Boundaries and the beauty in gray

I was listening to a sermon by a person from Somalia at our Church named Dr. Gemechis Buba over a year ago.   Gemechis is very gifted speaker and a Luthereran pastor from Somalia.  He basically said we (all people) wear a shirt that is black on one side and white on other other. One side says “good” and other side says “evil”.  This is a “reality based” statement that is reflected very well in scripture.  Here are 2 good examples of this:

  • King David was a conspirator, murderer, and an adulterer and was also called a man after God’s heart!     David was both a mans after Gods heart  and  a conspirator, adulterer,  and murderer!
  • Solomon was  the wisest man ever, wrote the best marriage book in the bible (Song of Songs) and yet had 700 wives and concubines. In todays world if Solomon was an author trying to get his book released he would have been labelled as a love and sex addict and his book would have never become a best seller!         Solomon was both wise and  an addict!

Most  Christians are very, very uncomfortable with the idea of  what I am calling the  both/and of scripture and the idea that men are both sinner and saint (because of what Christ did!).  They may understand the idea of both/and conceptually but when it comes to their own lives they prefer living in the black and white of their group (especially political groups) or family being either a sinner or a saint. Instead of living in the both/and they are living in the either/or.   The only problem with not living in the both/and is that it (1) sets people up for failure later on when they cant live up to their own black and white,  either/or thinking and (2) it does not see how deep man’s need is for a savior in Jesus Christ.   Christians are uncomfortable dealing with the idea of both/and and they want to simplify this to either/or, legalistic, or  black and white terms.   The world is uncomfortable dealing with both/and and wants to simplify this thinking to the idea of tolerance toward others.  Both tolerance and legalistic thinking never deal with the discomfort of our issues and sin and never allows a person a safe environment to start getting honest and real  about their issues.

Anyhow, one of the reasons for my BLOG is to discuss how the Gospel message of Jesus Christ “works” in relationships in tangible and real ways.   I want to relate this to the idea of healthy boundaries today. Also, I should say one thing here: being both/and is not a goal of the christian life … it is just reality that this side of heaven we will sin against others and others will sin against us!

First of all what is a boundary?  Boundaries are a very complex topic.  I want to describe a boundary as an invisible force field around a person. The purpose of this force field is to protect all the “healthy and good stuff” inside the boundaries.  Inside your boundary are things like your body,  thoughts,  and feelings.  The motives behind boundaries are never about controlling someone else but they are about keeping you or those you love healthy. A healthy boundary will keep unhealthy stuff out.   A healthy boundary also has a door or window in it to let healthy stuff in.    A gospel-centric healthy boundary allows a person to to keep unhealthy stuff out and let healthy stuff in while living in the both/and reality of a fallen world.

Unhealthy boundaries err in one of two ways.   One of those ways is our personal boundaries are too loose.  A person with loose boundaries does not know how to set boundaries for his or her self.  A person with loose boundaries allows another person to come into his/her boundaries and take poessesion of their thoughts and feelings. People with loose boundaries can be nice people pleasers.  They don’t know how to say “no” to others and over time this becomes quite a burden trying to keep up all the people pleasing activitites.

The other unhealthy boundary is too rigid of a boundary.  Too rigid of a boundary means your boundaries might be good at keeping unhealthy stuff out but your not very skilled at letting healthy stuff inside your boundary.  People with rigid boundaries have not learned the relational skills to manage the window or door in our boundaries that lets the healthy “stuff” in. And,  as I have seen, eventually a person that is only good at keeping healthy stuff out and not very good at letting healthy stuff in is going to “blow” and his sin will come out eventually.  I have found this too rigid of a boundary problem to be very common in evangelical America.  After all  Christians rules are the best rules … right?  Christians know truth… right?  However,  many Christians have never learned the skills in their Family of Origin of how to live in a both/and  world and tend to caricaturize groups of people in simplistic, black and white terms and as a result they live in an either/or reality.  This problem of rigid boundaries is huge with some of the men and couples in my groups.  Many of these men have very rigid Christian boundaries but yet they are caught up in major issues in life and in their relationships. They don’t have the social or relational skills to let healthy stuff in.  Many of these men grew up in Christian homes that seemed to have good theology but here they are doing the same thing (sin) that most of the rest of the world is doing.   Most people feel that a person that is struggling with chronic sinfullness  in some ways needs to put more rigid boundaries in their lives to help overcome their sin.  I think this is true and agree with that statement.  However, in my dealings with chronic recurring sin,  people  tend to know and have rigid moral boundaries.   A bigger issue  is that these people do not have the skills to let healthy things into their world.  They do not know how to live and love in a both/and world because they have been too busy living in an either/or world.

As a whole most of evangelical America is not very skilled at living in the both/and world.  As I have dealt with men and couples struggling in their marriages  I have found that many devoted Church going people to have too rigid of boundaries and do not know how to let healthy stuff into their lives.   People with rigid boundaries in evangelical Churches tend to create islands of insulation around the people in their lives,  The rigid boundaries are designed to keep “evil” out but they are not well designed at letting healthy things in.  Rigid boundaries are designed for survival and not designed for “health”.   And people can only live in survival mode for so long! At some point they need to learn the skills to let the good things inside of their boundaries too. As a matter of fact the more pain we had in our family of origin and friends of origin the more rigid our boundaries might be!

Here is a major point I am trying to make.  Since scripture shows us the reality of both/and in our lives. .. we should know that a person that also sins greatly also has the power to do good greatly.  And for the purpose of this BLOG topic I am calling this learning to live  in the beauty of gray.   People are both sinners and saints and and creating too rigid or too loose boundaries around either our sainthood or our sinfulness is an approach that does not work in the long-term!  Eventually, if we have highly rigid boundaries,  our sin pops up because we do not know how be a healthy person in a both/and community.   As I write this I think of the following verse for some reason.

Matthew 9:13

13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Most often our default mode of boundaries comes from our families of origin.  Our families have people with loose and rigid boundaries.  As these loose or rigid boundaries play out in groups of people or familes … people will either become boundary victims or boundary violators.  In simplistic terms  ….. a boundary violator (controller) takes possession of another persons thoughts and feelings and “can’t hear no” and a boundary victim (pleaser)  can’t say “no” and allows another person to take possession of their thoughts and feelings.

When poor boundaries  plays out in families or groups of people it creates a network or a  family “system” of  “boundary violators”,  “boundary protectors”,  and “boundary victims”.  Or as I like to call it a family network of pleasers and controllers.  As a result these dysfunctional family systems have some hidden, unspoken rules.  Most notably are the rules of (1) don’t talk about certain things and (2) don’t feel.  A family system of pleasers and controllers does not make it safe to talk about certain things or discuss feelings because the boundary violators in the family have taken possession of your thoughts and feelings and told you how to think or feel.

Fortunately, once we are aware of our own boundary issues and problems, we can learn how to set new healthy boundaries.   Good boundaries are wise boundaries.  Good boundaries know how to live and love in a both/and world.   Wise boundaries  can be firm and rigid when needed and they can  be open and flexible when needed. It  knows it must let healthy, good things in and cant always be rigid.  Healthy boundaries know how to let your yes be yes and your no be no.  And guess what ….. sometimes the most healthy things come from people that have sinned greatly and the least healthy things are from people that appear to be saints!!!!   Healthy boundaries know how to live and love in a both/and world and can find freedom and beauty in a gray world.

One final thought! I am a person that has been trying to figure this all out for 40-50 years.  If you want to do marriage and family right… (1) Learn good boundaries for your self first, and (2) Teach good boundaries to your kids in an environment that can also be  comfortable  in the discomfort and sin of a both/and world and create an environment where people are safe discussing their own sin rather than pointing at other peoples sin.

And the really super  good news is we have a savior that came to us through Jesus Christ to  rescue us so we don’t have to rescue and save ourselves. Amen!

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