A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Love Says No: How Boundaries Express True Care, Part I

I remember that summer vividly; pivotally. I was on my way into high school, and had finally wrapped my hormone-charged little brain around Jesus’ servanthood, His death to self. I remember leaning over my cafeteria tray, discussing with my camp counselor what that looked like. She looked alarmed, I think, over my fervor (I’m sure my husband can relate): But Jesus doesn’t want us to be doormats, she countered.

At the time, I just couldn’t see it. What did Jesus hold back? The concept of “boundaries” seemed a post-modern reflex against living radical and poured-out. I didn’t see a whole lot about boundaries in the Gospels.

Now I see it all over the place. Jesus set boundaries over His Father’s house, forcing out people who’d abused a space that should have been protected. Jesus, while still compassionate, didn’t heal everyone. When He did heal, it wasn’t always right away what people wanted—like healing from lameness—and was more what they needed (first and foremost, spiritual healing). For Him, love didn’t always mean a “yes”, even when he was able.

Sometimes it meant “no.”


I still occasionally reside in Doormat Land, in part because it is such a cozy place for my cowardice. Love is a lot easier if you give people what they want. People generally like you a lot more, you generally look better, and you don’t have to suffer as people around you struggling all the time to do work in their lives that is painful and stinkin’ hard.

So why would I set boundaries again? Here are some memos to myelf.

  1. A lot of times when I’m saying “yes” to someone, I’m saying “no” to someone else. Practically, this might be as simple as When I say yes to what my mom wants, I’m saying more of a no to my wife. Our marriage gets a little crowded with three people in it. Or it might be, My friend is always calling me to see if I can watch her kids during her projects. But maybe after a few too many of those, I start bristling with my own kids.


Life is a bit of a pie graph. Currently, my pie graph is full, with slices totaling 100%. I do not have any “eat bon-bons and watch soap operas” slices. I may (and should!) have a margin slice in there. Often, I think I can subtract from the “sleep” slice or the “leisure” slice, or maybe the “make a healthy, delicious dinner” slice so that it becomes the “ta-da-my-family-ate-dinner” slice. Sometimes this is necessary. But sometimes the “happy wife” or “fun mom” slice transforms into just “wife [please don’t step on my exhausted toes]” or “irritable mom.” Stand up for your marriage; your kids; faithfulness for things to which you’ve already committed and people who are already counting on you.


I at times have been guilty of thinking that if

  • I can do what someone asks, or
  • if it is easier for me to do it, or
  • if it would hurt feelings for me to say no, or
  • the opportunity is there to help someone

I should say yes. But an opportunity does not always mean I am called to do something. If I take this on, that may suffer—and the needs of NOW are not always more important than the needs of TOMORROW.


  1. Care more about what is best for him than just what he wants. Without this, I’m still as immature as that junior high version of me who, I cringe to admit, let that boy I was crushing on cheat off my spelling test. It’s that whole “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” thing. Working in poverty development has driven this home: “Easy money” for the poor is rarely what helps them claw their way out of poverty. On the contrary, it cements them there. Parenting, too, requires a good long game. It says we care more about a thriving, healthy adulthood than the fit our kids are winding up to throw in the middle of Target. And what about friendships? Perhaps rather than letting that friend consistently talk about herself for hours, you find ways to gradually help her shift the spotlight a bit. If it helps–remember that our culture plops a pair of beer goggles on our relationships, equating love with happiness.


  1. Boundaries look not just at the immediate need, but the larger context. Sure, maybe your friend needs help with that resume the night before the interview. But maybe this is also a pattern of procrastination you’ve known (and perpetuated) since high school. Love enough to have the courage to  diligently, studiously seek out and do what this person needs in the long-term—not just keep the peace. And if they can’t respect boundaries, there may be larger issues at work (like manipulation, control, or even borderline personality disorder). As my 12-year-old (!) mentioned to me the other day, “If they can’t take ‘no,’ there’s a decent chance they’re manipulating you.”

Don’t forget to grab Part II here.


Need help with boundaries? Get honest with someone who will help you advocate for what matters.

And check out books like the classic Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life,

and Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

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  1. Such important words! So often, I want to swoop in and save the day, but sometimes that’s not what’s best for that person or for me. I’ve been reading ‘Present Over Perfect’ lately—which is great!—but I’ve really been struggling over when is it selfish to say ‘no’ and when is it necessary. Your three points really help put that into perspective.

    • Lex, thanks for totally hearing my heart on this (and hey! for commenting ;)). This is definitely more of a “do as I say not as I do” post for me…loving enough to create boundaries is a very real struggle for me. I may have to check out that book–! Grateful for your encouragement.

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