All This Talk About “Boundaries”

I hear a lot of talk about “we need to have boundaries” these days – personal boundaries, healthy boundaries, relational boundaries, emotional boundaries, physical boundaries… Perhaps all this talk is because we’ve become wiser over the decades about what it means to live a healthy, successful life, one that preserves our happiness and sense of peace.  The psychologist, therapist, sociologist and motivational speaker would likely promote this thinking.  As a pastor, I talk about boundaries with people frequently.  We’re all seeking healthier lifestyles, emotional levels and relationships.  We set boundaries generally to protect ourselves, where the understanding of boundaries is to erect a barrier that keeps unwanted things out.  Maybe what we try to keep out are certain people, types of conversations or kinds of situations.  We set these boundaries because we’ve come to recognize that there are things in this world that can be harmful to us if we allow these things into our lives.  But do boundaries only keep things out?  Or, perhaps boundaries can be meant to keep things in, to protect others outside of us from ourselves.  Boundaries don’t have to be only about self-preservation but also about the preservation of others around us.  When we realize that boundaries can act in both ways, as a barrier to keep out and to keep in, we not only realize that there are things in the world that are harmful to us but there could be things in us that are harmful to others.  Sometimes our own pain, burdens, habits, misperceptions, bad coping skills…brokenness can be harmful to others.  Boundaries can be about grace – to self and to others.  But in the end, I think boundaries reveal something about us.

Regardless of whether boundaries are keeping out or keeping in, the fact that we have to erect boundaries for preservation reveals to us that we are not fully in control and we are not perfect.  We don’t have the power to control the things in the world that can harm us — that’s why we need boundaries.  The boundary is our power.  It’s not a power to change others or circumstances, but it’s the power we have to choose to keep out.  Sometimes by keeping things out, they have the space to change.  We sometimes are even powerless to change things about ourselves, perhaps not forever but at least in present moments, and so we set up boundaries for the sake of others.  Boundaries tell us we’re not in total control and we’re not all-powerful in an imperfect world.  They tell us we are not God.  And realizing and accepting that we are not God is a humble first step towards healthy thinking, healthy living and healthy choices.

I think boundaries do serve one other purpose.  There are such boundaries as moral boundaries.  Many of our personal boundaries include moral boundaries because often the same types of things that may harm us are morally related.  When we tell ourselves, “we shouldn’t” do that or go there, that shouldn’t often has a moral relevance.  Moral boundaries I believe preserve God’s holiness in this world and in our lives.  His actual character of holiness cannot be diminished, because nothing we do can ever change him.  Again, we don’t have that power.  But moral boundaries preserve the quality of his holiness in our own character and lifestyles.  His holiness and glory can be upheld in who we are by our moral boundaries.  So while boundaries are often first and foremost personal, they can also be sacred.

In the end, the kinds of boundaries we set up to keep out, keep in or uphold God’s holiness, says a lot about not only who we are as people but also where we are on the continuum of our personal growth.   Taking the time to consider what are our boundaries (and if we have any) is important for personal and spiritual health.  Just another musing of mine as I thought about boundaries.

(I think it’s important to keep in mind that boundaries are meant to preserve and protect but not alienate and isolate – there is a fine difference.  Maybe that’s for another musing.)

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