Many Christians fear that setting and keeping limits signals rebellion or disobedience. In religious circles you’ll often hear statements such as, “Your unwillingness to go along with our program shows an unresponsive heart.” Because of this myth, countless individuals remain trapped in endless activities of no genuine spiritual and emotional value.
The truth is life-changing: a lack of boundaries is often a sign of disobedience. People who have shaky limits are often compliant on the outside, but rebellious and resentful on the inside. They would like to be able to say no, but are afraid. So they cover their fear with a half-hearted yes.
Take Barry for example. He had almost made it to his car after church when Ken caught up with him. Here goes, Barry thought. Maybe I can still get out of this one.
“Barry!” Ken boomed. “Glad I caught you!” The singles class officer in charge of Bible studies, Ken was a dedicated recruiter to the studies he presided over; however, he was often insensitive to the fact that not everyone wanted to attend his meetings. “So which study can I put you down for, Barry? The one on prophecy, evangelism, or the book of Mark?”
Barry thought desperately to himself. I could say, “None of the above interest me. Don’t call me—I’ll call you.” But Ken is a ranking officer in the singles class. He could jeopardize my relationships with others in the group. I wonder which class will be the shortest?
“How about the one on prophecy?” Barry guessed. He was wrong.
“Great! We’ll be studying end times for the next 18 months! See you Monday.” Ken walked off triumphantly.
Let’s take a look at what just happened. Barry avoided saying no to Ken. At first glance, it looks like he made a choice for obedience. He committed himself to a Bible study. That’s a good thing, right? Absolutely.
But take a second look. What were Barry’s motives for not saying no to Ken? What were the thoughts and attitudes of his heart? Fear. Barry was afraid of Ken’s political clout in the singles group. He feared that he would lose other relationships if he disappointed Ken.
Why is this important? Because it illustrates a biblical principle: an internal no nullifies an external yes.
God is more concerned with our hearts than he is with our outward compliance. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
In other words, if we say yes to God or anyone else when we really mean no, we move into a position of compliance. And that is the same as lying. Our lips say yes, but our hearts (and often our half-hearted actions) say no. Do you really think Barry will finish out his 18 months with Ken’s Bible study? The odds are that some priority will arise to sabotage Barry’s commitment, and he’ll leave — but without telling Ken the real reason why.
Here’s a good way to look at this myth that boundaries are a sign of disobedience: If we can’t say no, we can’t say yes. Why is this? It has to do with our motivation to obey, to love, or to be responsible. We must always say yes out of a heart of love. When our motive is fear, we love not.
The Bible tells us how to be obedient in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Look at the first two ways of giving: “reluctantly” and “under compulsion.” They both involve fear—either of a real person or a guilty conscience. These motives can’t exist side by side with love, because “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts our fear” (1 John 4:18). Each of us must give as we have made up our minds. When we are afraid to say no, our yes is compromised.
God has no interest in our obeying out of fear because, “Fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). God wants a response of love.
Are boundaries a sign of disobedience? They can be. We can say no to good things for wrong reasons. But having a “no” helps us to clarify, to be honest, to tell the truth about our motives; then we can allow God to work in us. This process cannot be accomplished in a fearful heart.
Is it possible to set limits and still be a loving person? Absolutely! You don’t have to be controlled by fear or guilt. Read the New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries, now updated and expanded. In it, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend provide practical, biblically-based solutions for the digital age that help enhance all of your relationships.