AFM Retreat talk by Linda Fox, Member Care Coordinator
We have already talked about how spiritual survival requires us to know ourselves—which means, first and foremost, that we know who we are in Christ. We are human, limited in our ability and subject to sin—but we are also infinitely loved by God, redeemed in Jesus Christ, and called to do God’s work in the world. Our boundaries are the way we live out this self-knowledge. My boundaries show who I am (vis a vis God or other people), what my values are, what belongs to me and what does not—including clarifying what’s my responsibility and warrants my attention, and what is someone else’s responsibility and not mine to get involved with.
Probably 99% of the problems we face are the direct result of failure to set or maintain a healthy boundary. A clear example of this is moral failure, which unfortunately is one of the leading problems driving committed missionaries off the field. But the need to have good boundaries doesn’t apply just to our relationships, but to all spheres of life. When we are upset, it’s probably because someone violated one of our boundaries—or we crossed the boundary ourselves and got caught up either physically or emotionally in something that wasn’t our responsibility in the first place. Feeling overwhelmed, having too much to do, or feeling stressed are all warning signs of boundary problems related to how we spend our time, our work habits, and/or whether we are giving our personal, spiritual and relational needs the attention and care they deserve. Continuing to press on in the face of those boundary problems inevitably leads to burnout—another leading cause of missionary attrition.
It would be really nice if believing that boundaries are good and necessary automatically led to being able to set and keep healthy boundaries—but it doesn’t. We all struggle with setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. It takes hard work to identify what our boundaries should be, and even more work to set and maintain those boundaries. Attending to our boundaries may require more energy, patience, persistence, and courage than we feel we can give. We get confused about when a boundary is necessary and when it is appropriate to set it aside so we can get on with the demands life is placing on us. On top of this, we often find when we set a boundary that others don’t like the boundary and get upset or even refuse to respect it.
But I believe the bottom line reason for our struggle with boundaries is a spiritual issue. Boundaries are the way we live out our identity as God’s chosen people—frail and fallen humanity, yet dearly loved and set apart to be used for His glory’s sake. The only gift we have to offer in ministry is ourselves, fully surrendered to God so He can do His work through us. If we are to be able to offer this gift, we must have boundaries that keep us focused on our identity in Christ and keep us distinguishing what we are called to do from what is God’s responsibility (or another person’s). And therefore they are a prime target for Satan to attack.
Satan is a terrorist and he doesn’t fight fair. He delights in preventing God’s people from showing God’s glory or carrying out the work God has called us to do. Sometimes he hits us with a full onslaught of temptation—but when this happens, we know what is going on and are quicker to call on help to resist him. So he often prefers more subtle forms of attack, so we don’t realize we’re under attack and don’t defend ourselves properly against him. One such subtle form of attack is to undermine our boundaries, slowly eroding them so they can no longer protect us. Satan wants us to be confused about our boundaries so we don’t use them. Without those boundaries, we get confused about what belongs to us and what God has called us to be and do. We step into others’ (including God’s) territory and start taking at least emotional responsibility for what belongs to them, ending up doing what we ought not do. At the same time, we lose sight of what is our responsibility, so that we do not do what we ought to do. We see this pattern in Genesis 2 and 3. God gives Adam and Eve a clear statement about what fruit is available to them in the Garden and what is off limits. The fall begins by Satan questioning Eve about the boundary God had set. Her response to Satan shows she’s confused about what exactly is the correct boundary, which gives Satan the opening to plant the suggestion that the boundary isn’t really necessary. Once Eve starts questioning the necessity of that boundary, she is set up to eventually step over the boundary and fall into temptation.
Contrast Eve’s response to Satan with Jesus’ response when Satan attempts to tempt him in the wilderness. Jesus shows he is very clear about his identity and call—and that he is fully committed to doing nothing more and nothing less than living out that identity and call. He is the Son, not the Father, and he is called to take on human nature, and to be obedient to the Father—not to take over what belongs to the Father in order to prove a point. Throughout the gospels, Jesus says “I Am…”—and this self-definition allows him to set and keep appropriate boundaries, regardless of how other people reacted to them. He was scrupulous about keeping his alone time with his Father, and he stuck to following God’s agenda even when it looked like a different choice would lead to a happier result.
How can we apply Jesus’ example to our own lives today? We need to always keep in mind that boundaries are meant for our good, and that we need them. That does not mean every boundary we have is good. How do we tell where we need to set a boundary, or whether a boundary we’ve set is good and necessary? The only one who can answer that question for us is God, as He is the one who made us and knows what He has planned for us. Healthy boundaries are grounded in who we are in Christ, and are the framework for living out our call. Scripture, prayer and honest sharing with other mature believers are essential for discovering who we really are and what our boundaries should be. We may already have boundaries around our time, priorities, relationships, etc. that are consistent with who we are in Christ and our call, and we simply need the courage and persistence to keep those boundaries. Or we may discover that we don’t have proper boundaries in place in a certain area (such as how we use our time), and we need to set new ones. We may need to get rid of old boundaries because they aren’t a proper extension of who we are called to be in Christ. In every case, we need to undergird our effort to set and maintain healthy boundaries in prayer.
Remember: just because it may feel uncomfortable to set or maintain a boundary doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it. Your discomfort may have more to say about how Satan is attacking you than the appropriateness of that boundary. Just keep praying and asking God to show you who you are in Christ and His priorities for you. As long as your boundary is a reflection of who you truly are and God’s priorities for you, it’s right—whether or not it feels right or others react positively to it.