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How to Establish Healthy Boundaries

Mac McCarthy
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June 20, 2022

Have you ever felt stuck in an unhealthy or toxic relationship? Despite your best attempts to relate to the other person with maturity and respect, the other individual seems unable to reciprocate. Locked in patterns of dysfunction, what are you supposed to do? In this post we explore what it looks like to establish healthy relational boundaries.

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Relationships are hard. Period.

If you are going to pursue deep and meaningful relationships with other homosapiens, you will experience some significant challenges. It’s not an if, but a when sort of thing.

Even in a healthy relationship, between two decently functioning individuals with high levels of maturity, conflict is inevitable. This isn’t always a bad thing, but often just an indication of difference. No two people are exactly alike. Differences exist, and those differences create tension. When tension mounts, it creates conflict.

Conflict is an unavoidable reality between two people who are willing to be real with one another.

When conflict is engaged with maturity, it can truly be transformative. Facing our differences with love, respect, and interpersonal maturity can lead to deeper understanding and relational trust. Working through conflict well often leads to a deeper relationship on the other side of difference. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Getting stuck

Working through differences is all fine and good when you are dealing with a reasonably functional human being. But what if you are in a relationship with someone who is highly dysfunctional or even toxic? What do you do with someone who continually says or does things that are deeply hurtful? What does a relationship look like then?

For followers of Jesus love is non-negotiable. Our primary call is to love people the way that Jesus loves us (John 13:34-35). There is, in fact, never a time when we are NOT to be loving (1 Corinthians 16:14)! But part of the challenge is knowing what love looks like in different circumstances, like a dysfunctional and toxic relationship?

As a pastor, I’ve encountered many people who continually absorb dysfunction, toxicity, and abuse in the name of love. They believe that to do anything else would be un-loving. 

This may sound obvious, but when you are caught in a dysfunctional, toxic, or abusive relationship, allowing someone to repeatedly hurt you in the name of love is not loving. It’s not loving you and it’s not loving the other person. But what’s the alternative?

The importance of boundaries 

When you are stuck in an unhealthy relationship, what you need is not a greater tolerance for dysfunction but a greater capacity for creating boundaries.

A boundary is a limit or space between you and another person.

Boundaries mark a clear space where you end and the other person begins. It’s sort of like a fence. “Here’s my property. Here’s what belongs to me. And here’s your property. Here’s what belongs to you”. Henry Cloud and John Townsend say this in their book entitled Boundaries:

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us to keep the good in and the bad out.”

We mistakenly assume that boundaries are harsh and inherently unloving. But healthy relationships promote healthy boundaries. Mature, emotionally healthy adults know how to set their own boundaries and know how to respect the boundaries of others. And this is exactly why Jesus didn’t live a boundary-less life. Jesus prioritized healthy boundaries for the sake of cultivating healthy relationships.

Healthy relationships promote healthy boundaries.

One way we see Jesus establishing boundaries was by walking away from others and allowing other people to walk away from him. In his book When to Walk Away, Gary Thomas notes 41 instances when Jesus either walked away or watched others walk away from him.

Jesus walked away from other people

There are tons of examples in the gospels where Jesus walked away from people:

Jesus walked away from the crowds and the demands they placed on him

In Mark 1 Jesus got up early in the morning to spend time alone in prayer. Jesus walked away from the demands of ministry for personal refreshment in God’s presence. When his disciples show up and tell Jesus that everyone is looking for him, Jesus leaves to go preach the gospel in other places. Jesus often dismissed the crowds to retreat by himself or with his disciples.

Jesus walked away when people didn’t want him to stay

In Mark 5 there is a rather bizarre story where Jesus heals a demonized man and a bunch of pigs die in the process. The people in the town are so freaked out they ask Jesus to leave. Jesus honors their request. He gets in a boat and sails away. He doesn’t stay. He walks away.

Jesus walked away from contentious interactions with the religious leaders

In Mark 8 some Pharisees demand that Jesus perform a sign to prove himself. Jesus refuses and then it says, “he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side” (v.13). Jesus didn’t avoid confrontations with the religious leaders, but he did put boundaries around them. He engaged, spoke the truth, and then walked away.

Jesus walked away when traps were set for him

In John 7 we are told that Jesus intentionally avoided the region of Judea because the Jewish leaders were looking to kill him. After reading from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4, the crowds get upset and try to drive Jesus off a cliff. But it says, “Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (v.30).

Walking away is not the same as giving up

Some people really struggle with this idea of Jesus walking away from others. I once had a woman leave our church because she was adamant that Jesus never walked away from people. She apparently failed to catch the irony. “Wait, hold up. You’re walking away from our church because Jesus never walked away from people?”

To get at what’s behind this concern I find it helpful to distinguish between walking away and giving up. Whereas Jesus was willing to walk away from people (as we just saw), you never see Jesus give up on people. Whenever Jesus walks away it was in order to put a boundary in place for the sake of the relationship—not to give up on the other person. Jesus never quits on us.

Jesus allowed other people to walk away from him

Perhaps the best example of Jesus allowing someone to walk away from him is the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.

The story tells of a wealthy man who asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him to keep the 10 commandments. The man insists that he has kept all of the commands. Jesus responds, “If you want to be perfect, go, and sell all your possessions and give them to the poor… then come follow me” (19:21). We are told that the young man heard this and walked away sad because he had an incredible amount of wealth.

What’s most fascinating is what happens next. Jesus lets him walk.

Jesus doesn’t chase after him. He doesn’t run him down and try to reason with him. “You know how I said you must sell everything and follow me? Well I was just exaggerating. How about we reconsider this together?”

Jesus lets the rich young ruler walk. He doesn’t give chase or track him down.

Also, notice there’s not a hint in the text that Jesus was anxious about this man walking away from him. In fact, in the next verse it tells us that Jesus turned and began teaching his disciples. Jesus takes this moment to teach those who are already eager to learn. Jesus goes where the grace is by investing his time and energy in those who are already willing to follow.

Jesus taught his disciples how to walk away

Jesus didn’t live a boundary-less life. Jesus was responsible to people, but didn’t take responsibility for people. He knew what was his to own and he knew what belonged to others. And because of this, he often put boundaries in place.

Jesus was responsible to people, but didn’t take responsibility for people.

Sometimes a boundary involves walking away from others.

Sometimes a boundary involves watching others walk away from you.

In Luke 9 we see Jesus training his disciples to do the same thing. Jesus sends out the 12 to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God. He then gives them these instructions: “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (9:5). If people don’t welcome you, Jesus says, shake the dust and walk away.

These same instructions are related when Jesus sends out the 72 in the next chapter. In both cases, Jesus is clarifying responsibility. Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Your job is to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom. Proclaim the good news and heal the sick. That’s your job. But how others respond is not up to you. It’s up to them. And when they don’t respond, shake the dust and walk away as a visible way of letting them know that their response is their responsibility."

Questions for Reflection:

  • Where might you need to cultivate healthy boundaries?
  • What is difficult for you about walking away from other people?
  • When have other people expected more than you are able to give?
  • What is difficult for you about watching other people walk away?
  • Do you ever try to chase people down to get them to reconsider? 
  • How do you discern responsibility to vs responsibility for in a relationship?
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