Three principles for good boundaries

“Good fences make good neighbours.” So wrote Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall’. However, despite the way this quote is often used, Frost meant these words ironically. Walls separate us from others, and boundaries divide human beings from one another.

In many ways Frost is right. And so biblical counselling seeks to move towards other people, rather than build a wall between us. However, there is also a need to maintain good boundaries in pastoral work and ministry – to recognise our limits and be able to articulate them to others. But that can feel at times like building a wall, and is perhaps why we resist it.

I want to give three reasons why appropriate boundaries and limits on what we can give are a good thing. Far from building walls between people, we can use boundaries to bring people together in a God-honouring way.

Boundaries enable us to be faithful

In the midst of the suffering detailed in the book of Lamentations, the one thing about God that the writer holds on to is his utter dependability: “Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). As we minister to those who are suffering we get to hold out the faithfulness of God through our words of grace and our actions. If we operate without recognising the limits of our capacity, we run the risk of being unfaithful to those we are caring for. When we say we will do something, but are unable to deliver because we have over-committed, we let down those we have made promises to and we end up misrepresenting God. Good and proper boundaries enable us to keep the promises we make, and so rightly display God’s faithfulness.

Boundaries are not ‘No’ but ‘Yes, and’

We tend to think about boundaries as saying ‘No’ to people in need, which is why we are naturally suspicious of them. But boundaries allow us to recognise our limits and capacity. As such, they are not so much saying ‘No’ as ‘Yes, and’. If someone comes to you wanting help, a good boundary says, “Yes, and here is the way in which I can best help you…” Examples of a ‘Yes, and’ might be: “Yes, and how about we meet next week?” “Yes, and I can help you find someone who can do that.” It recognises that helping here and now won’t be good for you, because you are at your limit, and won’t be good for them, because you won’t be able to help well.

Boundaries can be broken

One of the biggest worries we have about boundaries is that they don’t represent the self-sacrificial pattern we see in the New Testament. “I am already being poured out like a drink offering” says the apostle Paul (2 Timothy 4:6). Don’t boundaries prevent this total self-giving that images the Lord Jesus Christ?

Boundaries help sustain us for a lifetime of self-giving. (And it’s worth noting that Paul wrote those words to Timothy close to the end of his life!) But here’s another important point: boundaries can be broken. There will be times when the safeguards and limits we have set up will need to be set aside for a person in need – when we decide to hop over, or even break down, the fence between us. We are called to radical self-giving, and that will mean boundary-breaking for us all from time to time.