TEXTS: Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:35b-38)
Of late, I have found myself re-reading one of the most helpful books I’ve ever come across. Entitled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life, it was written by two Christian psychologists—Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
I heartily recommend this as worthwhile reading for anyone who—some of the time, or much of the time—feels overburdened, unappreciated, or taken advantage of. But it’s also a pretty good treatise on how to live the Christian life. When Cloud and Townsend talk about “boundaries,” they mean those things which define us—or which should define us—as individuals. For example, words can be boundaries—especially the word no. The word no tells others that you exist apart from them—that you, not they, are in control of you. “I am the boss of me.”
There are other kinds of boundaries, too—including time, truth, distance, and even skin—but it seems to me that the most basic one is this word no. It helps communicate your feelings, intentions, and preferences.
“No, I don’t have time to do that right now.”
“No, I don’t like that.”
“No, that behaviour is not OK.”
“No, I won’t lend you any more money until you pay back what you have already borrowed.”
No is the most basic boundary-setting word. And—just like physical boundaries which delineate private property—our personal boundaries mark out our domain—our spiritual property: who we are, how we feel, what we believe, what we will or will not do. According to Cloud and Townsend:
People with poor boundaries struggle with saying no to the control, pressure, demands, and sometimes the real needs of others. They feel that if they say no to someone, they will endanger their relationship with that person, so they passively comply but inwardly resent. Sometimes a person is pressuring you to do something; other times the pressure comes from your own sense of what you “should” do. If you cannot say no to this external or internal pressure, you have lost control of your property … 1
If you don’t speak up and define your property, others will not know where you stand. But—if they want to be in relationship with you—they need to know that. Others require a sense of the “edges” that help identify you.
As the authors point out, God himself does exactly this throughout the pages of Scripture. Time and again—chapter after chapter, verse after verse—God lets us know what he likes and what he hates, what he will allow and what he will not tolerate. And we need to know that, if we want to be in relationship with him. If we want to play in God’s yard, we have to know God’s rules.
Or, as Cloud and Townsend put it:
Knowing the truth about God and his property puts limits on you and shows you his boundaries. Realizing the truth of his unchangeable reality helps you to define yourself in relation to him. 2
If we have chosen to define ourselves as followers of Jesus, we have embraced a very particular style of living. And if we are growing as Christian disciples, we will find ourselves increasingly at odds with what the people around us consider normal. We will want to change some of our behaviors. Our attitudes and opinions will not remain the same. Certain activities which seemed fine to us before will now trouble our consciences. And some things which previously we never thought about will now be revealed as matters of paramount importance.
In other words, once you invite Jesus into your life—after you begin to define yourself as a follower of Christ—your boundaries will start to shift. You will begin to say “no” more often; maybe even in church—but certainly in your workplace, your social life, and even with close family and friends. And, inevitably, some of the people you know will object to that.
Some of them simply will not respect the new boundaries which you and Christ have drawn together. They will oppose the changes they see in you—perhaps strenuously—as they try to make you do what they want, rather than what you want. Cloud and Townsend refer to this as “outside resistance.”
It is just this kind of “outside resistance” which Jesus describes so vividly in today’s gospel reading. He’s warning us that such resistance will come. He’s telling us that, once we choose to follow him, strife and conflict are unavoidable.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).
There is a cost to discipleship. When we re-draw our boundaries inside the borders of God’s kingdom, some things—and some people—will suddenly be left outside, whether temporarily or permanently. And that may grieve both them and us.
Years ago, I witnessed this sort of grief and conflict playing out in the life of a dear friend, after his personal conversion to Christianity. This young man had been raised in a Jewish home, and when—in his late 20s—he was baptized and joined a Christian church, it caused a rift within his family. It even drove a wedge between the young man’s parents, because—while his father respected his decision and remained close to him—his mother would not speak to him for years thereafter. Eventually, she did come around, but it took almost a decade. And while the young man’s Christian faith remained intact, his parents’ marriage did not.
There is a cost to discipleship. There is a cost—usually a hefty one—attached to anything that’s really worth having. Anyone who’s ever struggled with addiction can attest to this fact. In almost every case, achieving sobriety requires cutting ties with former friends and acquaintances—sometimes even with other family members. For many addicts, this is too high a price to pay—until, finally, setting boundaries around alcohol or drugs becomes a matter of life and death.
As Cloud and Townsend observe:
The driving force behind boundaries has to be desire. We usually know what is the right thing to do in life, but we are rarely motivated to do it unless there’s a good reason … And we usually only see the good reasons when we’re in pain. Our pain motivates us to act. 3
“Our pain motivates us to act.” That’s often true, isn’t it? As someone once said, “Nobody likes change—except babies!” Yet, it’s only the infant’s discomfort that makes her parents aware of her need.
As Jesus so often reminds us, God is like a loving parent who wants to satisfy our needs. He does not rejoice in our suffering, and he takes no pleasure in our misfortune—even when we’ve brought it upon ourselves. But God is also a wise parent—and he knows that there are some struggles which we must work through on our own. God knows his own boundaries—and he respects ours. He will not force himself upon us. He will not violate our boundaries by compelling us against our will. And sometimes, that means he has to leave us in distress until the pain has done its work.
There is a cost to discipleship. For real, meaningful change to take place in our lives, there is a price to pay. When you make a survey of your life, you may be surprised to discover where your true boundaries lie. And if your faith in Christ leads you to embrace convictions and principles that are at odds with the desires of those around you, then you may find yourself fighting to protect your borders. To quote Cloud and Townsend one more time:
“God has secured our salvation and our sanctification. In position and principle he has healed us. But we have to work out his image in us … we are the ones who have to do battle.” 4
Sometimes, the battle will go well for us, and—like the faith-heroes spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews—we will behold the waters parting and the walls tumbling down before us. Sometimes it will not go so well, and we may feel that we are being mocked and flogged, stoned and sawn in two. But here is the promise: whatever happens, if we are faithful—if we defend the boundaries Christ has helped us draw—we will know ultimate victory. We will find lasting peace.
Peace rarely comes without some kind of struggle. Again, Scripture tells us as much. Before the children of Israel could live in peace in the promised land, they had to escape from slavery, wander 40 years in the desert, and wage war against one enemy after another. But in their struggles, they learned that God is faithful. Even when they rebelled against him, God did not abandon them. As a result, these people—as the Book of Hebrews tells us—“won strength out of weakness” (11:34).
So it is with us. If we embrace discipleship and accept its cost; if we learn to depend on God to sustain us—even in the face of strong opposition—we shall indeed be able to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
How? By “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross …” (Heb. 12:2).
And why? Because “yes” is a boundary-setting word, as well.
“Yes” also defines you—who you are, how you feel, what you believe, what you will or will not do. Jesus said “yes” to God’s plan for him, even though that meant saying “no” to a host of other things. He said “no” to Satan’s offer of wealth, power, and earthly glory. He also said “no” to a life of conventional goodness—wife, children, a family business—not because these were bad things, but because he had already given his “yes” to God.
How about you? Have you said “yes” to God’s plan for your life? Do you know where your boundaries lie? Have you considered that perhaps now—at this stage of your life—it might be time to re-draw them?
Perhaps you’ve been a faithful disciple for many years, and now—whether in retirement or approaching it—you find yourself wondering, “What next?”
Or perhaps you’re a new Christian, and you’re asking yourself, “What does the Lord require of me?”
Or perhaps your career doesn’t seem as exciting or fulfilling as it once did, and the question forms in your mind: “Is this all there is?”
Maybe it’s time to ask Jesus to help you re-draw your boundaries—to look closely at the borders of your personal territory: what it needs to include, and what it ought to leave out.
But wherever your boundaries run, make sure they do not stray outside God’s kingdom. Allied with the Creator of the universe, no enemy can defeat you, because your faith “is the victory that conquers the world” (1 John 5:4). Filled with the power of God, you can meet any challenge the world throws at you.
Here is the good news: by virtue of your faith in Christ, you have been made a child of almighty God, and a citizen of his realm. As you journey through the world, remember that his Spirit is your passport—the declaration of where your boundaries lie. Rest in God, my friends. Follow Jesus, and travel safe.
1 Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 36-37.
2 Cloud & Townsend, p. 37.
3 Cloud & Townsend, p. 245.
4 Cloud & Townsend, p. 246.