[I recommend you to click on the link to the Youtube video, and actually listen to the sermon rather than just read it, for the best experience of it and if you are able to do that on the device you are using.]
Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, which should alert us to the reality that righteousness and sin are intimately connected to respecting boundaries.
I know only three places in this life where it is safe to be unboundaried — with newborns, with the dying, and with Jesus. In those three settings, I have abandoned reserve, swum out of the sea of my own being and into the other person’s reality. In all other situations, I keep a watcher on guard, monitoring things, evaluating, determining when it’s safe to proceed or imposing what the Quakers call a Stop.
“Stop. Look. Listen”, as the Green Cross Code used to say, teaching kids about crossing the road.
Falling in love is also defined by psychologists as a collapse of ego boundaries, but even — or perhaps especially — then, you should keep a set of objective criteria that remind you to check for porcine tendencies before you toss your pearls at the feet of your beloved. Decisions come with consequences, and consequences have long tails. The heart, the head and the gut should all be engaged and functioning in all decisions about personal relationships; and even then we can often be in for surprises.
Do you know the work of Brené Brown? If not, I commend it to you in thinking about boundaries and forgiveness. You can find her on Youtube or in the Amazon bookshop. She teaches about such issues as vulnerability, confidence, empathy and shame.
When she came to research the topic of compassion, Brené sought out and interviewed large numbers of people whose vocation required a compassionate approach to others. She expected that the commonality she’d find emerging would be a strong grounding in spiritual belief. To her surprise, that was not the common ground shared by compassionate people.
Instead, what she discovered is that the most compassionate people had what she described as “boundaries of steel.”
She went back to check if her findings resonated with these extremely boundaried people and what they thought. Did they *intend* to set clear boundaries in their lives? How had did their firm boundaries come about?
In general, the response she got was, “I would not have said it that way, but yes, I am very clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay. I don’t subject myself to the abuse of other people.”
As Brené put it, firm boundaries allow you “to be generous towards others while continuing to stay in your integrity. It’s staying true to yourself and grounded while also feeling compassion towards others.”
Saying yes will burn you out if you are incapable of saying no.
It’s very important for us to hear this as Christians, because all too often this is not what we have been taught. On the contrary nearly all of us have been encouraged to believe that love means lowering boundaries, means sacrificing our own preferences and interests in favour of others, and submitting to their desires and agendas, and merging those with our own lives. This is, of course, what has allowed abuse to cut through the church community like a knife through butter.
In an authoritarian culture where people have been told to put on a smile even when they are miserable or afraid, to show respect and deference even to sadists, bullies and liars, and to organise into hierarchies of obedience that leave some people — children and women, usually — vulnerable to the predilections of church leaders, is it any wonder that abuse has flourished?
Furthermore, in a culture where almost everyone is routinely lying — pretending to feel and believe what they do not, because they are afraid of being ostracised and excluded — the members lose their feeling for authenticity, and this also makes them vulnerable to abuse.
All this is addressed by creating and maintaining firm boundaries; by, as Brené put it, “staying in your own integrity”, which then gives you the breathing space and groundedness that allow you to be generous.
As church communities in every denomination have tackled the horrible mess of spiritual, sexual, emotional and physical abuse, everywhere the question has come up, “What is the place of forgiveness?”
Because, forgiveness is central to the gospel and the teaching of Jesus.
As, traditionally in the church, love was understood to be a lowering of boundaries, it followed that forgiveness likewise implied a lowering of boundaries. The wife beaten by her husband was encouraged to take him back. People cheated and abused were encouraged to continue friendly towards those who had hurt them — and oftentimes were even encouraged to apologise to their abusers as an act of humility. It was also assumed that forgiveness would necessarily include feeling positively and warmly and kindly toward the transgressor; indeed, that’s what forgiveness has often mistakenly been assumed to actually *be*.
Our reading [from Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 18, verses 21-35] speaks about relational forgiveness as being the same as forgiving a debt of money, and I have always found that a most helpful way to look at it.
If someone owes you money, you can decide to forgive the debt. You cancel it. You write it off. It’s over, you can go your separate ways.
This doesn’t imply anything about what you might feel towards that person who owed you the money, and on balance it seems less (rather than more) likely that you would ever lend them anything in the future, because you know they cannot be trusted. But the debt is forgiven, and this act is itself quite dispassionate — it comes from a decision to be generous, to be kind, to be free, not from being manipulated or coerced; and it is intentional not responsive. You forgive because of what you are in yourself, as a decision.
Of course, when it comes to matters of relationship, the practice of forgiveness is bound to have feelings associated with it — maybe relief or lightness, perhaps the joy of reconciliation; but maybe also sadness because this is a parting of the ways, or a feeling of injustice because there was no apology, or emptiness because this feels like unfinished business, or just tiredness and hurt. The feelings come from the forgiveness, but forgiveness is not a feeling and is not done on the basis of feelings. Forgiveness is practiced quite independently of how you feel about it.
Forgiveness does not at all imply a re-establishment of trust or close personal interaction. In my own life I have had to forgive (and go on forgiving) individuals with whom I hope never again to share the same physical space. But I wish them well. I hope they are happy, and peaceful, and free — just, not near me.
The purpose of forgiveness is to set you free — you, the person doing the forgiving. It’s to set you free from the karmic entanglements, the psychological adhesions and toxic legacies that are part and parcel of the misery we call sin.
Forgiveness lets you make a fresh start — either with the other person, or without them; your choice. It lets you walk freely in the world. It stops you being exhausted by bitterness. It sets you free.
So, my recommendation is that you (with help if this is difficult for you) establish and maintain firm personal boundaries, living authentically, with integrity and without apology, what you really feel and really believe. And from this firm base, I recommend you to set others free from whatever they owe you — but name it, specify it, identify it, don’t downplay it or pretend it didn’t happen. Set them free, with or without a conversation; let it be a private thing between you and God if you prefer. And do whatever is necessary to break the pattern.
One thing more. Sometimes you will be the person who has hurt and abused others; of course you will, because every single one of us has done so. When you wake up to the reality that you have hurt somebody, the right thing to do is offer a humble, honest, entirely unqualified apology. Just say sorry, and do what you can to put right the harm you did. After that, the job is done. Don’t pursue the person you hurt for connection, or allow them any particular hold over you. Be friends if it works out that way, but don’t force it. Don’t let toxic adhesions form. No strings. Apologise, sincerely, make restoration, and let that be the end of it. Free to start again.
As William How put it in his hymn “O my Saviour lifted” —
“Bringing all my burdens,
Sorrow, sin and care;
At thy feet I lay them
And I leave them there.”