“Boundaries.” The word is freely bandied about, even in the church. Some take the idea for granted, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Some cling to it defensively, as if it were a lifeline out of the morass of anxious people-pleasing. You can’t do everything. You can’t please everybody. You can’t say yes all the time without thinking. You have to learn to say no.
And some worry that the word is just psychobabble, an excuse for selfishness, a refusal to serve others sacrificially as Jesus did.
All three positions have some merit.
First, there are obvious cases in which you’d want and expect people to assert their personal boundaries. Are you the conscientious parent of a teenager who’s just begun dating or going to parties? Then you already know what I’m talking about.
Second, some people are indeed afflicted with an anxious desire to please others, and it can get them into trouble. Imagine the teenage girl who feels unattractive and unwanted; she’s vulnerable to the boy who tells her she’s beautiful just to get her into bed. Imagine Christians desperate for a place to belong; they are vulnerable to abusive church systems that will suck them dry. The notion of boundaries helps people recognize that there are appropriate times to say no, and gives them the much-needed permission to do so.
And third, even if the concept of boundaries is legitimate, that won’t prevent people from using it in self-serving ways. We’re all experts in rationalizing our behavior, in making our motives seem more noble than they really are. If we’re being honest, there are times when “I’m embracing my limits” is pretty much just a high-minded way of saying, “I don’t feel like doing what you want me to do.” If we do that too much, it gives boundaries a bad name.
The reality is that we’re complex beings navigating our way through a complicated sea of expectations, the cargo-hold crammed with a mess of mixed motives. Though we may be quick to judge others, there’s no universal calculus for computing when legitimate self-protection has crossed some moral line into selfishness.
Even the example of Jesus resists simplistic stereotypes of sacrificial service. He ministered to others for hours on end, but without neglecting times of solitude. He would leave the crowds behind to take the disciples away in a boat for some rest, then compassionately minister to the crowds that were waiting wherever the boat landed (Matt 8:18; Mark 6:30-34).
And if ever there was a person who firmly and confidently navigated through the demands of others, it was Jesus. In everything he said and did, his pole-star was his Father’s will. Not the expectations of his disciples, who had their own idea of what it meant for him to be their Messiah and King. Not the expectations of the Jewish leadership, who had their own idea of what it meant for him to be a legitimate teacher of the people.
In his ultimate act of sacrificial service, Jesus died on a Roman cross. Was that a selfless act? Only in the sense of being the antithesis of a self-serving kind of self-preservation. But take careful note: Jesus didn’t die because he couldn’t stand up to the opposition. Having prayed in Gethsemane, having asked for an alternative, he chose the Father’s way, chose to let himself be arrested, beaten, and crucified. He knew who he was, and made those choices from the depths of his selfhood.
The implication is that if you find yourself always saying yes because you can’t say no, because you can’t bear having to deal with the consequences of refusing someone’s request — that’s not self-sacrifice, or at least not the kind demonstrated by Jesus.
It is legitimate, then, to have and to assert boundaries. It’s not a sin to say no for the right reasons.
But that just points to the more foundational issue: we have to know who we are in Jesus.