Healthy Boundaries

0 comments Posted on April 27, 2012

by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend

Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.

Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. However, if I do not “own” my life, my choices and options become very limited.

Think how confusing it would be if someone told you to “guard this property diligently, because I will hold you responsible for what happens here,” and then did not tell you the boundaries of the property. Or they did not give you the means with which to protect the property? This would be not only confusing but also potentially dangerous.

This is exactly what happens to us emotionally and spiritually, however. God designed a world where we all live “within” ourselves; that is, we inhabit our own souls, and we are responsible for the things that make up “us.” “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no one shares its joy” (Prov. 14:10). We have to deal with what is in our soul, and boundaries help us to define what that is. If we are not shown the parameters, or are taught wrong parameters, we are in for much pain.

The Bible tells us clearly what our parameters are and how to protect them, but often our family, or other past relationships, confuses us about our parameters.

In addition to showing us what we are responsible for, boundaries help us to define what is not on our property and what we are not responsible for. We are not, for example, responsible for other people. Nowhere are we commanded to have “other-control,” although we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it!

The story of the Good Samaritan is a model of correct behavior in many dimensions. It is a good illustration of boundaries—when they should be both observed and violated. Imagine for a moment how the story might read if the Samaritan were a boundaryless person.

You know the story. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was mugged. The robbers stripped him and beat him, leaving him half dead. A priest and Levite passed by on the other side of the road, ignoring the hurt man, but a Samaritan took pity on him, bandaged his wounds, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day the Samaritan gave the innkeeper some money and said, “Look after him. When I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”


Let’s depart from the familiar story here. Suppose the injured man wakes up at this point in the story and says:

“What? You’re leaving?”

“Yes, I am. I have some business in Jericho I have to attend to,” the Samaritan replies.

“Don’t you think you’re being selfish? I’m in pretty bad shape here. I’m going to need someone to talk to. How is Jesus going to use you as an example? YouĂ•re not even acting like a Christian, abandoning me like this in my time of need! Whatever happened to ‘Deny yourself’?”

“Why, I guess you’re right,” the Samaritan says. “That would be uncaring of me to leave you here alone. I should do more. I will postpone my trip for a few days.”

So he stays with the man for three days, talking to him and making sure that he is happy and content. On the afternoon of the third day, there’s a knock at the door and a messenger comes in. He hands the Samaritan a message from his business contacts in Jericho: “Waited as long as we could. Have decided to sell camels to another party. Our next herd will be here in six months.”

“How could you do this to me?” the Samaritan screams at the recovering man, waving the message in the air. “Look what you’ve done now! You’ve caused me to lose those camels that I needed for my business. Now I can’t deliver my goods. This may put me out of business! How could you do this to me?”

At some level this story may be familiar to all of us. We may be moved with compassion to give to someone in need, but then this person manipulates us into giving more than we want to give. We end up resentful and angry, having missed something we needed in our own life. Or, we may want more from someone else, and we pressure them until they give in. They give not out of their heart and free will, but out of compliance, and they resent us for what they give. Neither one of us comes out ahead.

To avoid these scenarios, we need to look at what falls within our boundaries, what we are responsible for.


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