Posts Tagged ‘Boundaries’


Ephesians 5:21 – ““Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.””

Whenever I (Dr. Townsend) talk about a wife setting boundaries in marriage, someone asks about the biblical idea of submission. What follows is not a full treatise on submission, but some general issues you should keep in mind.

First, both husbands and wives are supposed to practice submission, not just wives. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (see Ephesians 5:21). Submission is always the free choice of one party to another. Wives choose to submit to their husbands, and husbands choose to submit to their wives.

Christ’s relationship with the church is a picture of how a husband and wife should relate: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (see Ephesians 5:24–27).

Whenever submission issues are raised, the first question that needs to be asked is: what is the nature of the marital relationship? Is the husband’s relationship with his wife similar to Christ’s relationship with the church? Does she have free choice, or is she a slave “under the law”? Many marital problems arise when a husband tries to keep his wife “under the law,” and she feels all the emotions the Bible promises the law will bring: wrath, guilt, insecurity, and alienation (see Romans 4:15; Galatians 5:4).

Freedom is one issue that needs to be examined; grace is another. Is the husband’s relationship with his wife full of grace and unconditional love? Is she in a position of “no condemnation” as the church is (see Romans 8:1), or does her husband fail to “wash her” of all guilt? Usually husbands who quote Ephesians 5 turn their wives into slaves and condemn them for not submitting. If she incurs wrath or condemnation for not submitting, she and her husband do not have a grace-filled Christian marriage; they have a marriage “under the law.”

Often, the husband is trying to get his wife to do something that either is hurtful or takes away her will. Both of these actions are sins against himself. “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (see Ephesians 5:28–29).

Given this, the idea of slave-like submission is impossible to hold. Christ never takes away our will or asks us to do something hurtful. He never pushes us past our limits. He never uses us as objects. Christ “gave himself up” for us. He takes care of us as he would his own body.

I have never seen a “submission problem” that did not have a controlling husband at its root. When the wife begins to set clear boundaries in marriage, the lack of Christlikeness in a controlling husband becomes evident because the wife is no longer enabling his immature behavior. She is confronting the truth and setting biblical limits on hurtful behavior. Often, when the wife sets boundaries, the husband begins to grow up.

This devotional is drawn from Boundaries in Marriage, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.


Proverbs 2:1-5 – “If you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding—indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”

When you’ve been let down by someone who matters a great deal to you, moving beyond boundaries is not easy work — but it is important. One thing you can do in this regard is to figure out if the problem that was previously an obstacle is truly being transformed. In other words, is this person really changing? Is the big problem being solved the right way?

Here’s an example. I (Dr. Townsend) worked with a couple in which the husband, Bill, was a nice guy but irresponsible. He was one of those likeable people who loves to hang out with others and is a lot of fun. But Bill’s performance in life did not match up to his personality, especially in the area of finances and spending. He overspent on cars, gadgets, and entertainment. He also hid his spending habits, which meant his wife, Pam, was routinely surprised by huge credit card bills. These patterns took a major toll on the marriage. Pam was terrified of an uncertain financial future with him. She was not perfect and had her own issues as well, but his behavior came close to breaking up the marriage.

In our work together, Pam was clear that though she still loved Bill, she had lost all trust in him. She could not believe anything he said. “If he told me at noon that the sun was shining, I would go outside to check,” she said. As is common in these situations, Bill did not want to acknowledge the severity of the problem or make the necessary changes. He wanted Pam to change, to stop blaming him, and to learn to trust him. “If you would be nicer to me and trust me,” he said, “I would feel more supported, and I’d do better in my career.”

I had to step in there and say, “You are right; she shouldn’t be mean to you or attack you. But I don’t want her to trust you.”

Bill was bothered by that and said, “Don’t you want the marriage to work out?”

“Sure I do,” I said. “I want Pam to love you with no strings attached. But that is different from trust. While love is free, trust is earned. In the area of financial responsibility, I don’t want her to relax and trust you until we have evidence that you have changed.”

Again, Bill didn’t like that: “You’re both judging me,” he said.

“No,” I said, “neither of us is consigning you to hell. There is no judgment in this office. But you have not shown that you understand how deeply you have hurt her, nor have you made the necessary changes so that she can trust you again. If you and I were neighbors and I borrowed your screwdriver and didn’t return it, then borrowed your saw and didn’t return it, then your pliers and didn’t return them, what would you do if I asked to borrow your hammer?”

“Of course I wouldn’t lend it to you,” he said. “Okay, I see the point.”

Bill wasn’t as sorry as I wanted him to be at that point. He still didn’t seem to be able to acknowledge the impact he had on his wife, but it was progress.

“Here’s the deal,” I said. “I want you to submit your finances to Pam on a monthly basis for a year. She is in charge. You both see a financial planner together. And we’ll see, month by month, if you are really changing for her sake and the relationship’s sake.”

I turned to Pam: “If he does what I am asking, would you be open to trusting him again?”
“I would,” she replied. “I want to get all this behind us. But it has to be real.”

They agreed to the plan. Bill did some blaming at first, which happens frequently. But he humbled himself and allowed her to be in charge of the money. As it turned out, Bill did fine. And Pam was able to get past her hurt and mistrust, because he had truly changed.

Hurt and mistrust are nothing more than signals. They tell you that you either have some healing to do, or the other person has some changing to do—or both. So, while monitoring if you are learning to trust again, also monitor how the other person is doing in the arena that caused a break in trust in the first place.

This devotional is drawn from Beyond Boundaries, by Dr. John Townsend.


1 Corinthians 5:10-11 – ““You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or a sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.””

Is it really necessary to set boundaries with “bad” people? Why draw the line if we’re their only hope to help them repent or change their ways? In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, the Apostle Paul answers this perplexing question:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or a sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you.

The Bible contains admonitions for us to separate ourselves from fellow Christians who act in destructive ways (see Matthew 18:15 – 17; 1 Corinthians 5:9 – 13). If we do this, we are not being unloving. Separating ourselves protects love because we are taking a stand against things that destroy love.

We really can’t set limits “on” others — in that we cannot control them. What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave correctly.

Our model is God. He does not set limits on people to force them to behave. God sets standards for people to follow, but people have the freedom to obey or disobey. If they choose to disobey, God allows them to suffer the consequences, but as we see in this passage, God does not give up on those who have failed. Heaven is a place for the repentant, and all are welcome.

Our model is God. He does not set limits on people to force them to behave. God sets standards for people to follow, but people have the freedom to obey or disobey. If they choose to disobey, God allows them to suffer the consequences, but as we see in this passage, God does not give up on those who have failed. Heaven is a place for the repentant, and all are welcome.

This devotional is drawn from Boundaries, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud


Mark 7:14–23 – “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’ After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’”

Jesus’ explanation reveals how boundaries help us define who we are and are not. Through them we can take ownership of all of who we are, both good and bad. It is only by taking full ownership of what is on our property and within our own boundaries that we can grow.

Mark¬ 7:14-¬23 is a great description of some of the “not so good” stuff that hangs out in our hearts. All property needs to be cleaned up every once in a while, and our hearts are no different. Jesus tells us that our hearts are in need of this kind of responsible “cleaning up.”

Every kind of growth system that works, from counseling to spiritual direction to recovery, involves looking past our outer behavior to the root causes that lie within our hearts. Sometimes, pain and hurt are to blame and sometimes, as this passage indicates, sinful attitudes and desires are the root causes. Whatever the case, God has forgiven us and that forgiveness gives us the freedom to take a real, hard look at what lies within our hearts. The reward for doing this is that we get healthy and life gets better.

That’s why we like to say that boundaries make life better!

This devotional is drawn from Boundaries, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.


Proverbs 4:23 – “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

In order to understand how setting limits plays out in relationships, it’s important to know that there are two types of boundaries — defining boundaries and protective boundaries. Each kind of boundary has a distinct purpose. It’s important that you learn the difference, because defining boundaries should become permanent in your life, while protective boundaries are the ones you can move “beyond.”

Defining boundaries are values that establish who you are and who you are not. They are at the core of your identity and reflect what you believe is important and valuable in life. Here are a few examples:

–I follow God and his ways and will always live my life in him.
–I love my family and friends, and I will treat them with grace and truth.
–I know my mission and purpose in life, and I will not divert from it.
–I say and receive the truth; I’m neither silent in saying it nor defensive in receiving it.

These defining boundaries help you and others know the real you, the person who has substance and stands for things that matter. They help guide your decisions and directions in life. Here are some examples of how defining boundaries might be used in your relationships:

–“I’m looking for a position that fits my strategic abilities rather than one that is in operations.”
–“We have a rule that all who live in this house go to church.”
–“I want to hear the truth from you about how you think we are doing in our relationship.”
–“I’m a night owl, so let’s not plan something that requires that we get up at, oh, dark thirty.”

This is simply how you tell people who you are and how they tell you who they are. You clarify and define yourselves with these sorts of boundaries.

Protective boundaries are different. They are designed to “guard your heart” (see Proverbs 4:23), and your life, from danger or trouble. There are times when you must protect your values, emotions, gifts, time, and energy from people and situations that may waste or injure them. Protective boundaries have several elements to them. You have to face the reality that talking hasn’t fixed a situation, and you have to set a limit.

A protective boundary might begin with a statement like this: “I want us to work this out, but nothing I’ve said has made any difference, so I’m taking a different route.” This affirms that you value the relationship and that you want the other person to understand that your actions are not punitive but, ultimately, redemptive. You are simply trying to solve a difficulty in the relationship with your protective boundaries.

The consequences portion of the boundary then needs to be stated in an “If . . . then . . .” form to make sure the other person understands you mean business. For example, consider the following statements:

–“If you continue being thirty minutes late to events, I will take a separate car.”
–”I need a better work ethic from you in the office, or we’ll have to make some changes.”
–“If you keep spending over our budget, I will cut up the credit cards.”
–“I can’t lend you any more money until I see you making serious efforts to find a job.”
–“I want to bring your grandkids to see you, but if you just surf the Web while we’re there, it’s not worth it to come.”
–“I want to see my grandkids at times when you don’t need a babysitter; otherwise I feel taken advantage of.”
–“If you won’t stop drinking too much or using drugs, I will take the kids and move out.”

Here’s the important distinction between a defining boundary and a protective boundary. A defining boundary is forever and unchangeable, part of what makes you “you”; a protective boundary can change if the other person responds to it in a healthy way. Your defining boundaries mean that, for example, you will always follow God, love people, be committed to personal and spiritual growth, and so forth.

These are the core parts of you, and you don’t change them. But you might change a protective boundary if the other person understands what they are doing to you and makes a significant change. Then you might lessen or end the consequence: no separate cars, no making changes, reissue the credit cards, and so forth. When the change happens, you no longer need the protection.

This devotional is drawn from Boundaries in Marriage, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.


Proverbs 16:24 – ““Kind words are like honey — sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.””

“People who want to improve a relationship often talk about talking. That is, they bring up what happened, what went wrong in their experience, and come up with solutions. Here are some examples:

  • Remember when I said I needed space and listening, not solutions and homework assignments? It happened again; let’s fix this.
  • I don’t want to sound childish, but I’ve been trying to be more open about the job problem, and it still feels as if you want just good news from me about work. I really need you to hang in there with me.
  • It feels as if you’re impatient with me when I go to a deeper level now, as if I ought to have my act together. That’s hard for me; are you really feeling that way?
  • When I brought up the problems I have with my dad, you lost eye contact and started talking about something else. This is really important for me; are you okay with all this? Is there a way I can do this differently, or do you not want me to talk about this with you?

If you want a better relationship, be a team player with the other person. In responding, you must have no hint of judgment or a critical spirit. You are forging a way to connect, and never forget that the “we” comes first. You want to recruit the person to vulnerable language, to help solve the glitch and move on.

Acknowledge that maybe you aren’t being clear or that this is new for both of you. Vulnerability works both ways. If the other person feels a lot of performance pressure to “get it right,” she won’t be able to speak from her heart. And you are after a heart-to-heart attachment; that’s the whole idea.

I have coached many husbands on how to be empathic. Lots of them don’t naturally know the right things to say, so I give them some examples that I hope trigger and resonate with what they really feel toward their wives. Statements like these are good examples:

  • That must have been hard.
  • Tell me more.
  • How did that make you feel?
  • That’s tough; anything I can do to help?

These are simple things to say that convey understanding and support. Guys being guys, they often say, “Great idea,” and write them down so they can remember them. The problem comes when they run through the list and recite them!

Most wives catch on in about three seconds, and then there is a talk about the talk about the talk. So let the person know, “You don’t have to do this right; I certainly don’t myself. I just need to know you feel something positive toward me when I am feeling negative.” And that covers many errors.

This devotional is drawn from Beyond Boundaries, by Dr. John Townsend.


Colossians 3:12-14 –“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

I (Dr. Cloud) was leading a seminar, and I asked the audience of married couples to stop for a moment and think of their spouse. I told them to think of all of the wonderful things that they love about their spouse and to concentrate on how awesome that person is and how much they love him or her. “Think of the wonderful qualities that you admire and that attracted you to that person. Let those feelings fill you,” I told them.

Then, after they were feeling all giddy and in love again, I asked each person to turn to their spouse who was idealizing them at that moment and to repeat after me, “Honey, I am a sinner. I will fail you, and I will hurt you.”

You could feel the sense of discombobulation in the room. In one moment, they were shaken from the ideal to the real. Some began to laugh as they got it. Some felt even closer to each other. Some looked up confused as if they did not know what to do with my invitation.

But that is reality. The person you love the most and have committed your life to is an imperfect being. This person is guaranteed to hurt you and fail you in many ways, some serious and some not. You can expect the failures to come. As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” We can expect failure from even the best people in our lives.

So the question becomes, “What then?” What do you do when your spouse fails you in some way or is less than you wish for him to be? What happens when she has a weakness or a failure? How about an inability to do something? What about an unresolved childhood hurt that he brings to the relationship?

Other than denial, there are only a couple of options. You can beat him up for his imperfections, or you can love him out of them. The Bible says, “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Nothing in a relationship has to permanently destroy that relationship if forgiveness is in the picture. No failure is larger than grace. No hurt exists that love cannot heal. But, for all of these miracles to take place, there must be compassion and tenderheartedness.

What does that mean? I like how the Bible describes God’s compassion: “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary). For God to have compassion on our brokenness or sin is certainly to stoop to an inferior. But we need the same attitude toward an equal spouse for two reasons:

First, you forgive what is inferior to the ideal standard. You humble yourself to identify with your loved one, who is experiencing life in a way that is less than you or even he would want. You give up all demands for your spouse to be something he isn’t at that moment.

Second, if your spouse is hurting or failing, you are not morally superior, but you are in the stronger position at that moment to be able to help. God never uses the stronger position to hurt, but always to help. As Paul puts it in Colossians 3:12-14, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

What a picture that is! “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” What if you “wore” these qualities every time your spouse failed or was hurting? I think we would see a lot more healed marriages.

But that is not the human way. The human way is to harden our hearts when we are hurt or offended.

I was talking to a friend the other day who had offended his wife in a relatively minor way. But to her it was not minor at all. As a result, she did not speak to him for several days. Finally he asked her when she might forgive him. “Will it be before next month? Before Christmas? Just let me know so I can get ready.” She finally broke and started laughing, and things were fine again. She saw how unnecessary her “hardness of heart” was to the offense.

Hardness of heart, much more than failure, is the true relationship killer. Jesus said in Matthew 19:8 that failure is not the cause of divorce, but hardness of heart is. This is why the Bible places such a high value on tenderheartedness.

Today’s content is drawn from Boundaries In Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Copyright 2014 by Zondervan; all rights reserved. Visit BoundariesBooks.com for more information.