Boundaries: A Book Review from a Lutheran Perspective


Three months ago, I’d never heard of a 25-year-old book named Boundaries. Suddenly, it has appeared everywhere: on the shelves of Christian book stores, in Christian catalogues, and in ads on my newsfeed. Why is everybody talking about this book?

I’m a Confessional Lutheran who likes to read non-fiction. I like a variety of writing styles and enjoy the critical thinking that comes about from reading authors outside of my own denomination. After finishing a book, I often find my thinking broadened and my understanding widened. There’s rarely a book that I’m gravely concerned about, even if the author and I come from different theological backgrounds. However, Boundaries is a book that merits a very cautious read by discerning parties, beginning with the book’s subtitle, "When to say yes, How to say no to take control of your life."

As best as I can tell, the thesis of the book is as follows. The problems of anger, resentment, low self-esteem, annoyance, exhaustion, etc. are all symptoms of a lack of boundaries. Boundaries tell us what we as individuals are responsible for. If we create and enforce boundaries in our lives in the proper places with the proper people, we will have control over our lives and will be free from many of the struggles listed above.

At first, I assumed the book would argue that a person should learn to say “no”  in a selfish way. While reading, it became clear that the book instead advocates setting limits/boundaries so you can say “yes” to people unselfishly. I want to be clear that I’m not opposed to this stance of the book. My concerns are not necessarily about the thesis, but rather about the way in which the authors use the Bible. Below are several concerns.

1. Unsupported “Biblical” Advice

The thesis of Boundaries is not necessarily incompatible or at odds with Scripture. However, the authors attribute to the Good Book many doctrines that the Bible itself does not state. The authors often make the statement that the Bible says ___, but offer no citation.

“The Bible urges us to separate from those who continue to hurt us and to create a safe place for ourselves” (37).

  • No citation is given. This is exactly the opposite of what I understand from Matthew 5:39.

“Throughout the Scriptures, people are reminded of their choices and asked to take responsibility for them” (44).

  • I searched online in four different Bible translations and couldn’t find a single instance of the phrase “take responsibility.”

“The Bible clearly distinguishes between those who love truth and those who don’t. First, there is the person who welcomes your boundaries. Who accepts them. Who listens to them….This person is called wise, or righteous” (110).

  • No citation of Scripture is given. I can think of plenty of Bible passages about true wisdom, but they all involve the fear of the Lord, not respecting others’ boundaries.

“Remember, God does not want angry people to control you. He wants to be your master and does not want to share you with anyone” (287).

  • No citation is given. I’m left wondering if the authors are vaguely referencing Jesus’ statement that “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24).

“Whenever God decides ‘enough 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” (265).

  • God reached out to the whole world with the death of His Son. He doesn’t choose new Christians because other people have refused Him.

2. Scripture out of Context

Other times, Scripture references are given to back up the authors' claims, but unfortunately, the verses are taken out of context.

“Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. They guard our treasures so people do not steal them. They keep pearls inside and the pigs outside (Matt. 6:19–20; Matt. 7:6).”

  • The first passage states, not that boundaries guard our (earthly) treasures, but rather that we should store up (spiritual) treasures that cannot be destroyed. The second passages states, not that boundaries keep pearls sacred, but rather that one should not cast pearls before swine.

“Jesus refers to it [a ‘purposeful’ life] as the ‘narrow gate.’ It is always easier to go through the ‘broad gate of destruction’ and continue not to set boundaries where we need to” (96).

  • This refers to Matthew 7:13 (not stated in the book), encouraging believers to walk in faith, rather than continue in sin. It does not reference setting limits in relationships with others.

“Stand up to abuse; say no to unreasonable demands. Remember the parable of the servants entrusted with gold by their master. There was no growth without risk and facing fear” (168).

  • The authors are referring to Matthew 25:14–30, though they don’t credit it. Jesus tells this story as a allegory of the kingdom of Heaven. It doesn’t seem that Jesus is giving advice on earthly boundaries, but rather on spiritual gifts.

“Jesus used parables about work to teach us … character development in the context of relating to God and others. They teach a work ethic based on love under God” (196).

  • This may be true, but it is misses the more important spiritual application: to teach us who God is and about His kingdom. The parables were not recorded under inspiration merely to give vocational advice.

“Work with God to find out who you really are and what kind of work you are made for. Romans 12:2 speaks of having boundaries against [others’ expectations]: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (208).

  • The context of this passage is about standing up to the temptation to sin, not about developing one’s aptitudes.

“We all would like to say about our tasks, whether large or small, what Paul said: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course’… More elegant in their simplicity are Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘It is finished!’” (241).

  • Certainly it is good to finish what we start and possess the virtue of follow-through. However, the verses referenced are not about finishing earthly tasks! Paul is speaking of his spiritual life in preparation for death and eternal life. Christ, of course, is speaking his words from the cross, achieving victory over eternal death for all who believe in Him.

“Parents have a sober responsibility: teaching their children to have an internal sense of boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others… ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1)’” (193).

  • While I do think that parents have the primary responsibility to teach their children, the use of this passage implies that not many people should desire parenthood. Even if that wasn’t what the authors meant, this passage wasn’t written about parents. It was written to those who are called to be teachers within the Church and of the Christian faith.

3. View of Scripture

If claims are made about Scripture that are not backed up by Scripture itself, and also many of the passages that are cited are taken out of context, perhaps the authors have a different view of the value of Scripture than I do?

“The Bible is a living book about relationship. Relationship of God to people, people to God, and people to each other” (259).

  • I checked exhaustively, but the word "relationship" is not anywhere in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. But okay, neither is the word "Trinity," and I still believe the Bible teaches that, so let's move on. We actually have to get near to the end of the book, page 288, before “Read the Bible" is given as a helpful advice. Unfortunately, here readers are encouraged to read it for “stories about how [God] has proven himself faithful to others as he led them to face the unknown.”

In my opinion, the authors view the Bible mainly as an interpersonal guidebook, rather than understanding its general purpose to be the redemption of sinful man in Jesus our Savior because of God’s great love.

4. Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

The book uses descriptive passages of Scripture in order to make a prescription for the behavior of how a Christian ought to act, rather than seeing the full contextual picture.

“The Bible says to own your feelings and be aware of them” (42).

  • The stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Jesus’ compassion during His ministry are given as support to this statement. Yes, all of these accounts demonstrate deep feelings, but the point of them isn’t to teach Christians to “own” their feelings.

“So many times Scripture talks about keeping boundaries with someone until she owns what she has done and produces ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’ (Matt 3:8)” (281).

  • The verse quoted does not insist that we keep boundaries with others, nor judge their actions as fruitful enough for reconciliation. Jesus spoke these words to doubting Pharisees as a rebuke. It isn’t recorded in Scripture as a prescription.

5. Lack of Identity in Christ/Focus on Self-Esteem

There's a lot of talk about figuring out one's own identity in this book. I'm a 34-year-old mother of six children, and I still don't know "who I am" apart from God's forgiven child, baptized into Christ. In fact, I don't really even understand what the authors mean by all this identity talk.

“To know what to [pray] for, we have to be in touch with who we really are and our real motives” (48).

  • This has everything to do with our personal preferences and opinions, and nothing to do with being children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

“Adolescence … involves important tasks such as sexual maturation, a sense of solidifying identity in any surrounding, career leanings, and love choices” (191).

  • There is no mention of faith.

“Look at your work as a partnership between you and God. He has given you gifts, and he wants you to develop them. Commit your way to the Lord, and you will find your work identity” (208).

  • Psalm 37:5 states that if you commit your way to the Lord and trust Him, He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, not that you will find your work identity. I agree that God wants us to identify and develop the talents He has blessed us with, but this statement puts undue emphasis on me, rather than on how God blesses others through me.

6. Forcing Scripture to Support Psychology

I’m as interested in psychology and child development as the next person. I believe these fields have a lot of helpful information to offer families and individuals. However, I don’t believe the use of Scripture is warranted to prop up these theories.

“Object Constancy is referred to in the Bible as ‘being rooted and established in love’ (Eph 3:17)” (67).

  • The passage references a prayer of Paul for the Ephesians’ spiritual growth, not about the earthly bond a mother and child should establish for a life-long healthy relationship.

“The only recorded instance of Jesus’ boyhood describes [the Principle of Individuation] … Translation: I have values, thoughts, and opinions that are different from yours, Mother” (69) in reference to Jesus’ words that He had to be about His Father’s business.

  • This misses the point that Jesus is the God-man, living a perfect life in preparation for His atoning death for sinners. It uses Jesus merely as a pop-psychology example.

“We know that God is not mean to people who are afraid; the Scripture is full of examples of his compassion. But he will not enable passivity…. God’s grace covers failure, but it cannot make up for passivity. We need to do our part. The sin God rebukes is … failing to try” (101).

  • Jesus said that God’s grace cover every sin, except for blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28–30). In fact, passivity is the perfect stance for receiving God’s grace, because dead people cannot choose to be active (Eph. 2:1; Col 2:13).

“God has a real life out there for you if you are willing to let go of the old one. He can only steer a moving ship, though. You have to get active and begin to seek his good for you” (285). Therefore if you experience hardships in your life, you haven’t set enough boundaries.

  • This preaches a theology of glory, not of the cross. How does this fit in with the Scriptures promising persecution for Christ-followers (2 Timothy 3:12; Matt. 5:10–12)?

7. Parenting Guilt

I feel burdened by the law because I do not parent in the way this book describes. Apparently, I am setting up my children for failure in their lives.

“When parents pull away in hurt, disappointment, or passive rage, they are sending this message to their youngster: You’re lovable only when you behave...Instead of saying, ‘You’ll make your bed or you’ll be grounded for a month,’ the parent says, ‘You have a choice: Make your bed, and I’ll let you play Xbox; don’t make your bed, and you lose your Xbox privileges for the rest of the day.’ The child decides how much pain he is willing to endure to be disobedient (76, 79).

What’s Missing?

There were several things I hoped to see in Boundaries, but didn't.

Clear Affirmation that God's Word is Inspired and Inerrant

I am not certain that the authors believe God's Word is inspired and without error. It is never stated or implied in the book.

The Means of Grace

I couldn’t find any mention of baptism or the Lord’s Supper in this book. While the action of empathy receives praise for its power in the lives of others, sharing God's Word as the most powerful and effacious tool for change isn't mentioned.

Reliance on God's Work In Us

“Until we 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” (261).

  • This attitude denies the power of the Holy Spirit to work through the Means of Grace, instead beginning a Christian’s sanctified life with his or her own reason or strength.

The Problem of Sin

While the concept of sin is tackled in Boundaries, the book tends to avoid using the Biblical word sin. Instead, the words used include “problems,” “mistakes,” “lack of taking responsibility,” etc.

“Loving God and our neighbor is difficult. One of the main reasons it’s so difficult is because of boundary problems” (260).

  • Note that the quotation doesn’t use the word sin.

Prayers for a Heart Transplant

The authors argue that if readers have any hesitation about commiting to something, instead of saying yes, they should respond with a firm no (53–54). But even after reading the entire book, it seems to me that, in at least some circumstances, a (sinful) person struggling with selfishness, may rightfully say yes to helping someone even though they’d rather not, and all the while pray that God would give them a generous heart, a positive attitude, and do seemingly impossible things through them.

Theology of the Cross

The authors see setting up boundaries as part of God’s design for a smooth life, much like Lutherans emphasize the blessings received when we follow the 10 Commandments. However, following the law won’t necessarily lead to a carefree, rosy exsistence on this side of Heaven. Creating boundaries for self-care can be important, but we need to also keep in mind how very difficult it can be for sinful human beings to discern the difference between self-care and selfishness.

“Remember the clear message of the Scriptures: when you encounter resistances [to your new boundaries], persevering to the end will bring great reward" (297).

Beyond Theology:

Even reading Boundaries from a secular perspective brings up numerous frustrations.

Behaviorist Psychology

Behaviorism is the discipline philosophy of the book. Behaviorism simply theorizes that if you act a certain way, others will respond in a certain predictable way. I find human beings to be lot more complicated than that.

“Tell the child no, and state the consequence. She will need to take a time-out for one minute or lose the crayons for the rest of the day” (190).

  • Any parent who has tried to guide children knows that discipline is way more complicated than this. Also notice how there’s no talk about obedience to parents being commanded by God. 

Not Practical

“Learn to know what your limits are, give what you have ‘decided in your heart’ to give, and send other people in need to those who can help them” (280).

  • I think there’s wisdom and compassion in these words, but the book offers no wisdom on how to know or decide where one’s boundaries should be drawn. There are not a lot of examples in the book of what boundary setting looks like in the midst of the process. I don’t think that this book gives people tools to discern precisely how to set boundaries, it just gives a person permission to affirm their own needs.

Psychologist Needed

This self-help book wants you to have a psychologist to help yourself.  Again and again, the book recommends seeing a counselor to make progress in boundary setting (100, 192, etc). While the concept is somewhat simple, those who begin to set boundaries for the first time in their lives will experience more trouble than the book is willing to address, hence the constant references to the need for a professional. If you think you have boundary issues, you might want to save your $16.99 and put it toward your first 15 minutes with a counselor.

Cyber Safety

The chapter Boundaries in Technology was helpful in many ways. I appreciate that the authors tackle this topic, which is so vital in our society. Unfortunately, I think their approach is too little too late. They begin by stating parents should begin with trust in their children, recommending against making technology boundaries until there is suspicion of a problem (220–224). However, in my experience, once a problem is discovered, it may already be too late to handle simply. I believe parents need to exercise safety and caution when it comes to children’s technology, letting children gradually earn reponsibililty, rather than have to set limits later after the damaging discovery of addiction, pornography, cyber-bullies, or personal safety issues.

Nebulous Phrases:

In the interest of space, I toyed with the idea of deleting this next section. But these odd and quirky phrases add a lot of flavor to this review. I just plain don’t have a heading to put them under. But if I did, it totally wouldn’t be called Things That are Clear and Not Creepy.

  • “Honesty about who you are gives you the biblical value of integrity” (37).
  • “I use ‘incarnation’ to describe how we are to ‘be in the flesh’ with one another” (232).
  • “Identify whose love you are going to have to give up if you choose to live. Give it a name. Who are you going to have to place on the altar and give to God” (284)?

Positives

I'm thankful to have been blessed with a relatively happy childhood, surrounded by supportive and non-manipulative people. This means that I don't personally experience many of the concerns tackled in this book. Perhaps that means I cannot fully appreciate the advice. But, in any case, I have found several positive points that can be gained from reading Boundaries.

Interpretation of Galatians 6:2,5

These verses state, "Carry each other’s burdens...Each one should carry their own load." How can we do both? The word for load in Greek means a small personal bag or backpack. We should each individually be responsible for ourselves and our needs. We cannot hold others responsible for our thoughts, feelings, or actions. If each person is responsible in this way, we can all pitch in and help with the burdens of others beyond their own responsibility that are too difficult to bear alone. However, we cannot and should not bear the burdens of those who refuse to even carry their own weight. This interpretation makes sense to me and it fits well within the context of the letter to the Galatians. It is a major theme throughout the book that the authors have right.

Emphasizes Confession and Forgiveness

  • “If I find that I have some pain or sin within, I need to open up and communicate it to God and others, so that I can be healed” (33).
  • “A strong strand throughout the Bible stresses that you are to give to needs and put limits on sin. Boundaries help you do just that” (89).
  • “It is much better to receive grace from God, who has something to give, and to forgive those who have no money to pay their debt. This ends your suffering … ” (136).

Encourages Introspection

  • “As iron sharpens iron, we need confrontation and truth from others to grow. No one likes to hear negative things about him or herself. But in the long run, it may be good for us” (96).
  • “The Scripture is very serious about dealing with conflict directly with the one you are angry with (Prov. 28:23, Lev. 19:17, Matt. 5:23–24; Matt. 18:15).”
  • “When you are in control of yourself, you can give and sacrifice for loved ones in a helpful way instead of giving in to destructive behavior and self-centeredness” (168).
  • “You only have the power to change yourself. You can’t change another person. You must see yourself, not the other person, as the problem” (203).

Conclusion

“We have seen over and over in this book how the Bible tells us to have good boundaries” (294). I disagree that the Bible tells us to have good boundaries, and I also disagree that Boundaries demonstrates this over and over. Perhaps there are some helpful nuggets in this book for people needing to care for themselves better before reaching out to help others. I think there are some helpful psychological sections in the text. But the discerning reader will want to take note of Bible passages being used as support for the authors’ theses when they are actually taken out of context. If you choose to glean the good from this book, read with a pen in your hand, a Bible in your lap, and the Good News of forgiveness in Christ in the forefront of your mind!

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TAGS: Worldview, Christianity, Book Review

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