Boundaries and the Bible

As a teenager, I remember feeling annoyed that I had to drive co-workers out to and from the children’s camp where I used to work. I felt guilt ridden and shameful for needing time to myself when other’s had a need I could easily meet. Back then, I didn’t realize that my need to have some alone time was a way of caring for myself. If you’ve ever worked at a camp, you know that having time to yourself is limited. By not practicing boundaries and listening to my needs, everyone suffered as I was unable to be fully available to my co-workers and campers. 

I recently met with a professor who taught me during my masters. I asked him if we could talk over lunch about boundaries and the Bible. I often hear and see, both inside and outside the walls of my office, individuals with much confusion, anger, guilt and shame around these two areas. Some are taught, directly and indirectly, that boundaries are selfish. That saying ‘no’ to people, means you are not being ‘loving towards thy neighbour’. That when we are wronged, we are simply supposed to suck it up and turn the other cheek. 

I wanted to shed some light on this, and perhaps, clarify what boundaries are and are not, by looking at three Biblical passages. Whether you intentionally practice religion or not, read on. Perhaps there are concepts you have heard or picked up along the way.

Belief #1 - Aren’t we supposed to give up our lives… take up our cross per say? 

Many quote Matthew 10:38-39 when questioning boundaries: 

Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

One thing I learned while working on my masters is the necessity of studying Scripture within the context it was written in. In this context, Jesus is specifically talking to the 12 disciples, letting them know that the cost of following him may mean death. It was not uncommon for individuals to be killed for their faith during, and since, this time. This passage also lets the disciples know that by putting their faith in Jesus, even to the point of death, they will live on eternally (as per the Christian faith). That even thought they lose their earthly life, they will gain life eternally. 

This passage isn’t saying, let people walk all over you by living solely for other people. It is not saying, you must always say ‘yes’ to people’s request and tolerate their abuse. It is not saying, your life doesn’t matter. This passage is saying, “hey, this is the cost of following me. I’m being upfront about this… it’s your choice… and it is indeed a choice.” Choice is a crucial piece to boundaries, which brings me to my next point.

Belief #2 - Aren’t we supposed to turn the other cheek?

Matthew 5:38-42 says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

This passage is trying to get people to see that retaliation isn’t the answer. An eye for an eye only leaves two men blind, it doesn’t bring about reconciliation nor justice. This passage isn’t about promoting violence or perpetuating it. It’s urging people to settle issues instead of retaliating back and forth.

The part about going two miles instead of one, needs to be understood by taking into consideration the cultural customs of the time. The minimum requirement when ordered or asked to help a traveler was to go one mile. One, however, has the choice of travelling more if they so desired. This is an importance piece… choice. At any point after the customary one mile, they had the choice to decide when they wanted to stop. Boundaries aren’t boundaries if one is forced into it. That’s slavery. It’s not boundaries when one is forced into a behaviour due to a power imbalance, such as in abuse. One cannot turn the cheek on their own (deciding their boundaries), when there’s injustice, manipulation or coercion. 

Belief #3 - Jesus would have done it… aren’t we supposed to do what he does? 

I want to point out that in Matthew 14, a passage that shows Jesus practicing boundaries. Earlier in the chapter, his dear and beloved cousin, John the Baptist, was murdered by King Herod. After this happened, Jesus was saddened, got into a boat and withdrew to a private and solitary place. He took the time he needed until he felt ready to go back to the people waiting for him. He didn’t shove his feelings aside and say, “they don’t matter”. He took care of himself before returning to the crowds.  I’m sure you’ve heard this saying before, and as cliché as it might be, it holds true: You can’t fill someone else’s cup when yours is empty. Or, you can’t drive someone to the store when your car is broken. In order to help others out, we must take care of ourselves. This doesn’t mean you have to wait until everything in your life is perfect before lending a hand, but you need to know how much reserves you have left before giving some away.