Jesus Had Good Boundaries…So Why Don’t We?

If love is often blind, then I would say that one of the more pronounced areas of blindness common in our lives is how our hearts deceive us into “loving” people who are hell-bent on cynically leveraging that love to their own demise.

Dave Ramsey

Apparently, a whole lot of people have been helped by listening to this Dave Ramsey guy. My own household is a case in point; thanks to years of following Dave’s advice, the Mayer family is blessedly debt-free (with the single exception of our mortgage payment). So, yes…this Ramsey guy is fiscally wiser than me, and what he says actually holds up as truth over the long haul. Last week, Dave sent out a subscriber e-mail entitled “Mom’s Nonexistent Boundaries” in response to a guy named Deron who has been cleaning up his mother’s financial messes for many years. It goes without saying that Deron’s admirable – but misguided – sense of “taking care of Mom” has wrought miserable outcomes in the life of Deron’s immediate family. True to form, Dave kept it short and simple:

I guess I would stop paying [your mother’s] bankruptcy bill. Just say, “Mom, I’m not going to participate in you making bad decisions. When you get ready to make a major life decision like [quitting your job], because I’m putting money into your life, you owe me a discussion on that to help you make better decisions, because your decisions hurt me. I love you, and it hurts me to watch you make decisions that destroy your life. And I am not going to finance and support decisions that are harmful to you. I love you too much for that.”

I can almost hear the objections: “Wait a minute! Why is a finance wizard speaking into such an emotionally-charged family issue?” The truth is that our money and emotions really are interwoven; the way we spend our resources is very much an emotional issue, whether we care to believe that or not. In Luke 12:34, Jesus made it plain enough: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Have you noticed yet that Jesus says a lot of things that, at first pass, sure sound unloving?)

Christians are called to model the life and teachings of Christ; one of the more common mistakes we make in attempting to do just that is to assume that we must always pour ourselves out entirely – day after awful day, and in every possible way – for those we love who will not relent in their foolishness nor follow up on even one of the many promises they make to “clean up their act.” Many good-hearted Christians will over-interpret the “seventy-seven times” forgiveness verses to mean that they are somehow shackled forever to the sin, folly and rebellion of another family member.

But there is a huge difference between forgiveness and enabling. Yes, you must forgive (Matthew 6:14-15; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). However, you are not called to support sinful behavior in others by enabling it, or worse (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Timothy 5:8; 1 Timothy 5:20).

Foolproofing Your Life
by Jan Silvious

So where exactly is “the line?” When do we cross over from sincerely wanting to help a person – as we are all called to do – to “actively enabling” them to stay stuck in their sinful behavior patterns, either by perpetually funding or otherwise coddling them?

Here’s one thing I now know for sure: If you are emotionally tied to the person who is engaged in destructive behavior of any kind, you are very likely the least qualified person on the planet to make this judgment call. Your emotional response to tragedy in the life of a loved one makes it very hard to be the “voice of reason,” at least without any help.

You will need the wisdom of more objective people to figure out how to respond. Few things remedy our spiritual blindness more than when we allow other trusted Christians to help us see what we can’t see, and then address these admittedly-difficult issues.

In addition to the help of other believers, two of the very best books I have come across in this realm are Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend and Foolproofing Your Life: How to Deal Effectively with the Impossible People in Your Life by Jan Silvious. Doubters make take hold of the phrase “your life” in both titles and mistakenly assume that these books are more or less in the self-improvement category; they are not. What these authors – and Dave Ramsey – all know is that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) and one person’s messes are never, ever an isolated affair. Addiction, legal fees, bankruptcy, imprisonment, DWI’s and the like never happen to one person; they happen in community, and they impact that community.

Boundaries by Henry
Cloud and John Townsend

I am thoroughly convinced that one of the more powerful ways we as Christians model Jesus and love our neighbors is by helping others sacrificially, while also drawing hard lines against those that transgress against the common good, especially when the transgressors look a lot like us and/or share our last name. Yes, it takes a lot of guts and a deep trust in Jesus to start saying “No” to loved ones, but doing so – in a biblical manner, it must be said – brings glory to God even as it brings pain to our hearts. And while it may not feel like you’re helping someone when you say “No,” that may be the most helpful thing you do, as you force them to address the slothful, irresponsible and destructive patterns in their lives.

This is not an academic issue for me, either. I do not read books like these as a dispassionate “armchair observer.” As much as I dearly love both of my departed parents, I can say without doubt that their willingness to allow me to live in their home rent-free after college simply had the effect of transferring their hard-earned funds into an account earmarked for alcohol, cocaine, parties and pills. Somehow, as a young man, I could never put together enough money to pay rent and utilities or buy groceries…but I always brought a fresh stack of twenties to the liquor store or my preferred drug dealer. And I was able to provide convincing arguments as to why this was so, defending my desire to continue diverting funds to my own selfish agenda. I’ve wondered many times what kind of life-changing impact it might have had on me back in the early 1980’s had my parents told me I could no longer be so fiscally irresponsible under their roof.

By all means, love the people in your life who are struggling. Yes, yes, encourage them to get help and be willing to give sacrificially of your time, talent and treasure for those who are seriously broken but also serious about helping themselves out of that situation. Glorify God as you give your life away to cooperating with God in His redemptive plan for all of humanity. But think hard and wisely about the situation and get at least two or three other Christians to offer you their perspective so you don’t find yourself constantly throwing your pearls before unrepentant swine (Matthew 7:6).

  • Genesis 3:1-4: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.”
  • Proverbs 13:1: A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
  • Proverbs 22:15: Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
  • Proverbs 29:15: The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
  • 2 Corinthians 7:10: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
  • Hebrews 12:11: For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

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