Updated: Sep 24, 2018
"But...Christian's aren't supposed to shut people out, right? I mean, isn't that vindictive, to isolate yourself from others? I just don't think that's what Jesus would do." I felt for Jennifer. As she spoke, I could see the confusion on her face— the pain and frustration, the sense of helplessness resulting from a lack of boundaries.
Jennifer had tried for many years to act towards her younger sister as she believed Jesus would do. It seemed that life had dealt Helen many cruel blows. She had lost relationships, countless jobs and had always struggled financially. Trying to be a good sister, Jennifer bailed her out, time after time. She gave Helen money when she was in dire straits (which was quite often), picked the kids up from school when she needed a break, and defended her to their parents, who seemed indifferent towards Helen's plight. There was another side to the story, however. Helen was often out partying until late, calling in sick to work the next day. For one reason or another, she had never fully learnt to "adult" and almost never took responsibility for her actions.
Many times, Jennifer found herself "picking up the tab" for her sister's irresponsible behavior. If she tried to pull back (to take a break from picking up the kids, for example), then she would be confronted with the wounded look in Helen's eyes and the barrage of criticism; "Why are you being so selfish? You got handed everything in life. Would it kill you to give me a break?" Although Jennifer resented Helen's emotional blackmail, she continued to comply, feeling powerless to change Helen's behavior. "I guess you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family," Jennifer thought. "Helen's the family that God gave me and it's my duty to help her out." When I gently probed her about setting boundaries, she replied sadly, "I have tried— believe me. But every time I try and tell her where the boundaries are she doesn't respect them. It's pointless, she'll never change."
While Jennifer had the best intentions (as we so often have), the patterns of behavior she had come to tolerate were avoidable. Jennifer and Helen's dysfunctional relationship was fueled by a lack of boundaries, as well as a wrong understanding of what they are and how to apply them.
Common Myths About Boundaries
MYTH #1: "Putting boundaries in place is 'unchristian.'"
A sure sign that you may have swallowed this myth is the presence of guilt. Ask yourself, honestly, if you feel guilty when you try to set a boundary with someone? Do you feel guilty about saying no, for example? If so, then you may have fallen for it.
BUSTED: Jesus was and is one of the most powerful examples of setting healthy boundaries. In fact, most instances of relational dysfunction recorded in the Bible are caused by a lack of boundaries (e.g. Ahab let Jezebel control him, David and Bathsheba didn't protect their marriages, Eli refused to discipline his sons, Jacob indulged in favoritism and Sampson couldn't say no).
Setting boundaries is not vindictive— unless it is done out of resentment. When done out of pure motives however, it is actually an act of kindness— not only to yourself, but to the other party. Rather than enabling someone, you can begin letting them grow. In some instances, your stepping out of the way could even be crucial for God to do a deep work in them.
MYTH #2: "It's out of my control."
This is the belief that boundaries are only enforceable if you can get others person to comply. In other words, the boundary will only work when they decide to come to the party. Until then, you are at their mercy.
BUSTED: A boundary is effective when you own it. Simply put, a boundary is knowing where you stop and the other person starts. In their definitive book, "Boundaries," Cloud and Townsend put it this way:
"When you build a fence around your yard, you do not build it to figure out the boundaries of your neighbor's yard so you can dictate to him how he is to behave. You build it around your own yard so that you can maintain control of what happens to your own property."
MYTH #3: "Only when they change will the situation change."
BUSTED: You can't force another person to change— you can only take responsibility for you. The good news is though, that even if they dont change, you can choose whether or not you are controlled by their behavior. Once you own your role in the dysfunction, you will be empowered to move from victim mentality to victory. Believe that God did not intend for your to live under someone else's control. A truly loving relationship is based on freedom— not obligation, guilt or manipulation.
Remember, God always operates on the principle of free will. The enemy's hallmark is control.
Why Boundaries are Important
Boundaries have spiritual, as well as physical and emotional ramifications. They are intertwined with the principle of soul ties. Simply put, soul ties are the "ties that bind us together," the sense of attachment we have with those we are close to. They can be good and bad. Good soul ties, for example, are like "glue," holding families together. Amazingly, God has even hardwired our bodies to form soul ties. When a mother nurses her baby, a hormone called oxytocin kicks in, producing feelings of love and attachment towards her child. Known as the "love hormone," oxytocin is also produced in women and men during physical intimacy.
Ungodly soul ties, on the other hand, arise when sin and dysfunction corrupt relationships. If an adult child is not fully released by their parents, for example, the soul tie between them becomes controlling. Similarly, if a child is forced to play the role of parent, (a reversal of the natural order God intended), then a soul tie can become a bondage.
When we continually submit to another person's will, rather than to God's purposes and plans for our lives, idolatry is usually not far away— especially if we are disobeying God in the process. This is often how the enemy stops the Word from bearing fruit in our lives. Boundaries are so important because they protect us from ungodly soul ties and prevent this particular scheme from being effective.
Right now, where you are, I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any ungodly soul ties at work in your life. Once you identify them, here's what you need to do to get free:
1) Repent of your role in the dysfunction and ask forgiveness for submitting to ungodly soul ties and failing to set boundaries.
2) Pray and break off old soul ties.
3) Ask God to reveal to you specific areas where you need to set boundaries (e.g. saying no, not taking responsibility for another's actions)
4) Seek Him for effective strategies you can use to this end.
Note: For practical strategies, the book "Boundaries" is a wonderful resource. You can also learn from "Jesus, the Master of Boundaries."