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No Good Deed

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. 

It is all Meaningless

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.

Relationship Boundaries for Christians… Part Three

(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. 

Photo credit: Andre Fertado

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.

Relationship Boundaries for Christians… Part One

(This post just kept oozing out of me… like raspberry jelly from one of those delicious Krispy Kreme donuts… sigh. So it will come in three installments because blog rules say blogs posts longer than 750 are TOO LONG. And I agree. I hope you will enjoy all three posts, and by the time you get to the end, that you will feel it was time well spent.)

Photo Credit: Unknown

“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?” They were fair questions… asked by a young woman I have the pleasure of mentoring. They were the questions I have asked myself… more than once. 

One of my favorite authors is clinical psychologist, Dr. Henry Cloud. His wisdom and knowledge about interpersonal relationships has helped to keep me well-centered and sane during some very challenging relationships. Of all the books he has authored, two are my favorites: How People Grow and Boundaries. And of those two, my favorite is Boundaries. Before considering Dr. Cloud’s point of view, I never really believed that setting boundaries was the nice thing to do. As a girl growing up, I was taught to do the nice thing… 

So that people would like me. 

At least that is the leap I made in my own young mind. In my insecurities, I wanted to be liked, accepted… so that I could feel good about myself. Apparently, it was all about me. I had no idea what a short-sighted life I was building for myself, and one that would bring me pain again and again. 

Infants cannot really separate themselves from the world around them. They do not understand where they stop and the rest of the world starts. But during early toddlerhood, humans learn to separate what is the self and what is everything else. We spend the rest of our lives deciding what we allow in and what we do not. Ideally, we let the good in and keep the bad out. (Unfortunately, those who suffer from abuses early on tend to do quite the opposite.)

As the aforementioned people-pleaser, I didn’t guard my boundaries well. I allowed people to enter and exit my life, bringing whatever blessing or pain they chose. To hold fast to my boundaries (did I even have boundaries?) would risk my good standing and nice reputation, two things I valued way too much. 

If the person who entered my realm chose to leave a blessing, then all the better for me. If they chose to leave harm and pain, then I was angry and disappointed… at and in them. That was unfair. The anger and disappointment were aimed at the wrong person. I should have turned those things on myself. In my ignorance, I did not understand this. 

As a Sociologist, I understand that we live in society, engaging other people in the business of life. As a Christian, I can read the scriptures and see that everything was swell with humanity when there was only the one human. When the second human entered the picture, that is when all the trouble started… and we have been trying to figure it all out ever since. Relationships are hard. If you have even just one relationship, you know this is true. Just ask Adam.

I would like to tell you that I stopped being a people-pleaser early on and that I have spent much of my adult life having left that unhealthy habit behind. What can I say? Some of us are slow learners. Yet, as I delved deeper into what it meant to find my identity in Christ, I began to shirk the people-pleasing behaviors that had dominated my life for so long. I started to see my people-pleasing behavior as the self-serving tool that it was. Its grip had grown deep roots within my personality, and it took a great deal of work to pry it out. But the more I realized my completeness in Christ, the more I began to place trust in the words that He spoke about me. I found a self-confidence that was not self-generated. I no longer took on the words others spoke about me (good or bad) and relied on the ones spoken by my Designer. Soon, I found that if I lived my life to please the One who made me, then others found a deeper value within me. 

(We are just getting started… Stay tuned for Relationship Boundaries… Part Two)