We are often told to set boundaries and then stick to them, but I don’t often see practical advice given on how to set those boundaries for yourself. Well, here’s some general advice that I’ve found useful over time and that I hope is helpful to you in setting your boundaries:
There are some things that are right and wrong for everyone.
God made us all and He knows what is best for us. He knows how we work, He knows what truly makes us happy and He knows what will lead to emptiness, harm and destruction. We are all made in His image and we are all made human – and because of this similarity, the same rules and principles are in place that apply to all of us. They don’t change over time and they are fixed for each and every one of us.
All we need to do is look in the Bible to see His standards for our lives and, if we follow them, they’ll do us good. The ten commandments is a great starting point but the Bible is full of great advice for living a fulfilled, contented and joyous life and it begins by respecting the guidance God lays out in his instruction manual about the world He created and the people He placed on it.
If it’s illegal, then it’s wrong.
God tells us to obey the laws we are subject to and it’s far too easy to decide to ignore certain ‘small’ or ‘insignificant’ laws because they don’t suit us, or because ‘it doesn’t harm anyone’.
The problem is that God tells us to live a better way: to honour Him in all we do and to get it right in the small things, so we can be trusted with bigger things. What kind of a witness are we if we don’t even do the small things we are entrusted with?
Sometimes we need to be honest about what we have decided we are going to do even though it’s wrong – from speeding, to cheating on taxes, to pulling a sickie, to downloading things illegally from the internet; it’s far too easy in our world to get sucked into the idea we can decide what laws to follow and which to ignore. Basically, unless the law of the land goes against what God says in His word (and it’s rare for this to happen) our boundaries must lie within the law – God’s quite clear on that.
Love God and love your neighbour.
Jesus himself summarises the ten commandments, and basically the entire Old Testament, by telling us to do two things: Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10 v 27).
If we follow these two rules in all the thousands of ways they apply to everyday life, we will be forming great boundaries in our lives. For specifics of what this means in certain situations, we can go back to the last three points above: the Bible is full of advice and the laws of the land we live in give us more guidance on how to live in community with others.
God isn’t all about restrictions, He’s all about love, but without rules and guidance, selfishness rules instead of love. If we love God and our neighbours (and Jesus shows us that anyone we come across is our neighbour!), we will do well in knowing where to draw the line.
There are some things that will be okay for some people but not for others.
Even though there are fixed rules for everyone, there are others that are flexible.
We don’t like grey areas; it’s far easier to keep everything in black and white. The first four points above tell us quite clearly what we should follow and the principles that should underpin our behaviour.
Clear basic rules are simple… but God didn’t make us simple. Everything about us is complex – incredibly, wonderfully and mind-bogglingly complex. This means that although there are some rules we just can’t argue with because they apply to us all, there are also other things we could choose to do in our lives that might be helpful and beneficial and acceptable for some, but which could cause huge issues for others.
The basic rules and principles are the same but the specifics are different. But why? Why can’t we all just follow one set of rules?
We are all unique and are all uniquely tempted.
God made us in His image but no two people are exactly the same. Our character, our passions, our life choices and even our temptations are different.
Some will be hugely tempted by certain things – I’m sure you know your own temptations already – and yet others find those same temptations easy to ignore and may not even consider them to be temptations at all.
If it’s an issue for you, cut it out.
Jesus spoke about this issue and told us that if something causes us to sin then we need to cut it out of our lives. It just isn’t right for us to keep going with it, even if it doesn’t cause issues for others we know.
This principle is one we often ignore because we want to live like everyone else – in other words, if someone else is doing something, we don’t want to miss out. The problem is, when we do that specific thing, we are not only carrying that out but the sin that it leads to in our life as well.
If we want to form good boundaries, spend time working out what is a problem for you.
It takes time to really think about what tempts you, or what gives you opportunities to sin. Be honest about it. That’s hard to do but well worth it in the end.
If you identify a problem set a boundary, even if no-one else you know is setting the same one. It’s not about what others are doing, it’s about protecting yourself in any way it takes for you to be protected.
There may be certain programmes or films that others can watch but when you watch them, your thoughts or your actions or your words are affected.
There may be certain people that you need to avoid, even if others have no issue spending time with them.
There could be certain places, events or gatherings that will lead onto things you aren’t proud of, which others can attend quite easily.
Going on certain sites or social media platforms on the internet (or even going on the internet at all) may cause you huge problems but others may use it every day without fault.
The reality is this: whatever it is, if it causes problems for you sexually, relationally, spiritually or in any other way, get rid of it – it’ll do you more good than you know.
It’s not about having less fun, it’s about reaching your potential.
It’s not easy saying “no” to things we will enjoy in the short term. Let’s be honest – we sin because it feels good. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. Either we receive some kind of short term pleasure (physically, emotionally, relationally etc.) or we avoid some kind of unpleasant circumstance (whether it’s a punishment, a tough circumstance or something we just don’t want to do etc.).
People criticise God by saying He doesn’t want us to have fun, when the reality is actually the truth: sin may be enjoyable straight away, but it’s the long lasting effects that cause us problems.
God knows that one sin leads to another and that it’s so easy to form habits that can be far more addictive and restrictive to us than never going there in the first place. He wants us to lead productive, effective, and fulfilling lives and the only way to do this is to choose to make good choices.
To cut certain things out of our lives, and embrace others, may be hard to do in the short term, but leads to huge rewards further down the line. We were made with a huge potential in us and God knows how we are going to reach that potential so His guidance to us is always entirely in line with that. This is also how we glorify Him in our lives every day – by living in a way that reaches our potential as this honours and pleases Him.
Form boundaries based on other’s wisdom rather than your own experience.
Many of us end up learning where to draw the line by going too far and realising we never should have crossed it in the first place.
Learning from other’s wisdom (especially from God’s as revealed in His word) is far better than having to discover our boundaries the hard way. And it really is the hard way because once you’ve crossed a boundary, you have to live with the extra temptation that provides for the rest of your life. In other words, once you’ve done something, it becomes far easier to do it again in the future.
You know how it feels, you’ve enjoyed the short term benefits of crossing the line, and it was enjoyable in some way. But having that experience in our memory can increase temptation an awful lot… and when it’s hard enough to stay on the right side of a boundary when you’ve never crossed it before, just imagine how tough it will be to never cross it again when you’ve already tasted the sweetness of that mistake.
Learning from others is far better, therefore, than learning from our own mistakes and we should strive to do it as often as we can.
Set very safe boundaries – even ones that are safer than they need to be.
How many times have we said that we will just cross the first boundary in our area of weakness and go no further, because that will be enough to satisfy our curiosity or fulfil our longings or meet a certain need?
But is it ever enough?
Once one line is crossed, the temptation to cross the next boundary very quickly appears. It may only be a small step each time, but ever boundary crossed takes you away from where God wants you to be and further into an area that will do you harm.
This is why it is better to set boundaries that are safer than they technically need to be – it may seem like overkill but, if it keeps you safe, then why not do it? There is just as much enjoyment to be had in life wherever you are, if you choose to look for it, rather than thinking you’re missing out if you don’t allow yourself to do what others are doing.
It’s harder to stay away from sin, the nearer we are to it. This is the reason why boundaries in any area of our lives should not be treated as lines to get as close as possible to, even if technically we can go closer without (seemingly) major consequence. The closer we get to a boundary, the harder it is not to cross it.
Keeping a safe distance gives us the extra protection we so often need, and if we turn to God in our place of protection we won’t be missing out at all. If our motivation in using boundaries is correct, this approach is what we will be doing anyway.
The principles above are quite general, but can help us determine where our boundaries should be.
The hard part is making sure we don’t try and justify what we want by convincing ourselves it’s a boundary that we can cross even though others cannot. Many have told themselves this lie and then found out later why it’s such a harmful one to believe.
There are many specifics boundaries that could be discussed, especially in the area of sex and sexual immorality. That is a great discussion to have, and one that desperately needs to be had if you’ve never considered your boundaries in this area before.
As you consider new areas and boundaries in your life, I have one final principle to explore with you:
Constantly bear in mind your motivation
The right motivation and perspective on the purpose of boundaries will help you draw lines in your life that will do you a lot of good. If your motivation, however, is one of pleasing yourself rather than protecting yourself, or of pushing boundaries instead of honouring God with your decisions, then it will be far too easy for you to pretend that your boundaries are good ones. In reality, they will be set much further from safety than they should be and will therefore do you no good at all.
I believe this principle may be the most important to successfully establishing boundaries in your life. As such, the final part of this series if dedicated to the issue of motivation and perspective.
[Continue this series in Part three]