This article is helpful for anyone who involved in relationships counseling, family counseling, couples counseling, reconciliation counseling, and marriage counseling/marriage therapy.
In the first post, we considered love and the kingdom of God as the deepest metaphors for Christian relationships. But boundaries are part of a loving life in the kingdom of God. They acknowledge our limits and protect our priorities, giving us time and space to worship God and love others.
There will always be circumstances that threaten to pull us from our God-given mission and people who want us to mend their lives. In a perfect world, everyone would be naturally unselfish and want the best for everyone else. But the world isn’t perfect, and we sometimes experience (or become) intrusive, needy, nosy, selfish, manipulative, and demanding people. If we don’t believe this is true, we’re self-deceived (1 John 1:8).
What are some signs we’re neglecting our limits and dishonoring God? Where might it be loving to draw lines in relationships?
Love Till it Hurts?
In his helpful critique of Drs. Cloud and Townsend’s book, Boundaries, Dr. Ed Welch encourages discernment and love as an alternative to putting up boundaries. Many boundary questions can be addressed using wisdom and love. But this is only helpful when we know what wise love looks like in real life. If we’ve been conditioned to believe love is martyrdom, or a soft thing that invites trampling, practicing our idea of love will not be helpful.
I’ve known very few people who sinfully impose boundaries. I’ve mostly known people who are run ragged and burnt out, always capitulating to the crises of others. I’ve been that person. Our motives are always tinged with sin—we may serve and perform from a desire to be accepted, respected, or perceived as capable. But we may also have been schooled into a sickly version of love.
While our Western society prizes individuality, many subcultures prize people who sacrifice for the system. In a family, this might look like the “good girl” who is praised for sharing her toys with a bully, or the teenager who buries his personal struggles to serve as the emotional anchor of the family, or the mom who is encouraged to believe self-care is selfish. In a church, this might look like the ministry leader who is applauded for never taking a day off, or the volunteer commended for being at the heart of every program, or subtle pulpit rhetoric that if you’re struggling, depressed, or lonely, you just need to show up and serve more.
In this view, being a good Christian means helping others till it hurts you. Love does include self-sacrifice (1 John 3:16). But unless this truth is counter-weighted with the truths of humility, human frailty, and human dignity, this hardline ethic of self-sacrifice could lead to dark places:
Valuing service for Christ more than abiding in Christ
Conditioning others to depend on you rather than God
Idolizing your reputation
Neglecting your own health, spiritual life, and family
Misplaced guilt for non-sin issues (“letting others down”)
Nourishing resentment toward people who use you
Experiencing over-responsibility for other people’s problems
This is not self-sacrifice; it is self-annihilation: destroying ourselves for the sake of “service” to God rather than love for Him. Only from a place of abiding in God’s love can we obey Him and lay down our lives for others (John 15:1-17). Life as a disciple isn’t only about serving Jesus. We must surrender to the upside-down beauty of being served by Jesus, too (see John 13).
From this place of Christ-dependence, we can evaluate our relationships and commitments more deeply. This is a complex process, and it will look different for everyone, but two initial steps might be: mend your harmful relationships and defend your God-given mission.
Mend Your Relationships
The idiom “mending fences” typically refers to repairing or improving a relationship that’s been broken. In your life, what damaged relationships call for repair? Are there people you’ve allowed too close, too deep? People who consistently, unrepentantly harm you? Looking back at our vision of Christlike love, we could ask:
What people demand my time and energy for their own benefit?
What people make me doubt my dignity?
What people make me believe my best effort isn’t good enough?
God calls us to be merciful with ungrateful, sinful people—we were once like them, and He showed us mercy (Luke 6:35; Heb. 5:2). But mercy doesn’t allow a person to destroy themselves or destroy others (see any biblical prophetic book!). It is not loving to allow someone to treat you with contempt or take advantage of your gifts. At best, it allows someone to unhealthily depend on you, and at the worst, it demands your service to an intimidating other who is posturing themselves in the place of God. If you allow others to rule your life or look to you as their messiah—someone who never fails, never disappoints, never lets them down—you are functionally complicit in both idolatry and human degradation.
If confrontation is neither safe nor productive, it is loving to create distance. In some cases, we mend by ending a relationship. Christ-honoring relationships affirm our dignity and do impose limits on people (Ex. 34:5-7; Isa. 61:1-3; Ps. 8:3; Rom. 12:10). The crucial conversation is still love. But love rejoices in truth and does not allow a person to continue sinning or self-deluding (Prov. 28:13; 1 Cor. 13:6; Gal. 5:19-21).
Defend Your Mission
Establishing relational boundaries frees us to honor God in our unique mission. We can’t salve every bleeding soul and give to every worthy cause. Our God-given calling is the rubric that helps us say yes and no.
Consider your mission—how has God called you to glorify and enjoy Him? E.g., baking cakes, building bridges, studying string theory.
Consider your priorities—what are your God-given responsibilities? E.g., excellence in your work, faithfulness to your immediate and spiritual family, focusing on a degree program.
Consider your finite resources—how much time, energy, and money can you wisely allocate?
Consider your season—where has God placed you? E.g., caring for small children, studying for the bar, retirement.
These factors are part of the unique person God built you to be. For example, you may be a gifted linguist who is focusing on translating Matthew’s Gospel into Urdu, even though your church would rather you host wedding showers and make casseroles. Or you’re in medical residency, or you just had a new baby, and it’s enough just to get through the day and (maybe) sleep. Your God-appointed mission requires complete focus for this season—and protecting that mission glorifies Him.
There will always be people who want you to give more than you can give, and it’s your job to define and defend your limits. Saying “no” is not unloving. It honors God and allows others to look to Him and their community for help.
Only God Can Love Limitlessly
In the end, establishing limits glorifies God because it acknowledges that only He is limitless. Only our Sovereign King is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, and everywhere-present. We cannot be. It honors God when we acknowledge that we really can’t do it all for everyone. Only God can love limitlessly. We can model Christlike love, but we are not Christ. You and I cannot be the Savior, but we can point to Him.
If you’re a person who has been used and taken advantage of, whose mission has been trampled by others, Christ calls you to receive His love. He gives you His honorable name, and He actually serves you before He empowers you to serve others (James 3:9; John 13). He invites you to abide in Him, rest in His love, and obey Him. And only as we abide in Christ, acknowledge our human frailty, and embrace our human dignity can we begin to learn to love (John 15; Ps. 8:5; 103:14; 1 Thess. 4:9).
Dr. Edward T. Welch, “Boundaries in Relationships,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 22:3, Spring 2004 (Glenside, PA: Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, 2004), 21.
 For a more robust discussion of being served by Christ, see Dr. Michael Horton: “Jesus: The Servant that Serves Us” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTKBMXFKH1k, Valued Conference 2019, San Diego, California, accessed January 19, 2021).
 “Mend Fences,” Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mend%20fences, accessed January 19, 2021).
Posted with permission from The Biblical Counseling Coalition: https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2021/01/29/love-limits-and-mending-fences-part-two/