POST EDITED TO ADD THE SONG FOR RUSSELL AT THE END (special guest at the end of song :))
Boundaries. Healthy boundaries.
This has been on my mind and heart so much lately. We are living in a day and age where setting boundaries, self-care, entitlement, and self-strength are being touted as the end-all, be-all in our health and happiness. If we can just love ourselves well and better, we are on the right path to wholeness. If we can cut all the toxic people out of our lives, and surround ourselves only with those who praise and encourage us, we will rise stronger. More positive talk and less negativity. You can see some of the quotes below related to boundaries. Before I go on, please know right now, that I absolutely believe that boundaries are healthy and often necessary, and at times critical to a person’s survival and emotional and mental well-being (clearly, always in the case of abuse this is true). So, know that I am not saying that boundaries are not necessary or that they are not ok or wrong. I am not saying that. I am in my own process of self-discovery, learning how to process my emotions of the past and present, and exploring healthy boundaries in my own life. This is a newer and ongoing process for me and these are some of my reflections on my own journey.
I was talking with a friend yesterday and said, “Being a Christian and learning to set boundaries is so hard. I mean, the only example we have of Jesus setting boundaries is getting away to pray.” And it hit me when I said that. Huh. Jesus and boundaries. What did they look like? We talked about this and reflected on it some more. This thought was confirming what has been on my heart in a lot of processing and wrestling lately and my friend’s insights were furthering our own journeys of being challenged and changed.
So often, the answer of Jesus is different than the answer of the world. They absolutely align sometimes, and oh those glorious moments. But the wrestling that comes, when the answers of the world are different than the whisperings of your heart. In a particular issue in my life recently, I have wrestled. I have heard and agreed with much in the way of boundary setting and have often been encouraged to do this better and more clearly in my life, to protect my heart. But there is this tiny whispering that tugs at my heart and reminds me–Jesus. Have I asked Him? What is the way of Jesus? And sometimes I honestly don’t want to know. Because won’t Jesus keep telling me to forgive? Keep loving? Keep burning myself out and taking my heart down with me? Won’t He tell me to set my emotions aside and just serve and love? Won’t His answer be to think of the other person more highly than myself? Won’t He just remind me that He loves them as much as He loves me? Won’t He discourage boundary setting?
Well, how the heck will I know what He would say if I don’t trust Him enough to ask Him? And why would any of us ask what He thinks if we think that we just need to love ourselves more, do more self-care, and set boundaries in order to be healthy. If we think we have the answers, we aren’t going to go to Him. Or even if we don’t think we have the answers, we might be too afraid to ask Him. And lately, I have tentatively been asking, in-between fits of anxiety and confusion. In-between listening to the lies that fill my head. In-between the frustration and the hurt. In-between the entitlement and the need to be understood. Every so often, and more often as I learn to trust, I dip my toe ever so reluctantly, into the waters that Jesus resides in. And I let myself believe and trust that He knows me better than any counselor, any family member, any friend, and that He has the answers. And I remember. Jesus got away to pray. He Himself spent all night praying before choosing His disciples (Luke 6:12-16). And who was one of the 12 disciples Jesus chose? One of the most toxic humans known to humanity. The very one that handed Jesus over to die.
Jesus was so poor at setting boundaries that He let crowds surround Him and touch Him and He healed them everywhere He went. He got into boats to teach the people instead of sailing away in the other direction as they chased Him. He reached out and touched the ugly, the sick, the deformed. He took the hands of the blind, the outcasts, and the marginalized. He redeemed the worst of stories by connecting and loving. And then–He let Himself be led to His own death. Worst boundary setter ever. Granted, He was God. But He was also human. And He was tired. And He was spent. And He was hungry. And time and time again, He needed to refuel. And He didn’t do this by processing it with His disciples, or seeking out professional help (all good things for us humans, but they are secondary to God’s wisdom). He did it by getting away to be with His Father. I wonder at those times of prayer and would love, love to hear just a smidgen of them. I believe one thing with all my heart though. Those times in prayer were filled with love and peace. And the strength needed to do the next thing in front of Him. God’s love changes me. And it’s not because I said the right words or asked the right question. It’s His very presence. It’s because His love is that powerful. No striving. No trying. No faking. His presence can sometimes literally be what we need to move our heart in one direction or another as we have been wrestling. “But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private…” (Matthew 6:6a). I must get away by myself with Him. And this is not legalism. It is a life-line. And so often, I don’t. We don’t. And we suffer, we agonize, we thrash about and can’t rest. “I have set the Lord always before me. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in Your presence” (Psalm 16:8, 11a).
A few years ago, I was at an impasse with a Taiwanese co-worker of mine. There was much misunderstanding and I had tried with all my heart to explain and make it right, but the language and cultural barriers were seemingly insurmountable, and the damage seemed to already be done. I told God, I literally have zero clue what to do. That was basically my only prayer through the whole thing. God, I can’t. I have tried. And sometime during that time period, I read the story of Jesus washing His disciples feet. I have read this story or had it read to me countless times. This time was different. For the first time in my life I felt pulled to do this for someone in particular. And believe you me, I thought it was too cliche and way too awkward. I did not want to do it. But I was so sure that the idea was not from myself (one of the main ways I know when God is speaking: no way did the thought come from me), that I knew I should do it anyway. And I did. And it was hard. And it was awkward. And it felt somewhat cliche. But not to her. Through her tears and in that moment, there was healing. True healing. Her heart changed and my heart changed. Like miraculous. And I wondered at the wisdom of God. He knew what I needed. I didn’t need to pull away. I didn’t need to set boundaries or try to explain myself anymore. I needed the heart and eyes of God. I needed His answer. The change in my heart actually probably didn’t really happen until after I had washed her feet. God knew what it would take for a heart shift to happen. And not because it would only bring healing for the other person, but for me. If God calls us to the seemingly impossible, especially in relationships, I believe it is ultimately for our good. It’s not to ask us to be a martyr, or for us to take on a martyr complex. It’s not to focus on the needs of the other person. He is teaching us how to set boundaries His way, not ours. And if that means that boundaries and walls are shattered in the process, well so be it, because that means God is doing a miraculous work all around us and in us.
Sometimes God’s answers may eliminate the need for us to set the boundaries we are so hell-bent on setting. Sometimes the boundary needed is God’s own protective boundary around our hearts. And it’s enough for healing to happen. Suddenly, we no longer feel compelled to draw a line in the sand around somebody. That somebody else just became a moot point in the big picture of what God is doing in our own hearts and lives to bring true freedom and healing. In us. Independent of the other person. You are getting healthy and it’s between you and God for now. For now. There might be more to come, but I want those things in His timing and in His way. He has proven His ways are better than mine time and time again.
We are all toxic in some way. We all breathe out things that aren’t beautiful, aren’t encouraging, and are self-serving. There is not one of us who won’t ever hurt those we love. I can’t love others more just by trying harder. I can’t love myself more just by making myself do it. I can be gentler with myself and forgive myself and learn to love me. But I absolutely cannot do this on any sustainable level without the love of God changing me first. I might be able to do it for short spurts, and I might even feel great during those times. Until the next incident in life. The truth is, Jesus absolutely might whisper one of the things above that I am afraid He might say. But when it is in His presence, when I am letting His love wash over me and remind me how He feels about me, I’m not afraid anymore. The entitlement slowly starts to crumble. The mistake I made becomes something I can live with and ask for forgiveness for. I can be human! I am human! And He is not. And that is why I must be with Him. He is the only one who can give me the strength to do what He nudges me to do. He will not ask me to do it without giving me the love, the courage, and the humility to needed to do it. And He promises peace to accompany me. He PROMISES. But so often, I cannot receive His peace, because I am not stepping away to be with Him. To just be with Him.
Again, I am absolutely not advising anyone, or myself, to never set boundaries. Please, please hear me on this. Boundaries can be a beautiful thing. I am sure of it. I am learning about it. But what I am saying is–will we trust God enough to ask Him what He thinks? Will we let ourselves sit in His presence and see what He stirs up in our hearts? Will we trust that He DOES have our best interest at heart–not just the interests of everyone else around us. Do we believe that He can do such a move in a situation or relationship that will exceed all our expectations and/or bring us an answer we never would have imagined? And that answer might be so mind-blowing we couldn’t possibly do it. Forgive? Love? Let go? Surrender? Take responsibility for our own actions? Noooo! Every fiber of our beings might scream in protest. But there it is again. His love bubbling up–first for you. Then for them. His forgiveness melting your resentment. His humility replacing your pride. His tears mixed with yours as you express your hurt and pain. His arms wrapped around you as you let go of control. And it absolutely might be that He encourages you to forgive, set a boundary and move on. But He has the healthy way and the healthy answer. I believe that His answer–even when it appears to the world that is self-sacrificial in a messed up way—is the best answer. Because our hearts will be literally transformed. It won’t be forced. It won’t be us patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. It will be miraculous. It will be impossible. “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (John 7:38).
Sometimes the very boundaries we think we are healthily setting for ourselves may in fact be shackles meant to keep us bound up like a caged animal.
Today after school, I laid down with Russell. Russell has Down Syndrome and is transitioning to a full day of inclusion at our kindergarten. He has dropped his nap during the weekdays, but tonight he is going to a baseball game, so he needs a nap to make it through the night well. He did not want to sleep. He started whimpering and covering his eyes, mixing tears and snot and telling me not to sing or pat his back every time I tried. I asked him why he was crying and he said he didn’t know. I told him it was okay, he could cry. And I told him, “Let me rest with you. I’m here.” And this little song came out of my heart for him and he let me sing it and he fell almost immediately asleep. And as I sang it over and over, I could hear the words like God sings them to us. And this is where I believe our boundary setting needs to start. With Him. We need to let Him be with us.
“Let me be with you. Let me wipe away your tears. Let me cry with you. Let me whisper in your ear—You are loved, you are kind, you are precious, you are mine. Let me be with you. Let me be with you.”