Is it Biblical to set boundaries in relationships?

Cover of "Lay Counseling"

Cover of Lay Counseling

Question: : I am doing the Lay Counseling Study and I am also doing a study on boundaries by Henry Cloud. The boundaries book and videos seem to sound selfish. When I go back to the Bible I don’t really see a lot that encourages saying no to others. You would think sometimes you have to say no to helping people. Any way I’m confused, could you enlighten me with any knowledge of this area that you may have?

Answer: John 11: 1, Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 4When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

Mark 1: 35, Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else-to the nearby villages-so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39So he traveled throughout Galilee , preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

It seems to me that Jesus gives us the right perspective on this issue. NO ONE had more people asking him to help them than Jesus. But he did not always yield to that plea. In the case of Lazarus, he decided not to go immediately while Lazarus was sick, but went only after he died. He had a leading from the Holy Spirit that he was to wait. Sometimes we yield to someone’s request for us to help them without listening to the Lord. Perhaps He has another purpose that we cannot as yet discern. Sometimes we can see that it is beneficial not to give way to someone’s request because it will compromise our ministry (e.g., a man being asked by a woman to come to her house alone).

In the second passage above Jesus refuses to minister to the people where he is because he needed to get apart from the crowds to spend time with God and he had a bigger purpose to fulfill, going to other villages that needed his ministry. Knowing our limitations (calling, gifting, etc.) can help us determine our boundaries. If I want to help someone who has made a mess of their finances and they ask me for help, I’m going to refer them to someone who can help them better than me. If I am beginning to minister to people out of my own resources, I’m going to get away in order to be refreshed by God and reminded that only He can really help people.

Philippians 2:4 says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In looking out for the interests of others it does not mean that we don’t look out for our interests at all. The concept of boundaries should be understood as ways to actually help others rather than enable them (which is then not really serving them at all but allowing them to continue in sinful behavior patterns) and to protect ourselves from ministering in ways that don’t actually help others (when I am too tired, too focused on myself, too out of touch with God). I remember once getting a request to counsel someone and feeling at the time that I was so overwhelmed with counseling that I couldn’t do the job I had been asked by leadership to do. I told him no. I wish now that I had asked for time to pray about it first. I know it hurt his feelings. But I was also on overload and obviously not drawing from God’s resources on this matter. I needed to step back in some way and recharge.

Randall Johnson

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