Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Boundaries Part 1

So the first book in my pile of nonfiction that I’ve picked up to read is Boundaries by Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend. From the very first chapter, I’ve been fascinated (and a little in pain at times from the major “ouches!” in the book).

The first point that really stood out to me as I started the book was the following quote from chapter 1: “Made in the image of God, we were created to take responsibility for certain tasks. Part of taking responsibility, or ownership, is knowing what is our job and what isn’t…Any confusion of responsibly and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries. Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

The authors then go into a description of how many Christians struggle with understanding that boundaries can be biblically appropriate.

I think people in general, unless they are completely devoid of a conscience, struggle with setting boundaries because they are afraid of hurting other people, being seen as selfish, etc. As Christians it does seem to be an even bigger issue because of how much we are taught that it is our responsibility to love our neighbors, help others, save the world! And while that is true, there is still appropriate and inappropriate (if not downright dangerous or wrong) methodology for doing so.

I work in a Christian environment, and while there are many aspects to that fact that I love, one of the biggest most frustrating issues I have had to experience since I’ve been here is that people seem to be afraid of telling other people, “No.” It’s like because we’re all Christians, we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and so regular workplace issues that should be dealt with and addressed are left alone and thus cause regular problems. Boundaries are not established because it might hurt somebody’s feelings to do so and therefore, as in the quote above, there are issues with “confusion of responsibility and ownership”. People cannot say what is and is not their job or responsibility all the time because it isn’t dealt with. But I digress…

As I got into the second chapter this issue of what a boundary is got further explained. To quote, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me…God designed a world where we all live ‘within’ ourselves; that is, we inhabit our own souls, and we are responsible for the things that make up ‘us.’ [Anyone else sensing an emphasis on ontology in that last statement?]…We have to deal with what is in our soul, and boundaries help us to define what this is….Boundaries [also] help us to define…what we are not responsible for. We are not, for example, responsible for other people.”

For me, I feel like the last couple of years has been all about learning that last statement. “[I] am not…responsible for other people.” Reading that statement was very relieving to me. So often I tend to give myself guilt trips because of other people’s choices and reactions that relate to me. But I’m not responsible for them. Such freedom in those words.

Before I could get too carried away with that thought though, the authors did nicely bring that statement into focus for, “We are responsible to others and for ourselves. ‘Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’” (Galatians 6:2).

They then go onto do a little defining of some Greek words that make a very big difference in understanding scriptures which talk about our responsibility towards carrying other people's loads. There are times when I really wish I read Greek!

Basically, while we are asked to be “responsible to” and “show the sacrificial love of Christ” to others who have burdens that are too big to bear (i.e. They are lacking strength, knowledge, resources, etc and need help), each person has their own responsibilities that only they can carry. As in, “pick up your cross and follow me.” Not, dump your cross on your neighbor and trot along merrily beside them telling them how they should be walking faster and responding more quickly under their double load!

And this clarification of ideas does make sense. Because a lot of problems that I at least see or experience myself can easily be identified as coming from one of two things:

  1. People trying to carry to much themselves and not stretching beyond their boundaries to ask for help from others (somewhere in all this, the authors talked about permeability of boundaries – i.e. it’s a boundary but it doesn’t shut you off from the rest of the world nor does it necessarily stay always in the same place). Yes, yes, you can quit pointing fingers and laughing at me now.
  2. People who too quickly dump onto other people not their burdens but their regular loads for which they should be personally responsible.

More to come on this topic!

For those who wonder why I’m outlining all this here, when I study I really have to talk/write ideas out otherwise I don’t learn or truly understand them. As I do feel that this is a very important book for me to read, I really want to make sure I’m not just reading and forgetting it but really thinking through and absorbing as much as I can.

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