead us to health and satisfaction, but there are voices that tempt us to ignore the dangers and call us to cross the boundary into places that God has closed.

The Psalms begins with a picture of boundaries and wrong voices:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;” (Psalm 1:1, ESV)

David presents in powerful images the choices that followers of Jesus make in our relationships. Simply, he suggests that a person who chooses to follow God’s boundaries will experience a blessed life in the same way that a person who refuses God’s boundaries will experience a devastated life.

When we listen to the wrong voices, we make bad choices and end up in sorry places. God establishes boundaries for our relationships so that we can experience a flourishing life. When we walk in the counsel of ungodly, stand in the path of sinners, and sit in the seat of the scornful, we’re ignoring God’s boundaries for our relationships and starving our soul of life and health.

1. What happens when we ignore God’s boundaries.

Our soul withers when our counsel comes from the wicked. The “wicked” (rāšā) are those who do not know God and do not worship Him, and yet, we seek their advice about life. We see the sign God has posted saying, “Area Closed,” but the crowd around us declares: “It’s safe! Go ahead and walk that path.”

When we listen to the “wicked,” we join them in rationalizing sin. We listen to the wrong voices, and we make bad choices. We’ve listened to the people declaring it’s safe to walk past the sign and we jump the rope and walk down the path. We have convinced ourselves that the path we are walking is the best path, so we make our stand in the sin that poisons our soul. Along with the others on this path, we embrace a lifestyle of toxic living, where the toxin is that which is contrary to God and His will.

The scoffer is a person who is fixed on a lifestyle that is contrary to God’s will and poisons others with that same lifestyle. They ridicule those who pursue what God wants and stir up anger and contention.

When one chooses to ignore God’s boundaries, he or she will be fruitless in life and will wither away (Psalm 1:4). We walk past the sign and wander down the pathway that God says is “Closed.” And we are surprised when we encounter a bear that mauls us and devastates our life and relationships.

2. What happens when we follow God’s boundaries.

We are blessed in life and in our relationships when we follow God’s boundaries. To be “blessed” (‘ăšrē) is to experience the full measure of God’s favor. It is the picture of a beautiful life.

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2, ESV)

We taste a beautiful life and experience God’s favor in our relationships when we passionately embrace God’s instructions. Our relationships are set on a flourishing path when we embrace His boundaries. We listen to His voice speaking to us night and day, leading us safely and securely to satisfaction (Psalm 1:3).

So, let’s keep it simple today. If we obey God’s boundaries in our relationships, then we will experience blessing. If we listen to the wrong voices in our relationships, then we will experience a withered life.

So stop, take a breath, and pray:

God, by Your Spirit, give me the wisdom and courage to submit to the boundaries that You set in my life and my relationships.


Watch Your Step!

When I was a little boy, my grandfather would take me on long walks through the woods surrounding his home. We would climb up steep ridges and through underbrush. Whenever we went walking, he would tell me, “Watch your step.” Why? He didn’t want me to miss one moment of the joy on this journey.

“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16, NKJV)

Paul is calling us to watch our step in our life and relationships. With careful exactness, we rescue every moment for the good in God’s purposes (“redeeming the time”), and we avoid the bad (“the days are evil”). This is what boundaries in life and relationships are all about. We receive the good and keep out the bad.

1. Let in the good and keep out the bad.

God made us to need relationships (Genesis 2:18), but not every relationship is one that we need. God, therefore, establishes boundaries for our life and relationships. He establishes a boundary for us letting in the good, which is His love (Ephesians 5:2). As we let in His love, God also establishes a boundary to keep out the bad, which Paul identifies in verse 3.

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:3–4, ESV)

“All impurity” (akatharsia) is everything that is outside God’s will. Before we can have health in our relationships with others, we need to acknowledge any and all “impurity” that we have in our lives. When the Spirit pinpoints impurity in us, we need to be immediate in our repentance. Through repentance we set up a boundary, declaring that we won’t walk that way again. In the same way, if we have a relationship that leads us into “impurity,” then we need to set up a boundary, refusing to share our journey with that relationship (Ephesians 5:7).

“Covetousness” (pleonixia) is, in essence, being greedy for oneself. It means we chase what we want regardless how it hurts or harms another. If we are supremely selfish, then we need to confess it as sin and repent. If we’re in a relationship with one who is supremely selfish, then we need to set up a boundary, telling the selfish person that we will limit our relationship with them as long as they are greedy for themselves.

Another boundary that God establishes is “filthiness, foolish talking, and coarse jesting.” In essence, this amounts to making demeaning comments about others. If we demean or disrespect others, then we need to set a boundary with repentance of our sin. If we are on the receiving end (or in company with people who demean others), then we need to set a boundary and limit our relationship with those individuals.

2. Ask the right questions when setting the boundaries in relationships.

We are children of light because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. But we need to ask the questions to see if the fruit of our lives reflects the right boundaries set by God toward healthy relationships.

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8-10, NKJV)

“Is it good?” Because we are followers of Jesus, we live to bring benefit and blessing through extravagant generosity to others. We set up a boundary for ourselves and in our relationships. If it doesn’t bless others or invite God’s blessing, then we don’t let it into our lives.

“Is it righteous?” Because we are followers of Jesus, our lives and relationships should align with God’s commands. We set up a boundary for ourselves and in our relationships. If it doesn’t align with God’s commands, then we don’t let it into our lives.

“Is it true?” Because we are followers of Jesus, our lives and relationships should be true to Christ’s character in us? We set up a boundary for ourselves and in our relationships. If it doesn’t fit in the character of who we are in Jesus, then we don’t let it into our lives.

“Does it please God?” We must first and foremost discern what God wants. We must give our heart, mind, emotions, and actions to do what honors Him. Through discovering what is acceptable to Him, we walk in the light. If our relationship, or any part of it, isn’t pleasing to God, then we need to set up a boundary.

The key to setting the boundaries in our lives and relationships is to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:17-18). To be filled with the Spirit means that we are completely consumed and controlled by the Spirit. The Spirit illuminates the Word of God and the way of God for our lives. The Spirit determines our direction, showing us the truth and the lie in our lives and our relationships.

So stop, take a breath, and pray:

God, by Your Spirit, give me the wisdom and courage to submit to the boundaries that You set in my life and my relationships.