Book Review: Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How To Say No To Take Control of Your Life

Many Christians are surprisingly bad at drawing boundaries.

At least that’s what Henry Cloud, John Pearson, and Robert Townsend posit in the still-popular book Boundaries, a Christ-centered guide to…well, to doing exactly what the title says: defining, drawing, and keeping boundaries.  And even if you think your boundaries are just fine, thanks, this book is going to offer you more than you could imagine.

The mistaken assumption that the book first wants to tackle is that Christians don’t have, or shouldn’t have, boundaries.  The authors point out that this is both a myth and a lie: God Himself is a boundary-drawer, and our drawing of boundaries—something supported by Scripture—in a healthy and God-centered way is not incompatible with love, selflessness, or service.  Indeed, they argue, drawing boundaries frees us to love selflessly.

The book deals with all manners of boundary-drawing.  Do you have difficult drawing boundaries with your children?  Your spouse?  Family and friends?  Work?  Do you have trouble drawing boundaries for yourself, or in regards to technology?  Then you will find strong, workable, Scripture- and psychology-inspired advice here—and lots of it.

If you’ve ever wondered how drawing a boundary might be godly, you will learn how here. If you aren’t sure why you’re so bad at drawing boundaries, this book will give you a few good guesses.  If you worry about what will happen once you start drawing boundaries, fret not—there’s advice for every step of the way.  There’s even advice here for boundary-busters, people for whom “no” is never an acceptable answer.

I was surprised both by how Scripturally-supported the text is and also by how thoughtful, intellectual, and carefully researched it is.  What pleased me most about it was the actionable material inside it.  The authors emphasize that boundary-drawing is, even with a supportive community in place, work done between an individual and God.  We cannot expect other people to draw our boundaries for us, nor must we live our lives trying to change other people into what we want them to be.  We can only work on ourselves.

Moreover—and this struck me profoundly—the book takes care to point out that loving people, serving people, and being selfless toward others does not mean that you are to take responsibility for their feelings or actions.  An example?  Assume your friend Barbara asks you if you want to be a part of her small group.  You’re already in a small group; you don’t want to go.  But you’re afraid saying no will make Barbara feel bad, so you say “yes” instead.

The book points out two problems with this way of thinking: 1) your “yes” to Barbara is inherently deceitful, since you really do not want to go, and you are not letting your ‘yes be yes’ and your ‘no be no’ and 2) you have convinced yourself that loving Barbara means that you must never cause Barbara to feel bad.  But that’s not so!  You have not harmed Barbara; you have not sinned against Barbara; Barbara’s feelings are for Barbara to deal with, and not for you to manage.  You can love Barbara and minister to Barbara while not needing to feel responsible for all of her moods and emotions.

This was so eye-opening for me.  I am exactly the sort of person who would say yes without meaning my yes.  I would feel guilty for disappointing Barbara.  But the book wants Christians to understand that the “guilt” we feel is sometimes false, and that we must be very careful not to confuse it with conviction or with the voice of the Holy Spirit.  To determine whether or guilt is manufactured, we must go to God’s word and use it to line up our thinking properly.

I really loved all of this, because I and almost everyone I know struggles with boundary issues.  I hate saying no and upsetting people; my mother is a self-confessed people-pleaser; my husband struggles to draw work-life balance boundaries; and all of my friends and acquaintances don’t know how to draw a boundary related to their smartphone. We all need boundaries!  And this book is wonderful at helping us to draw them.

There are a few nits to pick with the book, though for me they weren’t worth disregarding the rest.  There are a few references and “tells” in here that will give you an indication of the authors’ particular theological grounding, which may or may not irritate you, but I didn’t find them worth abandoning everything else in the book for.  And I was pleased to find that  the authors were willing to address the issue of abuse as well as the ways that perversion of the hotly-debated submission doctrine has resulted in damaging boundary-breaking as well.

So if you’re in need of some boundaries in your life, start here.  The reading is sometimes a little dense and delves into psychology-speak, but it’s worth it for the really actionable material.  If you’re a Christian who feels like a doormat, someone who struggles with saying “no” even to yourself, this boo will give you a place and a reason to begin figuring out your limits.



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