By Julie Straseske, LPC
This life offers amazing moments of pure joy.
Your eyes well up with tears as your mother excitedly opens the gift you spent weeks making for her.
Your heart overflows as you hear your children’s giggles from the other room.
You eagerly anticipate members of your extended family descending upon your house for cherished time together.
Family is an undeniable blessing. Yet we live in a broken and sinful world where otherwise loving relationships become strained.
A grandparent makes unwelcome comments about your child’s weight.
Your father-in-law repeatedly visits your home uninvited, usually at the most inconvenient time.
Your extended family members show little appreciation for your hospitality.
In this broken world, family can be a source of pain, stress, and conflict. As a result, many people have become aware of the concept of boundary-setting. This concept can be particularly challenging for many Christians who struggle with the balance between unconditional love and healthy boundaries.
How can Christians incorporate wisdom and love in these relationships? Can we show love as we set boundaries, even in hardship and messiness? How can we learn to communicate and enforce boundaries?
“Boundaries” has become a buzzword in today’s culture, and it’s possible that this term has been diluted as a result. Boundary-setting is simply communicating our expectations to others, and implementing consequences if these expectations are not met. Boundaries are protective: a figurative fence surrounding oneself (and, often, immediate family members) to guard against harmful or undesirable words and actions from others.
- Sometimes we must set boundaries against behaviors that are overtly sinful—for example, swearing or favoritism from others.
- At other times, we choose to set boundaries against behaviors that we believe are unhealthy for our specific families—visiting the home unexpectedly, sharing emotionally weighty information around children, or discussing topics we would prefer to be off-limits.
It can be challenging to know when and how to set boundaries within these murkier areas. In all of these situations, we ask God for wisdom and discernment.
As a Christian counselor, I’ve often wished the Bible contained more explicit information about healthy boundary setting. Scripture does share helpful insight on areas such as parenting, relationships, and mental health. At the same time, the Bible was not intended to be a complete, comprehensive handbook on any of those issues. The main purpose of Scripture is to point us to Jesus and the salvation he provides. It was not intended to be a step-by-step psychological self-help book.
Wise Christians can use the Bible as our ultimate spiritual authority and seek research-proven guidance from experts on practical topics like boundary setting.
A Christian counselor’s approach to boundary-setting
The struggle to set boundaries is especially prevalent among Christians. Scripture emphasizes the call to put others first and to sacrifice, which of course are God-pleasing goals. We are “not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Unfortunately, guilt can still have a powerful hold on many Christians, leading us to feel guilt over things that aren’t actually sinful, or that we “should” do things a certain way. Christians who have been raised to be passive and silent, even when they are hurt by family members, may adopt self-talk such as “My own needs don’t matter” or “I don’t want to upset anyone by saying how I feel.” Are such statements helpful? Are they true?
It is not always wrong to think about how a situation impacts you or your loved ones. The Bible does not call us to keep silent when an individual engages in repeated sin. Jesus was certainly bold in letting the disciples know of their errors, and in speaking out against the hypocritical religious leaders of the day. And it is not always wrong to think of one’s own needs. Jesus stepped away from the crowds to rest, pray, eat, drink, and spend time with close friends. He was fully God and fully human—with human needs. Jesus recognized that his human needs did indeed matter. He also recognized that it is okay—even God-pleasing—to speak when confronting sin.
From a Biblical point of view, the progression described in Matthew 18:15-17 is an excellent starting point for how Christians can respond when a family member is repeatedly unkind or engages in other unhelpful behaviors.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you…But if they will not listen, take one or two others along…if they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Christians are urged to take intentional steps, being gentle and discreet when possible, reaching out to others for support and assistance if needed. This progression can apply when setting boundaries about space, emotions, and time with extended family as well. Clarity about expectations – and your planned response if the expectation is not met— is key. If a family member hears your expectations and responds with change and respect, praise God! If the family member continues in their sinful or unhealthy behaviors, the consequences may be small initially—giving kind but forceful reminders, ending a visit to an aunt’s house early, or skipping the next family reunion. If one’s boundary-setting is ignored repeatedly, there can be several ways to implement and enforce consequences. Here are two examples:
- Taking a predetermined break from the relationship (with a predetermined length). Kindly but firmly let the loved one know about the break and remind them why you are making use of this consequence. If the family member does try to reach out during this time, you should not reply. Use this break to observe changes within yourself and your immediate family, and evaluate (with your spouse, if applicable) whether you would like to try revisiting the relationship afterward, and how you would go about this.
- Spending time with certain members of a family/couple for a time. For example, if you are setting boundaries with grandparents, but your grandfather continues to disrespect your boundaries, you may request just to meet with your grandmother for coffee. If she is a positive influence on your immediate family, she should be able to still enjoy the time with them, rather than suffer consequences because of her spouse’s choices. Of course, this option will likely be challenging for all involved. Yet it is a way to demonstrate the desire to spend time with family, while reinforcing your right to set limits around behaviors that impact yourself and your immediate family.
God-willing, separation from family members will be temporary. They will repent and they will consent to your expectations. However, the sad truth is that sometimes a long-term separation is the healthiest choice for a family. When a Christian is contemplating such a decision, it’s worthwhile to examine one’s motivation.
- Are you separating from a family member in order to punish them, to shame them in others’ eyes, or to avoid difficult conversation? Then take some time to pray, to reevaluate, and to talk with healthy, honest, kind Christian friends.
- Is your motivation to protect your marriage, to protect your children, and to point out sin? These goals are good, worthy, and God-pleasing. Our children can benefit from seeing us set boundaries: They are sheltered from unhealthy behaviors, they may see that we are concerned about their well-being, and they will eventually learn how to set limits from watching us. And we can teach them that enabling sin is not loving.
When setting boundaries with family members, remember that you can only control your half of the interaction. Ask yourself these important questions:
- What limits will I set?
- What will the consequences be if the limits are ignored?
- How I will I communicate these plans?
Unfortunately, family members may respond with unkindness, anger, and an increased testing of the boundaries you are establishing. This is frustrating and challenging. This is the most important time to lovingly and firmly hold to your boundary. It can be helpful to remember that the family member’s response is their concern, and a reflection of theiremotional health. Ultimately, this is not a reflection on you.
Surround yourself with support
Making these changes requires courage and perseverance. It may require regular communication with one’s spouse (if you are married) so you are united in your decisions and behaviors. Speaking with a counselor, pastor, or with God-fearing friends can provide much-needed support. Honest and kind Christians will be able to empathize with you, encourage you to consider your family’s well-being, and pray for you. They also may be able to provide objective perspective on your boundaries, helping you determine whether they are reasonable. We all can be blinded by emotion, trapped in our own perspective at times. Christian counsel is a valuable tool as we seek to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Above all, Christians are blessed when they continue to pray and to be in the Word through these struggles. True, the Bible is not a self-help book or a psychological manual. But we know that our perfect heavenly father provides wisdom, strength, and guidance in the Bible. Along with the reminder to produce fruits of faith, we find endless reassurance that we are forgiven for the times we stumble in these areas. And we are reminded of how deeply God loves these family members with whom we are struggling. Continue to pray for them as well. While we may need to set boundaries here on earth, it’s our deepest desire to spend a perfect eternity with these family members in heaven.
God also provides for us when he sends wise counsel and resources for us to access. For more information on healthy boundary-setting, please consider the following resources:
– “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
– “Good Boundaries and Goodbyes” by Lysa TerKeurst
– “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie