Faith reflections: The faithfulness of boundaries
by Collette Broady
This past February was not the first time I’ve needed and tried to draw boundaries in my life, to carve out time for all the things that are important to me, to keep my personal and professional lives in balance. But this time was different, because of a book I read, and a realization brought on by that reading.
The book is Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend (Zondervan, 1992). It had been recommended to me by pastors, mentors and spiritual directors before, but I finally read it last spring, as I was wrestling with how to make my life more manageable. And in addition to all kinds of confirmation about why I was struggling so much and so much good advice about how to make that struggle easier, the book helped me to understand that setting good boundaries is not just an exercise in responsibility, it is a faithful act.
One of the hardest things, especially for women and/or mothers, is the guilt that accompanies making choices for our own well-being, choices that feel selfish. We are taught as Christians that we ought to make decisions that are Christ-like, loving and unselfish. And we assume that means that the greatest show of love is self-sacrifice, like Jesus, an emptying out of our entire beings for the sake of others.
What we sometimes forget is that when we try so hard to be like Christ, we can easily end up trying to be Christ for other people–to be their savior instead of pointing them to the only one who can truly save them. We end up setting ourselves up to fail, trying to be to others what we were never designed to be: God.
This is not a new struggle; Scripture is full of examples of humans trying to act like God, from the desire of Adam and Eve in the garden to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:7) onward. It is one of Apostle Paul’s central themes in the New Testament: how hard we have tried to do for ourselves what only God can do, and how the only true life comes from accepting that we cannot do it.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. (Romans 8:1-3)
When I fool myself into thinking that it is up to me to save myself by acting as I should all the time, or to save others by taking responsibility for their success or their faith lives, I put myself back under the condemnation that God sent Jesus to free me from. I feel guilty for things that are not supposed to be mine. That is sin, exercising its mastery over me. Setting boundaries, then, is a means of living into the freedom I have in Christ, to be who I am meant to be, to take hold of the things God has given me to do, and to let God do the rest.
One of the best, and most surprising, parts of my journey toward better boundaries is that in giving up responsibility and in trying less hard at life in general, I am actually better able to give witness to my faith. I’m beginning to understand what God meant when he said to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). There is power precisely in being imperfect, and freely admitting it. When I know and share my own struggles, it gives others permission to talk about theirs. When I confess my need for a force larger than myself to come and bail me out, it leaves an opening for God to show herself as the one most able to do just that.
To recognize and proclaim my own boundaries is to proclaim the gospel itself: that I am just a human, that I need help, and that God sent Jesus to be that help.
1. What are the ways you attempt to be God? How do those attempts leave you feeling?
2. Have there been times when you have experienced God working through your weakness or imperfection? What did you learn?
3. How could your admission of being imperfect be a witness of God’s love and power?
Perfect God, thank you for being who you are, and for making me who I am. Teach me the bounds of my human power, teach me to celebrate my limits, that I might point the way for others to your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Collette Broady lives in Mankato, Minn., with her son. She serves a partnership between a large, city congregation and a small, rural one.