Am I Being Selfish When I Set Boundaries?

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 12:7–10). 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 4:12–13)

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.


Click to Tweet: When we say no to people and activities that are hurtful to us, we are protecting God’s investment.


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!


From Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. A New York Times Bestseller!

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  1. Stef says

    This is just what I needed to HEAR in the past few years. Being able to say NO to my inlaws has been a real breakthrough for me, mentally & in every aspect of a human being’s health. God knows how toxic & damaging my inlaws have been to my health, mentally, bodily & spiritually, & also to my marriage. Having had my husband witness how they mistreated US is the glue & best gift to our marriage. We always feel like we are in it together, in sickness & in health, through the good & the bad. Their behavior & choices have made it a whole lot easier for my husband to uncleave from them. My husband has become a much better version of himself since then. He comes from a family that is all about the money & now, God has shown him a much better way to survive. Through Jesus, & my husband is a much better giver than before. I am so proud of him & happy that he has made that progress with the Lord. Our marriage could never have lasted these 20 yrs without Jesus.

  2. Jan says

    God gave me courage to deliver the truth about a pedo family member. I had to do what was best for me. God wanted the best for me. I had to heal! Family became full of rage, hate and threatening because they chose to be willfully blind. Perpetrator was unrepentant and denied allegations. God sent a stranger in my life to verify she was also a child victim. It was a miracle! Healthy boundaries saved my life after detaching with grace and forgiveness of family betrayal. Much like a divorce. I’m no longer a victim! I found victory!!!

    • Karen says

      Bless you for your courage to break free against all odds. I too was in this same situation and it can be a lonely place that tries to rule your life for years. A counselor recently summed up the difference for me between self care and selfishness. ‘Selfishness’ is when ‘someone tries to get their needs met at the expense of others’ while self care is doing those things you need to do to take care of yourself and stay strong for others so you have something real to give, not out of manipulation, etc. This is helping me to 1) more readily discern and unyoke from unhealthy expectations imposed by others & 2) stay true to the things I need to do for myself and for God. Easier said than done at times, but it’s a clearer plumbline to aim for.

  3. Carrie says

    I am really struggling with boundries. I’ve been a human doormat for so long. The cycle is exhausting. The others treat you bad, you get angry, than they do or say something nice, you forgive and than it happens again. This is a rollercoaster I need off of buy how????

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