Recent studies show that helping behaviors are on the decline in our society. Stanley Milgram, one of my favorite social psychologists, conducted a study in 2001, and repeated it in 2011, that showed a ten percent decline in our willingness to help others. Social theories, including the bystander effect (sort of an “I’ll help if you will, but I won’t if you won’t, too” sort of thing), also speak to the decline in prosocial behaviors of late.
Often, we ask, “What is my involvement in this situation going to cost me?” We need to know the cost vs. benefit ratio of our helping or investing in someone else, and then we can decide if the investment is worth the return. Many times, these decisions take time and thought, but more often, such decisions happen in the blink of an eye. We stoop to pick up something a stranger dropped on the sidewalk and return it to them. We offer directions to a lost traveler when we are asked. Those are the easy ones.
Luke 14:28 explains that Jesus told the disciples it would be very wise of them to count the cost of following Him. In the end, He knew that investment would cost them everything.
It is rare that our investment in others costs us everything, but what if the outcome is not what we had hoped or had been promised? Then we begin to think twice about venturing in again, right? Maybe the cost was monetary or tangible in nature. Maybe it was a loss of reliability in the person or extreme disappointment in the situational result. I think we can all tell tales of reaching out to help, only to have our hands bitten in the process. The more often that happens, the less likely we are to continue reaching out our wounded hand.
Both Oscar Wilde and my mother are attributed with having said, “No good deed goes unpunished”. I’m pretty sure Oscar said it first. Still, I always thought this was a very sardonic attitude about helping people. After all, the Bible says, “Do not grow weary in doing good…”. That doesn’t seem to correspond with the “No good deed” adage. But then there are the verses, many of them, that warn us against investment in those who insist on behaving foolishly. When scripture comes down on both sides of an issue, it is then that we seek the wisdom for the situation and apply scripture with discernment.
The danger we face in having the “No-good-deed” attitude is that past experiences of poor investment cloud our willingness to seek to help others in the future. We are called to be salt and light. Salt must be applied, and light must be shown. We need to shake the sand of past disappointments from our sandals and move toward the hope of future investment. It is a risky proposition, but the best investments with the largest returns usually are.
I don’t say much on public platforms anymore. It’s just too hard for too little positive return. Instead of considering how a differing opinion can impact one’s own self-evaluation, we dig in our heels and throw stones at people we should be loving, or worse, we cancel them. I’m not about that. Throwing stones or canceling people. I’ve got too many other, more important, things to get done.
But as I taught my undergraduate Sociology class today, we talked about Postmodernism, and it got me to thinking about the hot topics in the news these days and how we are thinking about them. Postmodernism is a bit of an enigma. Some say it is a social theory, some say it is a philosophy, and others say it is a period of art and literature. I say it is all of these, but mainly it is a worldview. It is a reactionary worldview. Reactionary behavior is never good, really. It causes knee-jerk behaviors that result in widely sweeping pronouncements and actions.
Postmodernism was bound to happen. Modernism came into being during the 19th Century at a time when everyone believed that science had the answers to the world’s questions, and it quickly replaced religion and faith that had previously laid claim to all the answers. We no longer needed faith, we had science to reveal truth. We had research and scientific methods to give answers to most of the world’s questions, and for those not yet answered, just stay tuned. Surely, they would be forthcoming. Don’t get me wrong. I love science, and science has answered a lot of questions for us.
But who could blame those who came after the World Wars for the postmodern reaction we are now living in? Modern science gave us weapons to kill in abundance. It gave us nuclear bombs that destroyed entire cities, and chemicals like Agent Orange that caused death over time. It paved the way for human experimentation by the Nazi’s and the ability to end life before it had a fighting chance.
Postmodernism is telling us that everything is meaningless. There is no truth, no reality, no beauty that can be established for us all. There is no meta narrative that can be shared. There are too many perspectives and individual experiences to apply one truth to all. Nietzsche told us that truth depends on the experiences of each person in each unique situation (He was a postmodern ahead of his time). There are no one-size-fits-all answers, and thinking of that sort is small minded and limiting. We cannot assign universal meaning, so it is all meaningless. Surely this idea will free us all to grow and explore in new and exciting ways.
It is true that there is nothing new under the sun. No challenge that is new to humankind. Everything cycles through again and again, and during the mid-10th Century a king wrote of his time what we are also seeing today. It was all meaningless. Everything. All of it. It was vanity and it was meaningless. This king looked for pleasure and fulfillment in all the things under the sun. He looked to science, wisdom, and philosophy for meaning. He searched for meaning in materialism, art, and luxury… only to find it all… meaningless.
The ancient western philosophers searched for truth. They wrestled with ideas of ultimate reality. Where did it all come from and how did it all mean anything? It seems we are at the end of the Postmodern era. I think it is why we feeling a little off-kilter. We have no idea what comes next, and that puts us on shaky ground.
What I hope we find next is meaning. This life, this world, is not meaningless. It is full of meaning, but only if it is tied to ultimate reality. Meaning has an origin. It has a place from which it flows. Thought leaders from human history discovered that we find meaning in our lives when we connect with that ultimate reality. For them, and for me, it is God. It was true of that ancient king as well. He discovered that without God, everything is meaningless, everything is without value and devoid of truth. Apart from that ultimate reality, we are left to decide, each one on our own, what is real. Yet we are too limited in our capacity to discern these things, our minds too finite… too selfish to think clearly. We need one greater than ourselves to point us to what is true, to what matters. Otherwise, as that wise king said, it truly is all meaningless.
(Welcome to Part Three, the final installment of a three part series on setting healthy relationship boundaries. If you haven’t read the first two posts, you might want to go back and read through those. This one might make more sense if you do.)
Many view relationship boundaries as setting limits on people, and this is the part that bothers so many believers. As my young friend said, we are called to engage people and love them. Let us look at a different way to view setting boundaries that might help. Jesus never sets limits, He sets standards. Remember the rich young ruler from the gospel of Mark, chapter 10? The wealthy young man asked Jesus how he might secure eternal life for himself. Jesus began by quoting the standard set by the ten commandments. The young man was sure in his obedience and was feeling pretty good about his chances at that point. But then Jesus whipped out the standard that matters more than the law. It is the one where we are called to love God more than anything else in this world. Sadly, the rich young man could not meet that standard and walked away dejected… separated from the life he wanted for eternity.
Just as Jesus allowed the young man to be who he was, God allows us to be who we are. But when we live in opposition to His standards, there is a breach in relationship until we decide to uphold the standard again. God’s standards are not just rules for rule’s sake. They actually make life livable.
I used to work in the healthcare industry. Hospitals do not receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements unless they achieve an accredited status by meeting certain standards. I feel your eyes glazing over, and I get it. Hang with me a second. Part of my job was to make sure that the hospital where I was employed met those standards of operation and patient care. But here was the thing, the rules were not just hoops to jump through to maintain our accredited status… in their purest form, they were intended to make the institution a safer place for both the healthcare workers and the patients in their care. Failure to meet those standards was our choice, but it would potentially result in a separation from government funds that would in effect, shut the hospital doors for business. Standards call us to higher behavior.
Our boundaries are kind of like that. They are standards of behavior that call forth healthy fellowship and relationship. When those are breached, we must uphold the standard and enforce the boundary until the standard can be met once again.
Dr. Henry Cloud (1992), (author of Boundaries) wrote, “The concept of boundaries comes from the very nature of God. God defines himself as a distinct, separate being, and he is responsible for himself. He defines and takes responsibility for his personality by telling us what he thinks, feels, plans, allows, will not allow, likes, and dislikes.” It is then definitely completely within the bounds of Christianity for believers to model this in their own lives. However, we have to take care that our standards are those set for us all within the scriptures and not crazy things we conjure up in our own minds, silly hoops that we make people jump through, in order for people to be in relationship with us. We do not call people to live by our standards, we call them to live by God’s standards. We call them to honor, integrity, character, joy, patience, love, peace… all the things that we are called to as well.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam had unfettered access to God. The scripture speaks about how God walked with Adam in the garden. God had set up the garden to meet every need that Adam had… well almost. God soon realized that it was not good for Adam to be without human relationship. So he remedied that by making Eve. Then… then everything was good, and God could sit back and enjoy His creation. Adam and Eve were to live and work inside the garden, as long as they met the standards set forth by God. I mean, it was His garden after all. It worked pretty darn well until the day that Adam and Eve failed to meet the relationship standard. It was then that their access to the garden was revoked and their access to God severely limited. Even in His great love for His creation, even God sets relationship boundaries.
As each of our children have gotten married, we gift our new children-in-love with a key to our home. It gives them unfettered access to our most private space. It is intended to demonstrate that they have a deeper level of relationship with us, and that we welcome them into our lives for us to love them and be loved by them. We do not pass out those keys to everyone we know or meet. We are very selective with who has that kind of access.
So, in answer to the initial questions posed… “How is it that I can set relationship boundaries if I am called to love and engage with people? How is that even possible for a Christian to do that?” … As in all things, we look to the God who set this whole relationship ball rolling and follow His lead. First, we hold ourselves to a scriptural standard, and then we set healthy boundaries within our own lives that uphold those standards in our relationships. When we live and move within our Jesus ordained identities, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, we may still experience relationship difficulties, but we can walk in confidence that we are loving people well, even if it needs to be from a distance sometimes.
Cloud, Henry, and John S. Townsend. Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. , 1992.
(Welcome to Part Two of a little series dealing with setting healthy relationship boundaries as a believer in Christ. The questions are: Should we set boundaries? And if we should… What does that look like? If you missed Part One, it would probably be a good idea to go back and check that one out, first.)
Once I learned to root my identity securely in what Christ says about me, I began to model the scripture that told me to “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37). I learned to speak the truth in love, even if it ruffled a few feathers with those who heard it. Once my sense of self was no longer dependent upon what people thought of me, I learned how to construct healthy boundaries in my life. Finding my identity in Christ (believing everything He says about me over what others may say or think) fueled a new ability to walk in the newness of life that Jesus offered me. If I am living my life according to who He says I am, then I find I make much wiser choices, and my boundaries are easier to secure.
I’ve also learned another very important lesson.Guilt and conviction are not the same thing. Guilt is a tool that the enemy uses to shame us. It is controlling and manipulative… two fiery darts he loves to send flying toward those who are vulnerable. Guilt can be visited upon us through our own thoughts of insecurity and through the words of others. More than once in my relationships I have been asked how I could possibly be a Christian and hold a certain boundary with someone. I am sad to admit that the dart found its mark a few times.
Conviction, on the other hand, is an instrument that God uses to shape and mold us more into His likeness. The Holy Spirit visits conviction upon us to grab our attention when have done something that harms our relationship with God or someone else. Conviction holds no shame and does not intend to control or manipulate. It gently convinces us that there is a better way (“Here is the way, walk in it.” Isaiah 30:21). Guilt kicks us when we are down, encouraging us to wallow in our failure. Conviction recognizes our failure, but helps us up and renews our strength to try again. Please take note of the difference.
So, what about those people who have deposited harmful things inside our boundaries? Well, first we give ourselves a good talking to for allowing it to happen. And then we forgive them. Why? Because we must. Not because they need it, but because we do. We are to set up a boundary around our hearts because it is out of our hearts that our lives flow (Prov 4:23). To allow unforgiveness to remain poisons our hearts and sets up the breeding ground for bitterness and resentment. I’ve seen what that looks like over time, and it isn’t pretty.
Keep in mind that a willingness to forgive is not necessarily a mandate for reconciliation. It simply allows love to replace hurt, even if it is better that we love some people from a distance. Forgiveness is about the things of the past while healthy boundaries are setting up a better future. Protecting ourselves from future hurts will make room for us to have the capacity to love people who are difficult to love, even if we must allow time and space for our hearts and minds to heal.
Matthew 7:6 tells us:
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
So often, as Christians, we continue to engage with people who repeatedly trample under their feet what is sacrificially given and precious. Time and again, they tear us to pieces with their thoughtlessness. I think about taking valuable, beautiful pearls and throwing them into a pig pen, only to watch them be carelessly trampled into the muck. I am so thankful that God’s grace extends so far that He allows us to be protected from such abuses. Yes, we invest in others, but not to our own, useless destruction. God is a God of reconciliation, for sure… but there must be evidence of repentance, remorse, and renewal before we think about loosening up those boundaries.
(Hang in there for part three. We are headed somewhere good. The answers are where they always are: within God’s character and in His word. Stay tuned!)