Q: I hear a lot of teaching on boundaries in relationships. Also, people tell me I need to learn to say “no” more often. I am curious… is this consistent with what the Bible teaches about service and sacrifice? Aren’t we supposed to prefer our brother, and yield to others? – S. in Virginia
A: This is a very good question. There has been quite a bit of teaching on boundaries in recent decades. Several best-selling books have been published on this subject. Seminars and classes are offered for interested Christians. So, is this biblical?
Let’s first of all address the matter of “preferring our brother.” The Bible does teach us to be selfless in our attitude towards others. We are to emulate Jesus in having a servant’s heart, and being willing to sacrifice ourselves for others (cf. Philippians 2:1-8). This includes “esteeming others” as “better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). We are to “prefer one another” (see Romans 12:10). Christian love and humility demands that we not focus on ourselves, but instead focus on God and others.
But does this mean that we are only doormats, throwing ourselves down to be tromped on by everyone else? Do we have to suffer all abuse? Are we never allowed to say no? Must we do whatever we are asked to do, by whomever asks us? Always? Without question? In other words, if we have a servant’s heart, then are there to be no boundaries in our lives?
Notice that in Philippians 2 the model for loving and serving others is Jesus Himself. He is the supreme example. He absolutely displayed a servant’s heart, and a servant’s behavior. Being Deity Himself, He still willingly came to us in limited human form, serving us by going to the cross and dying for our sins. Yet, did this ultimate service rendered by Jesus mean that He had no boundaries? No. It does not. Indeed, Jesus knew how to say “no.” His service to mankind did not mean that he obeyed every whim of each man He met. Nor did He feel obligated to meet everyone’s expectations. Consider some examples.
In John 7 we read that the Feast of Tabernacles was approaching. Jesus was in Galilee doing ministry. Members of His family, His own brothers, urged Him to go to Jerusalem for the Feast. Their motive was apparently not respectful, but derisive. Jesus said that He would not go yet, it was not the right time (verse 6). He basically said no. Later, He did go (7:10). But He went on His terms, doing His Father’s will. Jesus was not coerced into doing something He did not want to do, or felt like He should not do. Even when pressured to do so by family.
Another example is found in the story of Lazarus, as found in John 11. Remember the account? Jesus hears that Lazarus, a close personal friend, is very sick. However, despite the implicit appeal of Lazarus’s sisters to come immediately, Jesus actually delays going to see him (11:6). In other words, Jesus said no, not now. He knew that God was going to use this sickness for a greater purpose (11:4), which of course, He did. Jesus refused to submit to the appeals of dearly loved friends to do a good work so that later God would be glorified through a greater work.
When Jesus miraculously fed the 5000 in John 6, the people were astounded by this. Their reaction was an attempt to force kingship on Jesus (6:14-15). The text doesn’t state this explicitly, but essentially Jesus (by His actions) emphatically said, “No!” He immediately left there to get away from the people and went up on a mountain. The expectations of a group were not sufficient cause to do something He should not do.
Jesus faced an interesting situation in Luke 12:13-15. A man asks Jesus to be an arbiter between him and his brother, who are disputing over their inheritance. Jesus’s answer? “No.” Again, He didn’t explicitly say this, but it is definitely the intent of His answer. No, I will not be your judge, just to please you, to meet your wishes. Jesus definitely was not a people-pleaser.
We see a very unusual instance of Jesus saying no in Mark 1:34-38. In the first part of this passage Jesus is very active in healing the sick and driving out demons. Later, he goes off by Himself and prays. Peter finds Jesus there, and tells Him that many other sick and needy people are waiting on Him. You might think that Jesus would immediately return to the people and begin ministering again. But He doesn’t. Instead, he moves on to another location, in order to preach. He said no. And He said no to ministry to sick and hurting people. Why? Because He did not care? Of course this is not the reason. Probably He was feeling drained and tired. He recognized His own human limitations. (What a great lesson for us!) Also, He was again not swayed by human expectations. Rather, He had to fulfill the call of His Father, “For this purpose I have come” (1:38). Even in ministry there are times to say no, even to doing ministry itself.
There are probably numerous other examples to be found in the Gospels, but these illustrate our point. At times, by words or by actions, Jesus plainly said, “No.” And if He is our example for Christian service, then we can know that it also okay for us to say no at times.
In Jesus the King, a study of the Gospel of Mark, Timothy Keller talks about Jesus as the pure example of selfless, giving love. He observes that so often our love is tainted by some self-interest. One practical solution to this is to learn to love out of a desire to love selflessly, without expecting anything in return. Establishing boundaries can actually be a part of this. When we are confident of our identity in Christ, our ministry is not done so that we may gain the approval and acceptance of others. We do not feel obligated to always say “yes” just because we want to please people, to receive their love and affirmation. Thus, boundaries can actually free us to love more selflessly. Keller quotes a young woman in his church who learned this. She says that after she learned to accept her identity in Christ, then…
“…his love has enabled me to set up emotional boundaries with people that I never could before. This has enabled me to love my friends and family for who they are and not seek more from them, because I can find whatever is lacking in Christ. It’s been a huge relief to finally feel free enough to love people and know that in Christ, I am safe and protected and that protecting myself or standing up for myself is actually a good thing.”
Wow! What a statement. At first glance establishing boundaries may not appear to be a way of showing love. But it can be. It is loving others in a healthy, productive, non-dependent way. It is choosing to appropriately say no, and then loving others for who they are, not what you can receive from them. Being a people pleaser is ultimately prideful and selfish. Having appropriate, healthy relationships (including proper boundaries) is really love as it should be.
Truth Builders is a ministry initiative of Advancing Native Missions. However, the content of this site is the personal opinion of Victor Morris, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, views or conclusions of Advancing Native Missions, its leaders or staff