Healthy Boundaries (and why you need them)

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I’ve heard plenty of examples, over the years, of Christian people whose kind nature and desire to help others has led to them being taken advantage of by other people.

There are stories of people offering a short term place to stay to someone who otherwise would be out on the street who end up months and years later feeling like they can’t ask the person to leave because they’ve still got nowhere to go, to people who have had things stolen from their homes by addicts, to people who have had their property damaged by unruly house guests.

Then there are the people who have received abusive phone calls, who have been slandered in public, or who have been physically attacked just for trying to help someone out who was down on their luck.

As Christians, we’ve been taught to love one another, love our neighbor as ourselves, to turn the other cheek and to do good to those who hate you. We’re also taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

But is there a point where enough is enough? Exactly how much abuse should we tolerate from those we are trying to help?

And is putting ourselves and our families in danger what those verses were actually telling us to do in the first place?

Even though our heart may be in the right place, sometimes, by attempting to rescue people from the problems their sin has created for them we create co-dependencies, entitlements and situations in which we are abused in our attempts to helpful – whether they take advantage of our money, our hospitality, or our willingness to go out of our way to prioritize them and their needs.

So what’s the answer and where is the balance? Let’s take a look at a very well known parable from the bible – the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke chapter 10 verses 25 to 37.

In this story, which was told in response to a question from an expert in religious law about who his neighbor was, there is a Jewish man who gets attacked while travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The man is stripped of his clothes, beat up and left half-dead on the side of the road.

A priest comes along, and then a temple assistant, but both ignore the injured man and cross to the other side of the road to pass by him.

Then a Samaritan man comes along, someone who would be expected to both despise the Jewish man and be despised by the Jewish man, and would be expected to also ignore his plight.

But the Samaritan man feels compassion, he bathes and bandages the injured man’s wounds, and he takes the man on his donkey to an inn, where he takes care of him.

The next day he pays the innkeeper, asking him to take care of the man, and promising to return and pay the bill if it ends up any larger than what he has already paid.

Now, the point of this story is to highlight that the definition of a neighbor is a larger group of people than the religious expert who was asking questions of Jesus had assumed, but it also highlights a few interesting things about boundaries.

There are two main things that stand out to me, the first is that the Samaritan man didn’t take the Jewish man home to his own residence, or take him along on whatever journey the Samaritan man was undertaking.

Yes, he organized treatment and care, and yes, he organized short term accommodation for the Jewish man’s recovery, but he definitely didn’t return home with the injured man in tow.

The second thing that stands out to me is that the Samaritan man didn’t change his plans to stay with the injured man until he was fully recovered.

Yes, he organized for someone else to care for the man, and he also offered to pay for that care, but then he went on his way.

He didn’t drop everything and reorganize his own life to prioritize the well being of the injured man.

So here we have one of the greatest examples of loving one’s neighbor and it doesn’t include bringing people into our own homes, or adjusting our own lives to accommodate the needs of the people we are caring for.

Now Jesus is the one who told this story, and when we look more closely at the way that Jesus conducted himself during his ministry we can learn quite a bit about healthy ways to function as a kingdom representative.

While the world has conditioned us, as Christians, to consistently put the needs of others before our own, following the example of Jesus actually includes the setting of boundaries and the practicing of self care.

Here was a man who was under more stress, more pressure and more responsibility than any of us and yet he managed to stay joyful, relaxed, unhurried, patient, and generous with people.

He prioritized spending time alone with God, and although his disciples were often nearby, they knew to not interrupt him during those times.

It may surprise you to learn that Jesus wasn’t always nice to people – he was quite prepared to call out his disciples when they said something that didn’t align with his views (remember in Matthew chapter 16 verse 23 when he called Peter Satan and told him to get away from him?) and he didn’t tolerate inappropriate behavior.

Remember when he made a whip from some ropes and drove people, sheep and cattle out of the temple, before turning over the tables of the money changers and scattering their money over the floor?

That’s recorded in John chapter 2 verses 13 to 16.

Jesus didn’t hold back on what he had to say for fear of people thinking he wasn’t a nice person, and while he spoke the truth in love to those who were stuck or wrong, he didn’t tiptoe around people’s feelings or hold back on the truth because they might not have liked to hear it.

If he had, then none of those conversations with religious leaders would have made it into the bible. If someone was engaging in sin, he called it out and told them to go and sin no more.

He didn’t give them lots and lots of chances to correct the same repeating behavior patterns.

And when people were aiming abuse his way – whether it was physical abuse like when the crowd tried to throw him off a cliff in Luke chapter 4 verses 28 to 30 – or verbal abuse and slander like when his family tried telling everyone that he was crazy (that story is in Mark chapter 3 verses 21 to 35) and then tried to take him away from his disciples – he didn’t just sit there and take it.

He fought his way clear of the mob at the cliff and he refused to go outside and be taken away by his family. When the man possessed by a legion of demons screamed at him in Luke chapter 8:26-39 he demanded a response to his question.

When the religious leaders tried to bait him, he corrected their misinterpretations of the scriptures.

If you’re the sort of person who tends to have trouble saying no, who finds yourself walking on eggshells around certain people for fear of upsetting them, or perhaps you feel like you’re so caught up in other people’s dramas that you’ve lost yourself, or maybe you’re just totally worn out from always being the helper – I want you to know this today.

Boundaries are a healthy thing, Jesus himself had them, and God does not expect you to sacrifice your own health and spiritual well being for the sake of repeatedly trying to rescue the same people who are caught up in worldly lifestyles and the consequences of their sin.

It is totally OK for you to establish some boundaries and not accept being treated like a doormat by the people you’re trying to help.

And if they’re behaving inappropriately, it is totally OK to block their calls and cut off contact with them.

God’s plan for them does not rely completely and solely on you.

What IS important, is that rather wading into the murky life situations of others because we think we should, we choose to follow the promptings and leading of the Holy Spirit.

Until next time, blue skies!

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