Boundaries

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My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. (Galatians 6:1-5)

Rich’s message this week called us to have integrity in our dealings as Christians in any situation we might encounter. He gave us three principles to help us in this: claiming our time, self-differentiation, and establishing disciplines. They’re all related to intentionality and to keeping Christ at the center of our lives. We need to live all of life in light of who we are in Christ and what Christ has called us to do.

Brenda Account PictureI was particularly struck by the call to self-differentiation. It was all about boundaries—setting clear boundaries so we know what is ours and what belongs to someone else—so that we aren’t defined by others, but by Christ, and we aren’t trying to make others into the people we want them to be but allowing them to find their own identity in Christ. We once spent an adult education class reading the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend that made some of the same points. I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

Along the way, Rich warned us about dumping our anxieties and misery onto other people, wanting to make them as miserable as we are ourselves. Conversely, we should have a strong enough sense of our own identity not to be engulfed and swept away by the problems of others. Neither of these situations is healthy for anyone involved.

I pondered this for a while. What’s the difference between going to someone for help and dumping our problems on them? What’s the difference between empathetic listening and losing your way in someone else’s problems? These lines can be a bit tricky sometimes, especially in close relationships that may have a lot of baggage.

There’s an old saying that misery loves company. We may know people who are exhausting to be around because they drain our emotional resources. They demand our sympathy, but we know from experience that nothing we do or say will make any difference. They are so immersed in their distress that they can’t take an interest in other people’s lives. Maybe we love someone like this. Maybe we are someone like this.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about people who are in crisis or who are struggling with a long-term problem. All of us fit into one of these categories at some time or other. But there’s a difference between being in crisis and wanting everyone else to be in crisis because we are.

So what’s the difference? If we’re the one in crisis, maybe it means honestly asking for help. That can be hard to do, but we all need to do it sooner or later. That’s one of the reasons the church exists. Pretending to one another that everything is fine doesn’t honor the intimacy Jesus wants to create among his people. Venting to a trusted person is okay. But while everybody needs to vent once in a while, doing it all the time doesn’t respect the other person, who no doubt has problems of their own. Once we ask for help, we need to consider it honestly and respectfully when it’s offered—even when it may mean changes or hard work on our part.

We should also be sensitive to the person we’re sharing our burdens with. If they’re tired or burdened themselves, it may not be a good time to call on them. Sometimes, when we do call on them, we may just need to let them share their burdens with us. Where we can, we should foster genuine two-way relationships that bless both parties.

If we’re the one ministering to someone in crisis, we need to set healthy boundaries. We are called to sympathize deeply with one another, to bear one another’s burdens and weep with those who weep. But if we lose our way in depression or despair, we can’t help ourselves or anyone else. We have to remember that in Christ we have a place to stand. Despite all the trials of life, we have hope; we have the Spirit, the Scriptures, and the church. This is what we have to offer one another when life gets too hard. Sometimes we just have to hold on to these things.

In Galatians 6, Paul says that we must bear one another’s burdens, but we must also carry our own load. Burdens are meant to be shared, but we must take responsibility for the “load” of our own lives. Figuring out which is which can be difficult sometimes, but we owe it to one another to try. With God’s grace, mutual forgiveness, and a sense of humor, we can sort it out.

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