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, €œ€˜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. €œLove 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 he always gives is a choice, but like a real giver, he also gives the consequences of those choices. He respects boundaries.
Many people are not as honest as these biblical characters were, however. The prodigal son was direct and honest: €œI do not want to do it your way. I`m going to do it my way. We are more often like the second son in the parable of the two sons in the vineyard (Matt. 21:28-31). We say yes, but we act out no. God prefers honesty. €œIt is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it (Eccl. 5:5). We would be much better off if we would say an honest no to whatever God is asking, for the next step could be repentance. An honest no will lead us to the discovery of how destructive it is to say no to God and to a real hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
Jerry was a member of a support group I was leading. He was cheating on his wife, but he kept saying that he was sorry and that he really didn`t want to be an adulterer. He really wanted to obey God; however, as much as he said that, he didn`t change. He wanted to believe that he wanted to change without doing the work of change.
Tired of hearing how much he wanted to be different, I suggested that he tell God and the group the truth. He really did not want to change, he enjoyed his affairs, and his real wish was that God would take his rules and go somewhere else.
Jerry was taken aback, but gradually began to see how true this was. Finally, he told the truth about his lack of love for God and how he really wanted to do his own thing. At first this admission scared him. He was giving up the falsehood of seeing himself as a Christian who cared about holiness. But his honesty felt better to him than all the lies, and something began to happen.
In the safety of grace, which was allowing him to see himself as he really was, he began to regret who he was. He began to see the emptiness of his heart. When he owned who he really was from his heart, he did not like himself. He was developing godly sorrow, the kind that leads to repentance. And he began to change. He told his lover that he was not to see her any more, and he made a new commitment to his wife. This time he meant it. Whereas for years he had been saying yes and acting out no, he finally owned his no to God directly and honestly. Only then was change possible.
Until we can own our boundaries with God, we can`t ever change them or allow him to work with them. They are hidden and not communicated. They need to be honestly owned, exposed, and made a part of us. Then, we and God can face the problem.
Our deeper honesty and ownership of our true person, there is room for expressing anger at God. Many people who are cut off from God shut down emotionally because they feel that it is not safe to tell him how angry they are at him. Until they feel the anger, they cannot feel the loving feelings underneath the anger.
Job wanted to fully express his anger and disappointment with God to God (Job 13:3). But before he did this, he had to be sure of two things. He wanted God (1) to withdraw his hand of punishment and (2) to start communicating with him (v. 21). Job knew that if he were secure in the relationship, he could tell God what he really felt.
We often fear being honest because it was not safe to express honesty in our earthly relationships. With Job we fear both abandonment and retaliation. People abandoned us or attacked us when we told them how we really felt.
Rest assured, however, that God desires truth in our €œinner parts (Ps. 51:6). He is seeking people who will have real relationship with him (John 4:23-24). He wants to hear it all, no matter how bad it seems to us. When we own what is within our boundaries, when we bring it into the light, God can transform it with his love.
Respecting His 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 €œhas 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 €œunder 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.
Many Bible characters ran into God`s freedom and learned to embrace it. Embracing his freedom and respecting his boundaries, they always deepened their relationship with God. Job had to come to accept the freedom of God to not rescue him when he wanted. Job expressed his anger and dissatisfaction with God, and God rewarded his honesty. But Job did not €œmake God bad, in his own mind. In all of his complaining, he did not end his relationship with God. He didn`t understand God, but he allowed God to be himself and did not withdraw his love from him, even when he was very angry with him. This is a real relationship.
In the same way, Paul accepted the boundaries of God. When he planned trips that didn`t work out, Paul accepted the sovereignty of God. He asked God repeatedly for a certain kind of healing that God would not give him. God said, €œNo. I do not choose to love you in the way that you want right now. I choose to love you with my presence. Paul did not reject God for setting that boundary.
Jesus was perfected through his suffering (Heb. 5:7-10). In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked that his cup of suffering pass from him, but God said no. Jesus accepted God`s wishes, submitted to them, and through that €œbecame the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Heb. 5:9). If Jesus had not respected God`s boundaries and God`s no, we would all be lost.
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.
€œI Respectfully Disagree
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, €œIf 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. €œ€˜Come now, let us reason together,` says the LORD (Isa. 1:18). Like a real friend, or a real father, he says, €œLet me hear your side of things and I will consider them. They matter to me. Maybe you can convince me to change my mind.
Consider Jesus` parables about prayer. In one story a judge who €œneither feared God nor cared about men, for some time refused to grant a widow her request for justice. But because the widow kept bothering him, he changed his mind and granted her wish (Luke 18:1-8). Jesus told them is parable so €œthat they should always pray and not give up(v.l). In another story, a neighbor who persistently asks bread is granted the request because of his continuing boldness (Luke 11:5-9). Other people Jesus decided to heal after they persisted in asking for healing.
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, €œWait, 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.
Respecting His Own
In addition to our respecting God`s boundaries and his respecting ours, he is a good model for how we should respect our own property.
God is the ultimate responsibility taker. If someone else causes him pain, he takes responsibility for it. If we continue to abuse him, he is not masochistic; he will take care of himself. And for our own sakes, we do not want to suffer the consequences of his boundaries.
The parable of the wedding banquet shows us God taking responsibility (Matt. 22:1-14). A king who was planning a banquet invited many people to come. When they said no, he pleaded with them. They continued to say no and went about their own business. Finally, the king had had enough. Taking responsibility for the situation, he said to his servants, €œThe wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find (vv. 8-9).
Whenever God decides that €œenough is enough, and he has suffered long enough, he respects his own property, his heart, enough to do something to make it better. He takes responsibility for the pain and makes moves to make his life different. He lets go of the rejecting people and reaches out to some new friends.
God is a good model. When we are hurting, we need to take responsibility for the hurt and make some appropriate moves to make things better. This may mean letting go of someone and finding new friends. It may mean forgiving someone and letting them off the hook so we can feel better.
A Real Relationship
We started this chapter talking about relationship. Relationship is what the gospel is about. It is a gospel of €˜reconciliation (Rom. 5:11; Col. 1:19-20). This gospel brings hostile parties together (Col. 1:21) and heals relationships between God and humanity, and between people.
The gospel brings things back to their created order, the truth and order of God. In terms of relationships, we think that God`s order of relationship is himself and the way he works. And that is why we think boundaries are so important, because he has them and we are to be redeemed into his image.
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.