Wholeheartedly: Freedom and Boundaries
16 July 2023
I am going to start where Gary left off –
“We are called to create an environment as community where people can belong to each other and not just fit in.
This is the church redeeming its purpose to be a place that is “free from shame” and “free to be who God created you to be”. That is when all of us at the Free Community Church are reflecting and living out the heart of God.“
Community is, literally, our middle name. But community is one of those words that’s rather vague. It is used often to describe a group of people who share something in common – whether it is a characteristic, or a common interest. Some of us are part of the LGBTQ community by simply the fact that we are LGBTQ. We don’t have to do anything else to be part of the community. But here at FCC, community means something more.
<M> What does community in our (FCC) context mean to you?
I came across this recently quote recently from Nora Bateson –
“We can create the conditions in which communities can thrive and flourish. We can nurture them, but we cannot build them.
You can’t make someone love you.
You can’t force respect.
You can’t mandate care.
And you can’t build community.
Please be careful with talk of building community.
Community is a consequence of many contextual relationships intertwining over time, more like a meadow than legos.”
That’s how I see what Gary shared – a community where people belong to each other – that’s a meadow – and people just fitting in – as lego blocks.
This meadow is where we create an environment where we can thrive and flourish and be free.
Pauline offered her understanding of freedom from a Christian perspective in her sermon Authentic and Free –
“Freedom from a Christian perspective is:
Free from shame
Free to embrace who we are
Free to live from our true identity in God
Free to become all that God created us to be
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3:17)
Creating the conditions for this meadow, for community to thrive and flourish, requires intentional work. We have learned over the years through experiences both helpful and unhelpful, what may be beneficial to this meadow, and what is not beneficial to this meadow.
One of the intentional work required for community to thrive is having clear boundaries.
Boundaries are like fences – they mark what we are responsible for, and what we are not responsible for. They are meant to keep the good in, and keep the bad out.
On the other hand, boundaries are not walls. They are not meant to keep people out – we will always be welcoming and inclusive, and we will try be that safe space where all can come to experience the love of God, free from shame, free to live out our true identity in God, free to become all that God is inviting us to be.
In the past, we weren’t clear – and many people thought that having boundaries mean we were not being inclusive. That’s actually the opposite. Like what Brene Brown found in her research –
“One of the most shocking findings of my work was that the most compassionate people I interviewed over the last 13 years were also the most boundaried. …If we don’t set boundaries, we let people do things that are not ok.”
“Boundaries are not a wall or moat.” Brené says, “They create an environment of respect.”
Boundaries help us create a safe space – and only in this safe space that we can start being vulnerable and authentic – to be free from shame and embrace who we are.
In a paradoxical way, boundaries help us belong. Because if we don’t feel safe, we cannot be vulnerable and authentic, then we will seek to pretend to be someone we are not to fit in. When we are not safe, when we don’t have boundaries, then this becomes a lego set, not a meadow.
In the book “Boundaries” by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, they summarised boundary problems into 4 categories – Can’t say no – the compliant, Can’t say yes – the non-responsive, Can’t hear no – the controller, Can’t hear Yes – the avoidant.
I do think there is a lot of merit to how they have summarised boundary problems – but I also find labelling people in such a manner problematic. I think it is more helpful to address the behaviour rather than labelling people as compliant or controller. So I have adapted their work and will be using “compliant behaviour,” “controlling behaviour,” “nonresponsive behaviour,” and “avoidant behaviour” instead.
Here I want to interject – the first thing that often comes to our mind isn’t how we exhibit these behaviours – but how other people exhibit these behaviours. That’s pretty natural because majority of the time, we perceive how other people behave – we rarely look in the mirror or see our own behaviours. But these concepts, just like the Bible, are not meant to be a magnifying glass for us to scrutinise other people, but a mirror that help us reflect on how we can be better, how we can grow, how we can be more and more in the likeness of Christ.
Compliant behaviour is when someone is not able to say “no” to others out of fear – fear of hurting other people’s feelings, fear of abandonment, fear of someone else’s anger, fear of punishment, fear of being shamed, fear of being seen as bad or selfish. In so doing, people end up taking up too many responsibilities (some they should not be responsible for), and set too few boundaries, and fail to follow through on consequences when those boundaries are violated. Compliant behaviour can be saying Yes when, actually, in our hearts we want to say no.
Then non-responsive behaviour is when people who are not able to say “yes” when it is within their responsibility to. “While we shouldn’t take on responsibility of others’ feelings, attitudes, and behaviours, we do have certain responsibilities to each other.” We are responsible to care about and help, within certain limits, others whom God places in our lives. I think one example of non-responsive behaviour in the Bible is the Levite and the priest who passed the injured man and did not help him in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even the Good Samaritan demonstrated limits / boundaries – when they needed to leave, they left the injured man with the innkeeper, leaving some money and promising to cover whatever extra expenses when they return.
Then there are the other two boundary problems that are not able to hear “no” and not able to hear “yes.”
Controlling behaviour is when someone is not able to take “no” for an answer, and not respect other people’s boundaries. Controlling behaviours can be aggressive and abusive like bullying, and very often people who exhibit such behaviours are not aware of other people’s boundaries. Controlling behaviours can also be manipulative employing guilt as means to get the other party to say “yes.”
And finally the last boundary problem – avoidant behaviour. Avoidant behaviour is when the boundaries are not fences but walls – walls that keep everything out – and not being able to hear “yes” from other people. It happens when people are unable to ask for help, to recognise their own needs, to be vulnerable and let others in.
<M> I would like to invite you to pause, and think – which of the 4 behaviours have you demonstrated in your life? Compliant behaviour (cannot say no), non-responsive behaviour (cannot say yes), controlling behaviour (cannot hear no), avoidant behaviour (cannot hear yes).
I will tell you – there is another reason why I found how the book labelled people problematic – because when I changed from labelling people to labelling the behaviours, I realised I exhibited all 4 different behaviours!
Our growth comes from being able to say yes when we mean yes, when we need to say yes (to the things we are responsible for), and say no, when we mean no, and when we need to say no (to the things we are not responsible for). That is maintaining boundaries – and that will allow us to create that environment for community to thrive – where there is love, respect and mutual care.
Both Pauline and Gary preached from Luke 15:11-32 – sometimes referred to as the parable of the prodigal, and I am growing in my preference to refer to it as the parable of the lost sons. I call it the lost sons, because I think both sons did not understand their parent, or their parent’s love.
A son asks his father for his inheritance, then squanders it recklessly as he lives a life of indulgence. With nothing left of his fortune, he is forced to work as a hired hand for a pig farmer. He is so destitute that he longs to eat the food of the pigs. Realizing that his father’s servants have better working conditions, he resolves to return to his father, beg forgiveness, and ask to be his servant. However, upon arriving at his father’s house, he is welcomed with loving arms. His father is overwhelmed with joy at his son’s return, and holds a feast in his honor. However, the older brother, who has remained serving in his father’s house, does not share his father’s joy. Instead, he is angry at his father has not honored him. His father urges him not to resent his brother, but to instead be happy for him.
First of all, I want to highlight – I think Jesus told this parable to show us how radical God’s love is – that no matter how badly we think we screwed up, God still loves us, and is waiting for our return – and runs out to embrace us when we do.
I don’t think Jesus told this parable to tell us that God is going to give us everything we are asking for, especially when what we are asking for may not be helpful for us, and may even hurt or harm us and others.
So I want to look at this parable from the angle of what we have talked about – the 4 behaviours – compliant, non-responsive, controlling and avoidant.
Have you ever wondered, what if, from the beginning, the parent said no when the child asked for their share of the inheritance? I mean, there may be good reasons to say yes to their child’s request – like investing in the child’s future – but there are also occasions where that’s a bad idea. I wonder if the parent knew their child well – and were aware of how their child will use their share of the inheritance. Using a lens of boundaries – the parent need to be aware of what they should say yes to, and what they should say no to.
Sometimes when parents are too overprotective of their children, and when parents constantly bail their children out of trouble, then the child remains a child even in adulthood. The child does not take responsibility or hold themselves accountable to the consequences of their behaviours. And these behaviours get more and more out of control, and sometimes resulting in the scenario where everything the parents have is used up to get the child out of the problems they got themselves into. The parents (and others as well) need to be clear about what they are responsible for, and what they are not responsible for – the boundaries – and say no when they need to say no. The parent are not responsible for the behaviours of their adult children (for younger children, this is a rather grey area)
The flip side of this is the non-responsive behaviours – not saying yes when they should say yes. Who do you think is the one exhibiting the non-responsive behaviours here? Not difficult to guess right – because in the narrative there are just 3 characters. The older sibling here is who is demonstrating non-responsive behaviours. What do you think the older sibling should be saying yes to? What are the boundaries her for the older sibling?
We are not responsible for other people – but we are responsible to other people. The older sibling is not responsible for the behaviours of their younger sibling, but the older sibling is responsible to their younger sibling. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings, attitudes, behaviours – but we do have certain responsibilities to them. Those responsibilities are how we are called to love each other as how Jesus loved us – not taking responsibility for their behaviours – but a duty of care and support within the boundaries of our relationship.
If you did something wrong, I am not responsible for it. I cannot go and apologise to someone you have harmed or hurt. I am responsible to you – I will care for you, be there for you as you, and walk with you, even nudge you to hold yourself accountable, make amends and apologise to the person you have harmed or hurt.
An example that may help us is to see – when a child is a baby, the child is unable to know what is right and wrong, and often makes mistakes – at this point of time, the parents are responsible. But at some point the child grows up, and is able to figure out what is right and wrong, and at this point the parents are no longer responsible.
(a lot of problems actually arise when parents don’t help the child grow into being responsible and accountable for their actions – when a child spills something – the parents swoop in to clean up the mess – this is ok when the child is young, but at some point, teaching the child to clean up their own mess is part of the growing up process.)
Pauline and I have a greater responsibility to care and support each one of you – but you would not expect the same level of responsibility from each other. It is important that we make these expectations and boundaries clear so that we do not end up having conflict because of the difference in our understanding.
Here, the older sibling is not responsible for the younger sibling asking for their inheritance and leaving the family – but the older sibling does have responsibility to the younger sibling – during all the time the younger sibling ran off, did the older sibling reach out to check in on them?
The older sibling was probably angry that the younger sibling was irresponsible and just left the family with their share of the inheritance. The older sibling isn’t responsible for the trouble the younger sibling gotten themselves into, or their behaviours – but responsible to care and connect. Showing concern and care doesn’t mean that the older sibling condones the younger sibling’s behaviours – we need to move away from just loving someone because they behave the way we want them to – that isn’t the way Jesus loved us.
Withdrawing our love to punish someone doesn’t work in the long run. That, of course takes a lot of work, because that person may have hurt us as well, and it is hard to be responsible to someone who hurt us – which is why couples often end up giving each other the silent treatment. That, definitely doesn’t resolve the issues they face.
The older sibling also demonstrated avoidant behaviour. How you may ask? In what way was the older sibling unable to hear “yes”? The older sibling was unable to see how the parent loves them unconditionally. The older sibling said “you never even given me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!” Do you think the older sibling had asked for that? And if he asked for that, what do you think the parent would have done? I think the parent had given the younger sibling their share of the inheritance, and would have given the older sibling a goat if they did ask!
But the older sibling had struggled with thinking that they did not deserve it, that the parent did not love them as much as they loved the younger sibling so they never even asked. They thought that the parent’s answer would be “no.” So all these years, the older sibling slaved and never disobeyed the parent’s orders because they thought the parent’s love needed to be earned by good behaviour. They didn’t get the extent and depth of their parent’s love.
I would share with you something personal here that came out of the work I had been doing on myself in therapy.
I am the older sibling in my family. I have always thought of myself as the unfavoured one – my sister is the princess who gets all the attention and love. Growing up, I was usually (at least in my perspective) punished or blamed whenever we got into a fight – how many of you who have siblings (esp younger ones) have this experience?
So since early in my life, I have thought to myself that my parents did not love me as much as my sister. I thought to myself – I need to take care of myself and be independent since I am not the favoured one. I didn’t ask for things I wanted, because why bother? In my mind, they would say no. But actually, that was me afraid of rejection.
My sister started learning driving when she was 18. My parents would drop her off at the driving school and picked her up from there. I learned driving when I was 28. I never asked my parents to send me to driving school, or pay for driving lessons – because I thought they would say no, because I thought that wasn’t something I deserved. It was only recently I brought it up to my mom, and she wasn’t even aware of how I felt, and certainly would have done the same for me if I had asked!
I certainly demonstrate a lot of avoidant behaviours – because I struggled to see myself as beloved. And that is what I am learning, and why I talk about belovedness so often because I believe that this is the starting point of our relationships with ourselves, with each other and with God.
Which brings us to the final type of behaviours – the controlling behaviours where one cannot hear “no.”
Some of you may think it isn’t fair for me to think that the parent was not able to say no – because may it was the younger sibling who would not take no for an answer. Some of you may think it isn’t fair for me to think that the younger sibling exhibited controlling behaviours. I get that – and I also want to point out – to go to the point where one asks for one’s inheritance from one’s parents isn’t something that came about all of a sudden. It came about over a period of time, and very likely enabled by the parent’s doting love and wasn’t able to set good boundaries. I mean, to ask for one’s inheritance from one’s parent is as good as cursing one’s parent to die!
I wonder what if the parent said no? The younger sibling could have bulldozed their way aggressively, making violent threats. Or be manipulative and guilt trip the parent saying “you don’t love me because you don’t give me what I want.”
All these problematic behaviours stemming from the boundary issues have common roots.
Fear – fear of losing love, fear of abandonment, fear of others’ anger, fear of loneliness.
These fears prevent us from saying no when we need to say no. We think to ourselves “if I say no, this person will no longer love us.”
These fears prevent us from hearing yes – instead, we withdraw to ourselves, afraid to ask for what we need / what we want because we are afraid that we may get no for an answer.
What we all need to understand is that saying no can be a loving act. “No” does not mean I do not love you. Once we get this – then we are able to say no to people when we should say no, especially when saying yes would be unhelpful or harmful. Then we are able to reach out and ask for help, and while we are disappointed when people tell us “no,” we are not hurt, we do not think that they do not love us, because we understand that being beloved doesn’t mean we are at the center of the universe.
<M> at this time I want to invite you to be vulnerable. To pause. To reflect. To hold up a mirror and look. Is there something today that stirred up some thoughts in you? something uncomfortable to acknowledge? Do you exhibit some of these behaviours in your life? What are they? What are these behaviours you would like to invite God to help you work on?
I want to invite you surrender them to God – and ask God to help you be anchored in your belovedness and worthiness. Then ask God to help you grow so you can set boundaries and respect boundaries so you would become more wholehearted.
There are times when we try to be nice, and tiptoe around people so that we don’t “hurt” other people’s feelings, we can be causing even more harm. There is a difference between hurt and harm. When I receive negative feedback, I often do feel hurt – there are many thoughts that surface “do you know how difficult it is trying to please everyone?” “
I have learned how to hear those “nos” and see that they come from a place of love.
I have learned to ask for what I need, and come to own my own disappointments when people say “no” without thinking that their no means they do not love me.
And I have learned to try my best to speak the truth in love – rather than not speaking at all which sometimes leads to even more harm.
And all this has led to me becoming incredibly free and whole, and I pray that it would be the same for you.