Love, Limits, and Mending Fences, Part 1

This article is helpful for anyone who does relationships counseling, family counseling, couples counseling, reconciliation counseling, and marriage counseling.

By Anna Mondal

Imagine you’re welcoming a new family into the neighborhood. “If you need anything at all, I’m just next door,” you offer. But to your horror, your goodwill is trampled. Within a month, your garage freezer is empty, your lawn is littered with their moving boxes, and your guillotined rose blooms decorate their dining room. What do you do? Have a conversation about neighbor etiquette? Build a 10-foot-tall fence? Resign to your fate and “love your neighbor”?

Most of us won’t experience such extreme boundary violations, at least not literally. But we might know what it’s like to be taken advantage of, to have our goodwill trampled on in relationships. Maybe we’ve been taught that love always sacrifices. Maybe we’re used to feeling drained and squashed by others. But does this way of life accurately reflect Christ’s kingdom? In this post, we’ll look at the idea of love and limits through a Jesus-informed, life-giving lens.[1]

What’s a Boundary?

A boundary[2] is an acknowledgment of human limitations: “I have this much time and energy, no more.” Boundaries help us guard our God-given priorities: “I am called to this, not that.” This might look like:

Declining a volunteer opportunity to instead focus on a troubled relationship

Telling a distressed friend you’d love to talk but only have 20 minutes

Creating distance between yourself and an unrepentantly harmful person

Is this selfish, or is it stewardship? It depends. Some people enforce boundaries to keep people out of their lives. Some are motivated by a desire for comfort or self-preservation. But boundaries are not always that black-and-white; like many questions we face, this one requires discernment and differentiation.

Dr. Ed Welch highlights that the concept of boundaries isn’t bad, but it doesn’t reflect the deepest vision of life in Christ’s Body. “Boundaries…are not intended to be a dominant, life-guiding metaphor for relationships.”[3] The primary metaphor that drives our life together is the kingdom of God, and the greatest calling of that life is love for God and neighbor (Matt. 5-7; 22:36-40).

What Is Love?

So is that it, end of discussion? All we need is love? As much as we love the idea of love, sin damages even the way we think about it, as well as our ability to practice it (Rom. 7:14-8:11).

Before we can think well about relational limitations, we must understand Christ-shaped love. Is it self-sacrifice or self-annihilation? Is it muscular or soft? Does it always overlook, or does it confront? Self-sacrifice and offense-covering “are, indeed, features of love, but they are not its totality,” Welch writes, adding that “Love also rebukes, warns, and doesn’t always bail [people] out.”[4] Love treats people like Christ treats us: it receives us by grace, “but [doesn’t allow] us to just destroy ourselves with sin.”[5]

Growing in Christlikeness includes growing in relational maturity—which means none of us is entirely relationally healthy yet. We carry sin, weakness, woundedness, family baggage, and broken temperaments into every relationship. Some of us have been chronically silenced or exploited. Others carry the burden of abuse or neglect. Some of our relationships are tainted by a desire for approval, worth, or meaning. And all these elements play into how we love (or harm) other people.

In the new world, our relationships will be harmonious and free from the toxicity of sin. But the world isn’t new yet, and we aren’t perfectly mature in love yet (Rom. 8:18-39). In this life, relational boundaries matter because only God can love limitlessly. So how do limited humans model Divine love?

Christlike Love Invites into Honor

Our style of relating must always be informed by the way God relates to us. What is the vibe of Christlike love? Looking at the life of Jesus (who explains the Father to us—John 1:18), let’s highlight two ways He showed love: invitation and self-giving.

Jesus invited others into connection. He invited the disciples to follow, invited the crowds to listen, invited the thirsty to come and drink, the weary to come and rest (Matt. 4:19; 5-6; John 4; Matt. 11:28-30). He longed for His people’s nearness, He grieved their distance, but never forced their closeness (Matt. 23:37-39). Jesus let people walk away, respecting their “no.” (Mark 10:17-27).

The only way we come to the Father in faith is because He draws us with ropes of love and cords of kindness (Jer. 31:3; Hos. 11:4; John 6:44). Christ’s posture is one not of intrusion but of invitation—He welcomes us into Himself. He doesn’t demand relationship; He offers it. In the words of George Herbert, Love bids us welcome and invites us to come and taste Christ’s favor.[6]

A love that invites is a love that gives honor. We demand compliance from inhuman entities that exist to serve us (like our vehicles or a therapy dog, or When we do not honor someone, we treat them as inferior, and we seek to subordinate them, bend them to our will. But humans are to be honored because we bear the honorable image of God (Gen. 1:27; Ps. 8:5; James 3:9). As we seek to replicate this love in relationships, we must consider that Christlike love upholds human dignity.

Christlike Love Gives Life

Christlike love is invitational (not forceful), and it is also self-giving: “God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).” In the words of Elisabeth Elliot, Christian love is a willing self-sacrifice that says, “my life for yours.”[7] Love isn’t superior or self-seeking; it’s humble and self-forgetful (1 Cor. 13:4-5; Phil. 2:1-4).

But Christian love must be a willing, Spirit-aided choice—it cannot be compulsory. Nobody has the right to force another person to sacrifice themselves and call it love. People who demand us to “love” them by tolerating their abuse and violation are asking us to sin, not love.[8]

Jesus gave His life willingly; no one wrenched it from Him (John 10:18). His Messianic mission didn’t look at all the way people wanted it to; He stepped away from the crowds that tried to make Him King by force (John 6:14-15). Christ’s mission was shaped by obedience to His Father, not capitulation to human demands (Luke 2:49; John 5:19-30; John 13). Similarly, our demonstration of love must be shaped by our Father’s desires for us, not the demands and expectations of others. When we live to satisfy others, we might be more consumed by fear than love.

It’s also crucial to remember that Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t end in sacrifice—it led to life for many (Isa. 53:10-12; John 11:25; 2 Cor. 5:15). Sacrificial suffering is only redemptive when there is a life-giving, joy-seeking, God-glorifying motivation behind it (Heb. 12:1-2). Redemptive suffering is only possible in Christ, and a willing attitude of love is a gift from His Spirit. Suffering for the sake of suffering is what masochists and sadists do, and it’s Christless.

In the next post, we’ll consider how to practically create and guard relational limits.

[1] The topic of relational boundaries is a complex one, and one I’m still pondering. If you want to dive deeper into the biblical ethics of boundaries, see the recommended resources below.
[2] This term has been popularized by Drs. Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say YES When to Say NO to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992). While readers may disagree with some content, the books are not wholly without merit, and can be a practical help to struggling people when used in community with other wise voices. It is right to read responsibly. But we should also read charitably, because “the law of love demands that we open a book in hope that gifts may be exchanged.” Richard Hughes Gibson, “In Search of Charitable Writing,” Articles, Plough, (posted December 14, 2020).
[3] Dr. Edward T. Welch, “Boundaries in Relationships,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 22:3, Spring 2004 (Glenside, PA: Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, 2004), 19.
[4] Ibid., 23.
[5] Tim and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York, NY: Dutton, 2011), 142.
[6] George Herbert, “Love (III),” The Poetry Foundation, (accessed January 15, 2021).

[7] See Elisabeth Elliot, Keep a Quiet Heart (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine Books, 1995), 141-143.
[8] If abuse is present in a relationship, this is no longer about human boundaries; this is about God’s commands. Treating a human like trash isn’t just a sin against one human, it is violence against our Maker. Love rejoices in truth and does not allow an oppressor to continue sinning or self-deluding (Prov. 28:13; 1 Cor. 13:6; Gal. 5:19-21).

This article posted with permission of The Biblical Counseling Coalition: