Think Biblically About Relational Boundaries – Beth Claes

We’ve all felt wounded or taken advantage of by the way another person has treated us. It can be hard to know how to respond, especially when this is a pattern. Some relationships are more challenging than others, some seasons are more full, and some people require a great deal of effort to be in relationship with.

According to common wisdom, establishing boundaries to prevent burnout is necessary, and this makes sense on the surface. But as a Christ-follower, how does it fit with Jesus’s instruction to take up your cross (Matt. 16:24)? To save your life by losing it (v. 25)? To be a servant (Mark 10:42–45)?

The call to be humble (Phil. 2:3), self-sacrificing (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:16), and others-oriented (Phil. 2:4; Luke 6:31) is so consistent in the Bible that it’s clearly meant to be more than an occasional practice. It’s a way of living that Jesus calls us to emulate.

However, Jesus also says things like “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28–30). While sacrificial living isn’t something we’re only called to occasionally, it also doesn’t fully define the life we’re offered in Christ. We are called to sacrifice, but we’re also offered spiritual abundance and rest for the weary soul. That’s why interpersonal boundaries are so challenging.

Of course, in abuse situations, boundaries are necessary. But in many difficult relationships, discerning a Christlike response can be complicated. It can be hard to know how to respond when a family member has routinely rigid expectations, a friendship requires significant effort to maintain, or an acquaintance always interacts with you in ways that are challenging and frustrating. Boundaries can be primarily self-protective and self-oriented or promote relational, spiritual, and personal health. How can we know the difference? Let’s consider our motives through two lenses.

Lens of Loving Others Well

Often when we talk about boundaries, we focus primarily on our felt needs. We put up walls to guard and protect our space, our emotions, and our sense of security. But the Bible doesn’t encourage us to prioritize our comfort, desires, or protection above caring for others. A biblical perspective compels us to create boundaries based on what’s loving to the other person.

The Bible doesn’t encourage us to prioritize our comfort, desires, or protection above caring for others.

The most loving response isn’t necessarily to give the person what she wants. For example, we shouldn’t be culpable in someone’s sin—we shouldn’t facilitate or enable it. If someone is mistreating you or other people, your response should attempt to prevent her from continuing that behavior. Loving others may mean establishing healthy boundaries rather than enabling habitually sinful and destructive behavior.

We’re called to demonstrate grace and truth in our relationships. But most often, we act with one more than the other. We may tend to be nice and overlook sin (sometimes inaccurately deemed “showing grace”) or to be brutally honest and then slam the door in someone’s face (sometimes our perspective of “truth”). Or perhaps we avoid difficult people altogether. Jesus, however, simultaneously embodied grace and truth, and he calls us to do the same.

We need to see ourselves as fellow sinners and recipients of God’s grace. This shapes our response to the difficult person, allowing our interactions to have a redemptive tone. Loving others doesn’t require us to completely trust someone who has broken our trust, but it does require us to consider setting boundaries that will benefit him rather than focusing on making our lives more comfortable.

Lens of Stewardship

We must steward well the gifts and body God has given us by considering the effects of a difficult situation or relationship on our health and well-being. But the goal isn’t to avoid all physical or emotional hardship; it’s to care for our bodies so we can use them to serve, love, and obey God.

This means that unless we’re disobeying what the Bible clearly says, there’s room for discretion. If a relationship produces significant dysfunction in our lives, it may be wise to consider whether additional boundaries would help us better steward our physical and emotional resources.

But the presence of dysfunction isn’t a license to respond sinfully, nor an automatic reason to set a boundary. If someone’s behavior is weighing on me to the point that I struggle to sleep, for example, I can’t ignore the person simply because I’m not sleeping well. Instead, I need to prayerfully consider what following Jesus in this relationship might look like and how I can best steward the resources God has given me.

What’s most helpful about the stewardship lens is that it allows for redemptive sacrifice. When a relationship is stressful or difficult, expending myself sacrificially might be the best way to use my resources for God’s glory. We need wisdom here, but the example we often see in the Bible is people willing to pursue God’s kingdom at great cost to themselves (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16; Mark 10:45). In difficult relationships, it may be helpful to ask, When I put up boundaries (or live completely outside them), whose kingdom am I building?

Sometimes a boundary is necessary because I’m condoning or facilitating problematic patterns. But sometimes the sacrifices, the difficult relationship’s effects on my life, are worth the cost. They’re part of taking up my cross and bearing another’s burden. The stewardship lens allows me to consider that God may call me to do something incredibly difficult. Just because something is costly doesn’t mean it’s wrong—Jesus proved this for us.

What’s Wise?

These two lenses are helpful, but perhaps they leave you with more questions than answers. How do you determine what’s wise, best, and most glorifying to God? I suggest the following:

Pray for wisdom. God promises wisdom to those who ask in faith (James 1:5–6).
Consider what response is most loving to the other person. How can you respond in a way that’s full of grace and truth? What will be most helpful and redemptive? What will represent Christ to this person?
Consider what the Bible clearly says about relationships. Many passages highlight godly responses when treated poorly by others. How might these apply to your situation?
Consider your limitations. How can you steward the life God has given you to be most honoring and glorifying to him? Some costs honor him; some could be foolish or even detrimental.
Remember personal discomfort isn’t a good reason to avoid an action that honors God and loves others well. How might God be using difficult relationships to grow you in Christlikeness?
Seek godly counsel (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 19:20). You don’t have to figure it all out alone. Let the body of Christ help you.

Sometimes the sacrifices, the difficult relationship’s effects on my life, are worth the cost.

Because people are complex, determining how to respond to human brokenness is also complex. There are no easy answers. But there should be a difference between our culture’s assumptions about boundaries and how we pursue them as Christ’s followers.

Rather than focusing on our comfort or protection, we should consider our choices through the lens of loving God and loving others. Despite my failures, I’m convinced this is the way of following Jesus. May God grow us to look continually more like Jesus—with wisdom, grace, truth, and a willingness to sacrifice our comforts for his name’s sake.

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