Boundary Issues

Dec 07, 2006 |Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

For years we have been encouraged to set boundaries. But what happens when God demands the opposite?

The shoes sit by the door. I'm happy when I see them there in the morning — lined up in a neat row — because it means my housemate Lena is safe in bed. Lena only owns two pairs of shoes: one for work and one for everything else. I tried to buy her a pair of shoes for her birthday, but she didn't want any. "I just don't need them," she insisted.

Sometimes when I see the shoes, I wonder what Lena's life was like in the orphanage where she lived until she was 7. Did she place her shoes neatly beside her bed each night? I suspect her lack of material possessions has something to do with starting out with so little.

The shoes also remind me of the responsibility I now bear. Four months ago I didn't have to lose sleep if someone didn't come home at night. I didn't have to arrange my schedule to drive someone to work in the afternoon and pick her up again at night. I didn't have to worry that someone was sick or sad or scared.

I've known Lena for six years. This summer, when I invited her to live with me, I knew I was signing up for a challenge. But God had been working on my heart since last fall. That's when Lena moved out of her parents' house. She'd just turned 18.

We met often for coffee, so I knew her reasons for moving out. But the freedom she longed for eluded her as she struggled to finish high school while working to pay rent. She went through a dark time. I didn't hear from her for several months.

Then one day she called. Over caramel lattes, Lena told me how she had been living. She told me about the destructive choices and dark thoughts that ruled her. She told me about the anxiety attacks she'd been experiencing. She needs a place to rest, the Lord whispered.

I approached the decision with prayer. I understood Lena well enough to know that investing in her life to this extent was a risk. My heart could be broken. I also knew, beyond a doubt, that God had made me the one to offer Lena a home.

Off Limits

When I was in college, the book Boundaries by John Townsend and Henry Cloud was all the rage. Christians everywhere devoured the authors' advice to take control of their lives by learning when and how to say "no." Since that time the authors have written Boundaries With Kids, Boundaries With Teens, Boundaries in Marriage and Boundaries Face to Face. That's a lot of boundaries.

When Lena moved in, a friend asked me how I felt about bringing full-time ministry into my home. "How do you plan to set boundaries?" she asked. I hadn't even considered that; I only knew I was acting in obedience. I began to wonder if such boundaries even had a biblical foundation.

Certainly we are to be stewards of our bodies, minds and spirits. Even Jesus, who gave of himself generously during His ministry, slept when He needed rest and stole away from the crowds to spend time with His Father. Jesus knew His limits and chose wisely to maximize His ministry.

My brother is a youth pastor. He is also a husband and father. For him, boundaries are crucial. If he didn't have them, teens would be at his house 24-7. Their emotional needs would take over his life, and his family would suffer. Some boundaries are necessary.

But perhaps our definition of boundaries has become too stringent. I have observed people who are so strict with their "boundaries" that they withhold their gifts from others, afraid that someone might take advantage of them. I've also watched people guard their time so carefully that they are rarely available to others. Some seem reluctant to ever bear another's burden lest they become "too involved."

Expanding Borders

While on the surface personal boundaries seem like a good idea, the Bible doesn't wholly advocate them. Speaking of first-century Christians, Luke writes: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:44-46).

Boundaries for Early Christians would not have been a bestseller. In fact, the early church seems to have had some significant boundary issues. Acts describes people living in community, sharing all they had, selling their stuff to give to the poor. Believers today find this concept very uncomfortable. We cherish independence and privacy. We worry about being taken advantage of or losing something we deserve. We fear being manipulated or abused by another person.

But as followers of Jesus, we are called to hold loosely to our personal possessions and freedoms. These things are gifts from God, and He may call us to use them sacrificially. While this is a frightening prospect, He is not asking us to do something He hasn't done himself: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). The very gift of salvation was made possible when God demolished a boundary.

Some of the most uncomfortable things to do as a believer require sacrificing boundaries. My mom has issued a standing invitation to a divorced woman who lives alone to stop by for coffee any time. A friend of mine donates her graphic design skills to those who can't afford her services. A family I know invites "orphans" — single people away from their families — to their Thanksgiving table each year. These actions encroach on personal space, but they also impact lives.

In Her Shoes

When I began to pray about inviting a teen into my home, I felt God calling me to give up some boundaries, not establish new ones. I cleared items off my social calendar so I could be more available to Lena. I began leaving my door open at night before I went to bed in case she wanted to come in and talk. I accepted less rent, and I put more miles on my car.

But in relinquishing boundaries, I have discovered something immensely rewarding. I have the opportunity to convey spiritual truth to Lena every day. She studies my life. She watches my relationship with God. She observes how I deal with adversity, how I spend my money, how I treat other people.

God has used Lena to teach me things, too. I have discovered I cannot change someone. But what God can do in that life is infinitely more powerful than anything I could imagine. And when I least expect it, He graciously allows me to be part of it.

I think about that each morning when I see Lena's shoes by the door. I think about the late-night conversations we have at least once a week. I think about the text messages she sends: "Don't worry"; "Thanks for caring"; "I love you." I think about the hugs, and the silliness and the tears. And when I see those shoes, I'm happy.

Copyright 2006 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.

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