As a little girl, I grew up in an expansive old New England farmhouse. The white house had been divided up into four apartment-type dwellings, and sat upon a beautiful piece of land. My brother and I had complete run of the yard, plus the field, gardens, and wooded area. Across the street was a pond and a small dam. We borrowed Mr. Golden’s tin rowboat and paddled all around, catching turtles, frogs, and small fish. We spent most of our play time outdoors in the fresh air. I loved that house and was sad when we eventually moved.
It was not difficult to know my boundaries at that house. Some of the vegetable gardens were staked off, other flower gardens we were told were off limits. Distinct property lines included an ancient stone wall. The neighbor’s field began after our woods, and I never stepped into it. Further down the street houses were divided by white picket fences, all whitewashed and pretty. They were not there for their beauty….they marked ownership and boundary lines. Those boundaries provided a source of safety and oddly enough, freedom.
Limits always produce freedom. Just watch children. It doesn’t take one hot minute to recognize which children are favored with boundaries that have been set and guarded. Most often the happiest children are the ones who understand that boundaries mean safety and the freedom to be themselves within those healthy limits.
Physically marked boundaries are obvious. Personal and emotional boundaries are often trickier. And if we do not build them, we will never be the whole person that the Lord desires us to be; his workmanship. We will be stunted and either frustrated, sad, or angry. Not to mention exhausted.
Recently, I have had to guard my heart with emotional boundaries. (Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 NIV) This sometimes looks like sweeping a soft path away from a broken person who is inflicting pain, or other times looks like hammering a picket fence that allows the breeze to blow through, but definitively marks what will not be permitted to enter. We cannot change others, (that is the work of the Holy Spirit) but we may change what we allow to hurt our heart. If we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we always got.
One summer when I was perhaps ten, our family and extended family was vacationing on Cape Cod. Every day my grandparents would give us a handful of loose change to walk a half mile to buy penny candy at the corner store. This ended up being my brother, 2 cousins named Jim and Steve, and myself. Steve was harmless, but Jim was a sneaky and miserable kid. He caused problems wherever he landed.
We always raced from the candy store back to the cottage. Jim, who was bent on winning everything, would inevitably trip one of us to gain an advantage, or cheat with a head start. It was getting pretty annoying, but I did not say anything. I respected the boundaries of others, but had absolutely no boundary fence of my own. I had fashioned an idol out of peace-keeping, rather than being a good and objective truth-teller.
On the last day of vacation, we held our final race. This was it. I had had as much of my cheating cousin as I could take. I was determined to win this race. For the first bit Jim and I were neck and neck. Then I mustered up some determination and increased my speed. The cottage was in sight and I knew I could do this. My heart was racing and I was smiling. Just as I reached the foot of the cottage steps, I felt a pull on the bottom of my t-shirt, and suddenly I was falling backwards. I landed with a painful thump as Jim started of the steps.
“I won!” he gloated.
Something snapped inside of me, which up until this point in my life had never quite shown up. I flew up those steps, and as Jim reached for the screen door, I put my arm in front of his neck and pushed him. Hard. I flew into the cottage, and to the surprise of every adult announced loudly that I had had enough of Jim and his cheating ways.
Unknowingly, I had created a new boundary with my cousin that would remain. He continued to be a problem, but interestingly enough he left me alone. It had taken me at least five years of suffering to say enough.
Take it from me, it is better to trust in the God that created you and loves you. Your worth comes from Him. If you know this deep down in your bones, you will not be a people-pleaser and enabler, but a truth-teller. This does not mean pain will end; on the contrary. But you will have a clean and honest life before others and God.
Boundaries are not the same as walls. Walls block out everyone. Walls silence all conversation. Boundaries are fences that keep most toxicity out. One can gently converse over a fence, while maintaining a measure of safety and protection and limitation.
To be clear, some people do not like to be given limits, or boundaries. Pay attention. In my experience, every person who throws up their hands at healthy boundaries, are the very people from whom you must guard your heart.
Jesus was the ultimate boundary setter. He served, and then retreated to rest. He knew his purpose, and carried it out in an unhurried way. Often, if you read the gospels, Jesus did not do what everyone else wanted or expected him to do. He did not chase people down, but went steadily about the work that God had planned for him. He disappointed many, but it did not matter, because his focus was upon God alone.