Am I Being Selfish When I Set Boundaries?


"Now, wait a minute," Teresa said, shaking her head. "How can I set limits on those who need me? Isn't that living for me and not for God?"

Teresa was voicing one of the main objections to boundary setting for Christians: a deep-seated fear of being self-centered, interested only in one's own concerns and not those of others.

It is absolutely true that we are to be a loving people. Concerned for the welfare of others. In fact, the number-one hallmark of Christians is that we love others (John 13:35).

So don't boundaries turn us from other-centeredness to self-centeredness? The answer is no. Appropriate boundaries actually increase our ability to care about others. People with highly developed limits are the most caring people on earth. How can this be true?

First, let's make a distinction between selfishness and stewardship. Selfishness has to do with a fixation on our own wishes and desires, to the exclusion of our responsibility to love others. Though having wishes and desires is a God-given trait (Proverbs 13:4), we are to keep them in line with healthy goals and responsibility.

For one thing, we may not want what we need. Mr. Insensitive may desperately need help with the fact that he's a terrible listener. But he may not want it. God is much more interested in meeting our needs than he is granting all our wishes. For example, he denied Paul's wish to heal his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7Ð10). At the same time, he met Paul's needs to the point that Paul felt content and full:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12Ð13)

It helps the Christian afraid of setting boundaries to know that God meets our needs. "God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19). At the same time, God does not make our wishes and desires "all bad" either. He will meet many of them.

Our Needs Are Our Responsibility

Even with God's help, however, it is crucial to understand that meeting our own needs is basically our job. We can't wait passively for others to take care of us. Jesus told us to "Ask ... seek ... knock" (Matthew 7:7). We are to "work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). Even knowing that "it is God who works in [us]" (Philippians 2:13), we are our own responsibility.

This is a very different picture than many of us are used to. Some individuals see their needs as bad, selfish, and at best, a luxury. Others see them as something that God or others should do for them. But the biblical picture is clear: our lives are our responsibility.

At the end of our lives this truth becomes crystal clear. We will all "appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). A sobering thought.

The Gift of Stewardship

A helpful way to understand setting limits is that our lives are a gift from God. Just as a store manager takes good care of a shop for the owner, we are to do the same with our souls. If a lack of boundaries causes us to mismanage the store, the owner has a right to be upset with us.

We are to develop our lives, abilities, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Our spiritual and emotional growth is God's "interest" on his investment in us. When we say no to people and activities that are hurtful to us, we are protecting God's investment. As you can see, there's quite a difference between selfishness and stewardship. That's why boundaries make life better!


Taken from The New York Times bestseller Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Learn More

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