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1. Boundary Basics

Article contributed by Probe Ministries
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Story, p. 27-28.

Invisible Property Lines and Responsibility

Boundaries in the physical world:

  • fences
  • signs (No Boys Allowed! Keep off the grass)
  • walls
  • moats with alligators
  • manicured lawns or hedges

This is where my property begins.

Boundaries in the spiritual world are just as real but harder to see

Boundaries define your soul and help you to guard it and maintain it.

Me and Not Me

Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins.

Boundaries show us what we are responsible for, and they help us define what we are NOT responsible for. Like other people.

To and For

We are responsible TO others and FOR ourselves.

Gal 6:22 (NIV): “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” = Responsibility TO one another. Helping someone who has a burden too heavy to bear. Not enough strength, resources or knowledge to carry the load.

Gal 6:5: “Each one should carry his own load.” Everyone should carry his or her own responsibilities.

Greek word for burden = “excess burdens.” Like boulders. Need help.

Load = “cargo,” or “the burden of daily toil.” Like knapsacks. Carry our own.

Problems arise when people act as if their boulders are daily loads, and refuse help. . . or as if their daily loads are boulders they shouldn’t have to carry.

Results: either perpetual pain or irresponsibility.

Nature of boundaries

Good In, Bad Out

Boundaries help us distinguish our own property lines so we can take care of ourselves and be good stewards of who we are.

Boundaries are like fences to keep the good in and the bad out. They guard our treasures so people will not steal them. (Saying no to premarital sex so no one takes one’s virginity, which is a treasure.)

Sometimes we have bad on the inside and good on the outside. So our fences need gates in them.

Bad inside: I need to open up to confess sin and pain so I can be forgiven and healed.

Good outside: open gates to let Jesus in, let other people into our hearts.

So. . . boundaries are not walls. They need to be somewhat permeable.

God and Boundaries

Concept of boundaries is rooted in the nature of God Himself.

God defines Himself as a distinct, separate being, and He is responsible for Himself. He defines and takes responsibility for His personality by telling us what He thinks, feels, plans, allows, will not allow, likes, and dislikes.

He defines Himself as separate from His creation and from us. He says, I am who I am and there is no other God but me. He says he is love and he is not darkness.

God limits what He will allow in His yard. He confronts sin and allows consequences for behavior. He guards His house and will not allow evil things to go on there. He invites people in who will love Him, and He lets His love flow out to them at the same time. His gates open and close appropriately.

God made us in His image and likeness. We are also to take personal responsibility.

Examples of Boundaries

Boundaries are anything that helps to differentiate you from someone else, and show where you begin and end.


Our skin tells us where our bodies end. Victims of physical and sexual abuse often have poor boundaries because they were violated. They were taught early that their property did not really begin at their skin. Others could invade their property and do whatever they wanted. As a result, they have trouble establishing boundaries later in life.


The most basic boundary-setting word is NO.

Being clear about your no—and your yes—is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matt 5:7).

The Bible says we are to confront people we love saying, “No, that behavior is not okay. I will not participate in that.” The word NO is also important in setting limits on abuse. Many passages of Scripture urge us to say no to others’ sinful treatment of us. Matt. 18:15-20 tells you what to do when someone sins against you—how to confront them.

Our words let people know where we stand and give them a sense of our “edges” that help say, “This is where I end.”

“I don’t like it when you yell at me!” gives people a clear message about how you conduct relationships and lets them know the “rules” of your yard.

Mom: “If you whine and beg and plead, the answer is automatically no.”

How boundaries develop in toddlers:

The word NO helps children separate from what they don’t like. It gives them the power to make choices. It protects them. Learning to deal with a child’s no is crucial to that child’s development.

Parents have two tasks associated with no.

1. They need to help their child feel safe enough to say no, thereby encouraging his or her own boundaries.

  • Not having to kiss and hug relatives if they don’t want to.
  • Not having to finish all the food on their plates.
  • Getting to making choices in what to wear from among Mom’s choices. “You’re in charge of deciding what you’re going to wear.”

2. Helping the child respect others’ boundaries. They need to not only give a no, but take a no.

This means not giving in to temper tantrums in a store.

It means time-outs, appropriate confrontations, and spanking, when necessary.

When kids set boundaries, it’s essential that they be honored. “I know, you don’t want to take a nap right now.”

And it’s crucial that their NO’s not result in a withdrawal of love. Parents need to stay attached to their children even when they disagree with them. When parents detach from a misbehaving young child instead of staying connected and dealing with the problem, they tell a lie about God’s constant love. When parents pull away in hurt, disappointment, or rage, they send this message to the child: “You’re lovable when you behave. You aren’t lovable when you don’t behave.”

The child translates that message something like this: “When I’m good, I am loved. When I’m bad, I am cut off.”

Parents who pull away from their child are practicing spiritual and emotional blackmail.

Parents who tell their children, “It hurts us when you’re angry” make the child responsible for the emotional health of the parent. In effect, the child has just been made the parent of the parent—sometimes at two or three years old. It’s far, far better to say, “I know you’re angry, but you still can’t have that toy.”

Geographical distance

Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation helps maintains boundaries. Or you can remove yourself to get away from danger and put limits on evil. “Flee youthful lusts.”

The Bible urges us to separate from those who continue to hurt us and to create a safe place for ourselves. Removing yourself from the situation will also cause the one who is left behind to experience a loss of fellowship that may lead to changed behavior. (Matthew 18:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13)

When a relationship is abusive, many times the only way to finally show the other person that your boundaries are real is to create space until they are ready to deal with the problem. The Bible supports the idea of limiting togetherness for the sake of binding evil.


Time off from a person or a project can be a way to regain ownership over some out-of-control aspect of your life where boundaries need to be set.

Adult children who have never spiritually and emotionally separated from parents often need time away.

Emotional distance

This is a temporary boundary to give your heart the space it needs to be safe; it is never intended to be a permanent way of living.

If you have been in an abusive relationship, you should wait until it is safe to go back, after patterns of real change have been established and demonstrated. We should look for “fruit in keeping with repentance” and not return too quickly.


Biblical principle: trespassing on other people’s property carries consequences. Just as the Bible sets consequences for certain behaviors, we need to back up our boundaries with consequences.

How many marriages would have been saved if one spouse had followed through with the threat of “If you don’t stop drinking/coming home at midnight/hitting me/yelling at the kids, I will leave until you get help!”

How many young people’s lives would have been turned around if their parents had followed through with their threat of “No more money if you quit another job without having another one lined up,” or “You can’t live here if you continue to smoke marijuana in my house.”

2 Thess 3:10: “If one will not work, neither let him eat.” God does not enable irresponsible behavior. Hunger is a consequence of laziness. (Prov 16:26: “A worker’s appetite works for him, For his hunger urges him on.”)

Consequences give some good “barbs” to fences. They let people know the seriousness of the trespass and the seriousness of our respect for ourselves.

“I’m serious.”

What’s Within My Boundaries?

P. 38-39 Good Samaritan Story


You feel your feelings, and they are yours, and you have the right to feel what you feel.

Feelings are like the light on a car’s dashboard: they tell us that something needs attention. Anger is a hot feeling that says, “My boundary has been violated.”

“You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “Oh, you don’t feel that!” is disrespectful.


Behaviors have consequences. “A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7-8).

  • Study · reap good grades
  • Go to work· get a paycheck
  • Stay home · get fired, have no money
  • Overeat · get fat

Natural consequences of our behavior.

The problem comes when someone interrupts the law of sowing and reaping in another’s life. A person’s drinking or abuse or irresponsibility SHOULD have consequences for him.

To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless and keeps them immature.

Parenting with love and limits, with warmth and consequences, produces confident children who have a sense of control over their lives. “Bummer! What are you going to do about that?”


We need to take responsibility for our choices. This leads to the fruit of self-control. A common boundary problem is disowning our choices and trying to lay the responsibility for them on someone else. “I had to,” or “She made me,” or “See what you made me do?” . . . “I had no other choice.” Oh yes you did, but you didn’t like the other choices.


Two aspects of limits:

1. Setting limits on others. Really, a misnomer: we can’t do that. What we CAN do is let limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right. Our model is God. He doesn’t set limits on people to make them behave. He sets standards, but He lets people be who they are and then separates Himself from them when they misbehave: “You can be that way if you choose, but you cannot come into My house.” God limits His exposure to evil, unrepentant people, and so should we. The Bible says to separate ourselves from people who act in destructive ways. We are not being unloving. Separating ourselves protects love, because we are taking a stand against things that destroy love.

2. Setting our own internal limits. We need to have spaces inside ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, a desire, without acting on it. We need self-control without repression. We own our feelings and we own the decision to NOT act on them. We need to be able to say no to ourselves, to destructive desires, and to good ones that are not for right now.

Boundary problems

Saying yes to the bad

When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with them as they wish. They are sending their children defenseless into an evil world.

To feel safe in an evil world, children need to have the power to say things like:

· No.

· I disagree.

· I will not.

· I choose not to.

· Stop that.

· It hurts.

· It’s wrong.

· That’s bad.

· I don’t like it when you touch me there.

These are all ways to guard our hearts by setting boundaries against evil.

Blocking a child’s ability to say no handicaps that child for life.

The inability to say no to the bad is pervasive. Not only does it keep us from refusing evil in our lives, it often keeps us from RECOGNIZING evil. We can have broken spiritual and emotional “radar.” No ability to guard our hearts.

Saying no to the good

Boundaries with fences that have no gates. Unable to open up and share with people, to allow love to come in.

God designed our personal boundaries to have gates. We should have the freedom to enjoy safe relationships and to avoid destructive ones. God even gave us the freedom to let Him in or close Him off:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

God has no interest in violating our boundaries so that He can relate to us. It’s our responsibility to open up to Him.

People who say no to the good find it impossible to ask for what they need.

Controllers: Not Respecting Others’ Boundaries

They have a problem hearing and accepting others’ boundaries. No is simply a challenge to change the other person’s mind. Controllers can’t respect others’ limits. They resist taking responsibility for their own lives, so they need to control others.

Controllers believe the old jokes about training top sales people: no means maybe, and maybe means yes. It may help with sales, but it wreaks havoc in relationships. Controllers are perceived as bullies, manipulative and aggressive.

They tend to project responsibility for their lives onto others. They use various means of control to motivate others to carry the load intended by God to be theirs alone.

Boulder/knapsack: They look for someone to carry their knapsacks in addition to their boulders.

They come in 2 types:

1. Aggressive controllers. Steamrollers. They live in a world of yes. Think of Peter in Mark 8: Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v.31). Peter rebuked Him. Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (v.33). Peter didn’t want to accept the Lord’s boundaries. Jesus immediately confronted Peter’s violation of his boundaries.

2. Manipulative controllers. Less honest than aggressive controllers, they try to persuade people out of their boundaries. They talk others into yes. They indirectly manipulate circumstances to get their way. They seduce others into carrying their burdens. They use guilt messages.

· Tom Sawyer tricking his playmates into whitewashing the fence for him: he made it seem like such a privilege that kids were lined up to paint!

· Isaac’s son Jacob finagled Esau into giving up his birthright. With his mother’s help, deceived his father into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him. Jacob’s name means “deceiver.” God confronted Jacob’s manipulative boundarylessness by wrestling with him all night and left Jacob with a dislocated hip.

Only when the manipulative controller is confronted with her dishonesty can she take responsibility for it, repent of it, and accept her and others’ limits.

Those who say yes to the bad and no to the good can also be controllers. They tend to be more manipulative than aggressive. When they need emotional support, they may do a favor for a friend. They hope that by being loving, they’ll receive love. So then they wait, anticipating the return of the favor. And sometimes they wait for years. Especially if they performed the favor for someone who can’t read minds.

What’s wrong with this picture? It’s not a picture of love. Godly love doesn’t seek a return on its investment: “It is not self-seeking,” (1 Cor. 13:5). Caring for someone so they’ll care back for us is simply an indirect means of controlling someone else. If you’ve ever been on the “receiving” end of that kind of maneuver, you’ll understand. One minute you’ve taken the compliment, or favor—the next minute you’ve hurt someone’s feelings by not figuring out the price tag attached.

Next Lesson: Consequences: The Law of Sowing and Reaping

Related Topics: Boundaries, Christian Life, Messages, Spiritual Life, Wisdom, Women

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