When some people read the Bible, they see a book of rules, do’s and don’ts. When others read it, they see a philosophy of life, principles for the wise. Still others see mythology, stories about the nature of human existence and the human dilemma.
Certainly, the Bible contains rules, principles, and stories that explain what it is like to exist on this earth. But to us, the Bible is a living book about relationship. Relationship of God to people, people to God, and people to each other. It is about a God who created this world, placed people in it, related to people, lost that relationship, and continues to heal that relationship. It is about God as creator: this is his creation. It is about God as ruler: he ultimately controls his world and will govern it. And it is about God as redeemer: he finds, saves, and heals his loved ones who are lost and in bondage.
When a lawyer asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37 – 40). The entire Scripture communicates a message of love. “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
But how do we do that? Well, that’s why there are so many other passages! Loving God and our neighbor is difficult. One of the main reasons it’s so difficult is because of boundary problems, which are essentially problems of responsibility. We do not know who is responsible for what, where we end and someone else begins, where God ends and we begin. The Bible clarifies those boundaries so that we can begin to see who should do what in this labor of love.
We have personal boundaries, personal property lines, in our relationship with God. God has designed the world so that boundaries are to be respected. He respects ours, and we need to respect his.
God respects our boundaries in many ways. First, he leaves work for us to do that only we can do. And he allows us to experience the painful consequences of our behavior so that we will change. He is not willing for any of us to perish and takes no pleasure in our destruction (2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 18:23), but he wants us to change for our own good and his glory. It hurts him deeply when we don’t. But at the same time, he does not rescue us; he wants us to work it out for our own good. He will not violate our wish to be left alone, although he will plead with us to come back to him.
Second, he respects our no. He tries neither to control nor nag us. He allows us to say no and go our way. Think of the parable of the prodigal son, the story of the rich young ruler, or the story of Joshua and his people. In all of these examples, God gives a choice and allows the people involved to make up their minds. When people say no, he allows it and keeps on loving them. He is a giver. And one of the things he always gives is a choice, but like a real giver, he also gives the consequences of those choices. He respects boundaries.
Respecting God’s Boundaries
God expects his boundaries to be respected as well. When he makes choices, or says no to us, that is his right, his freedom. If we are to have a real relationship with him, we need to respect that freedom. When we try and put him into binds where he “has to do something,” we are testing his freedom. When we are angry with him for what he does not do, we are not allowing him the freedom to be who he is.
The basic problem in human relationship is that of freedom. We call people bad because they do not do what we want them to do. We judge them for being themselves, for fulfilling their wishes. We withdraw love from them when they do what they feel is best for them, but it is not what we want them to do.
We do the same thing with God. We feel entitled to God’s favor, as if he has to do what we want him to. How do you feel when someone asks you for a favor but does not give you a free choice? This childish entitlement gets many people dissatisfied with God the same way that they are dissatisfied with others in their lives. They hate the freedom of others.
God is free from us. When he does something for us, he does it out of choice. He is not “under compulsion” or guilt or manipulation. He does things, like dying for us, because he wants to. We can rest in his pure love; he has no hidden resentment in what he does. His freedom allows him to love.
In the same way that we want others to respect our no, God wants us to respect his. He does not want us to make him the bad guy when he makes a choice. We do not like others trying to manipulate or control us with guilt, and neither does he.
A Real Relationship
Then again, God does not want us to be passive in our relationship with him either. Sometimes, through dialogue, he changes his mind. We can influence him because ours is a real relationship of the kind Abraham had with God (Gen. 18:16 – 33). God said that he would destroy Sodom, yet Abraham talked him out of it if he could find ten righteous people.
When we make our feelings and wishes known, God responds. We do not often think of God this way, but the Bible is clear. It is as though God says, “If it really means that much to you, it’s okay with me.” One of the most astounding teachings of the Bible is that we can influence God. It wouldn’t be a real relationship if we couldn’t. “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD” (Isa. 1:18). Like a real friend, or a real father, he says, “Let me hear your side of things and I will consider them. They matter to me. Maybe you can convince me to change my mind.”
God wants us to respect his boundaries; he doesn’t want us to withdraw our love when he says no. But he has nothing at all against our trying to persuade him to change his mind. In fact, he asks for us to be tenacious. Often he says, “Wait,” seeing how much we really want something. Other times, it seems he changes his mind as a result of our relationship with him. Either way, we respect his wishes and stay in relationship.
Boundaries are inherent in any relationship God has created, for they define the two parties who are loving each other. In this sense, boundaries between us and God are very important. They are not to do away with the fundamental oneness or unity that we have with him (John 17:20 – 23), but they are to define the two parties in unity. There is no unity without distinct identities, and boundaries define the distinct identities involved.
We need to know these boundaries between us and him. Boundaries help us to be the best we can be — in God’s image. They let us see God as he really is. They enable us to negotiate life, fulfilling our responsibilities and requirements. If we are trying to do his work for him, we will fail. If we are wishing for him to do our work for us, he will refuse. But if we do our work, and God does his, we will find strength in a real relationship with our Creator.
From The New York Times bestseller Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Now updated and expanded!