The Problem with “Boundaries” and Feelings-Based Counseling

July 18th, 2019 by posted in Counseling, Suffering

A couple non-original thoughts on Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

From a colleague Lee Walti,

Though I’ve never read the book thoroughly, I have skimmed through it. I was curious because it spread like a wild fire through many large Christian ministries like Crusade and others. The biggest problem with this type of book, like others similar to it, is that it does not keep the gospel front and center…where the gospel remains the lenses through which we see and evaluate everything. Instead, it is a book primarily focused on protecting oneself from others who are pushing us around, controlling us or in one way or another, taking advantage of us. The idea of having “margin” in your life is not a bad one in and of itself, but it never should be at the cost of the gospel…it should always be for the sake of the gospel…for serving the furtherance of the gospel, of displaying Christlikeness, of lovingly helping others to find Christ.

So in the end, it’s not boundaries, or our arbitrary attempts to set up protective rules or guidelines that either help us or serve others; it is the lovingkindness and mercy and goodness of the Lord that lead us all to repentance (Rom 4:2) and to seek Christ. The fact is all of our works and attempts to help ourselves mean nothing if they are not wrought in Christ (John 15:5) and guided by His Spirit (John 16:13). We are told that all our righteous efforts, apart from Christ, are like filthy rags (Is 64:6) and our hearts are deceitful and cannot be known or trusted (Jer 17:9).

Only as we seek the Word of Life, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords that we might live in Him… only as we turn to the Scriptures with the direction of the Holy Spirit to know Christ will our minds be transformed and will we be able to rightly discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom 12:1-2).

But most importantly, Christ called us to His gospel which requires us to die to self that we might live anew in and for Him (Matt 10:39, Rom 6:5). Trials, suffering, and difficult people or circumstances have all been designed by our Lord to grow our faith and focus us on eternal rewards not temporary ones (2 Cor 4:16-18, James 1:2-4). They are designed to help us to stop living for self or turning to our own works that we might save ourselves but instead to depend solely upon and live fully unto Christ (Gal 2:20-21). We are told we are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price and therefore to glorify God with our lives (1 Cor 6:20). How do we glorify God well?

By loving others into the kingdom. The two greatest commands, love God and love others, are found at the heart of the gospel and are key to how we live it out. Christ told us there are no other commandments greater than these (Mark 12:31). And if we say that we love God and do not love others, we are liars and the truth is not in us (1 John 4:20).

Of course, the huge, monumental problem is “us.” We stand in the way of the gospel going forward. Our pride, our selfishness, our constant focus on our own needs and our own desires are what cause our problems and bring about our conflicts (James 4:1-3). We don’t need to do a better job loving ourselves, we need to do a better job at loving others with the same love and attention that we already have for ourselves (Phil 2:3-8).

Therefore, we don’t need to love less; we need to love more. We don’t need to keep people’s problems and weaknesses at a distance so much as we need to trust a sovereign God that He providentially designed these weaknesses and problems in others for us, for our sanctification; to grow us in holiness. My wife’s weaknesses and struggles are not only designed for her, they are also designed for me by a good God to shape me and mold me into Christ’s image. The sins and weaknesses of others around me … those in our evangelical community to who I’m called to minister to, my friends, and my family … I shouldn’t be seeking to protect myself or to be self-sufficient so I won’t have to experience their negative and trying influence; I’m called to learn to trust Christ and find my satisfaction in Him through the process, throwing off any impediments to knowing and trusting Him (1 Cor 9:24, 2 Cor 10:5-6, Phil 3:7-11). God is trying to change my sinful, stubborn, selfish, prideful heart and help me to get my eyes off myself and learn to use His abundant comfort in my afflictions and suffering, so as to help me learn to comfort and help others with the same afflictions with the same comfort I’ve received (2 Cor 1:3-4).

As I experience their sins, weaknesses and flaws in the light of the glorious gospel of grace, it not only teaches me to be more patient, more loving, more kind, more sympathetic, and more committed to engaging them with the gospel of hope; it also reminds me of God’s grace and mercy towards me, a wicked sinner and once, an enemy of God, who has now been saved by grace. So it also wells up in me a sorrow for my own sin that put my Savior on the cross and it creates a deep gratefulness in me, that instead of heading to hell, by His grace I’m now heading to heaven. And in fact, these others are just like me, in need of His grace.

This gratefulness, this thankfulness, this grace of God to me, motivates me to love others more unto the gospel; not less. So, by His grace, I chose to engage in their mess; not run away or block them and their messiness from touching my life.

John the Baptist instructed us well, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). And so, anything that God sends my way to help me to do this is a blessing, not a curse.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” ~ Jesus (John 16:33).

[This post is an excerpt from the new mini-book, HELP! My Parents Abused Me when I was a Kid.]

A challenge that complicates the journey towards a godly response to abuse is the mass of popular literature which counsels victims from a feelings-centered position. Much of the literature available focuses on self-protection, rather than holiness, as a primary goal. For example, in their book Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend make it clear that their ultimate goal is to help victims of abuse regain control of their lives by creating boundaries. They write, “Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

Cloud and Townsend are correct in wanting to help their counselees prevent any future abuse. Practically speaking, they seek to help their counselees avoid the ungodly response of becoming a functional doormat. Establishing boundaries that past abusers cannot cross in order to prevent future abuse is a necessary step of discernment for the victim of abuse, and Boundaries does seek to help its readers develop that discernment.

However, the problem with the counsel given in Boundaries is that it starts from a victim-centered approach. In other words, the basis laid out for discerning proper boundaries starts with the emotions of the victim and what the victim thinks he or she can handle or should have to handle. But rather than asking how much we feel we can handle, we should ask, “What does God require of me in this situation?” The approach of Cloud and Townsend could inadvertently direct a person to think that he or she should seek to avoid all difficult circumstances. Avoiding all difficulty could in fact prevent a victim from growing in wisdom in the midst of a trying circumstance (James 1:2–8, or from caring more about God’s commands than personal comfort.

In contrast to what Boundaries calls the victim to avoid, James actually calls his readers to face difficult experiences with joy (James 1:2 He tells his readers to see difficulties as times when their faith in God is being tested, and he goes on to say that as a consequence they will grow in patience and wisdom (James 1:3–5 Applying this principle to your own life as a Christian victim of abuse will undoubtedly be challenging, but it should also be encouraging as you learn that God has a good purpose for you in your trials. In other words, God will not let the abuse that you suffered go to waste, but will use it for your good (Romans 8:28–29

An additional problem that you will face by simply establishing boundaries in your relationship with your formerly abusive parents is that this response fails to reflect the gospel. The gospel calls us as Christians to move towards our enemies with love, forgiveness, and truth, while Boundaries begins with a self-protective premise. While it is important that abuse not be condoned or allowed to continue, your ultimate goal should be to honor the God of reconciliation by seeking reconciliation with your parents, just as Christ sought reconciliation with his enemies (Romans 5:6–11 Boundaries seems to focus more on what is comfortable for the victim of abuse, rather than calling the Christian towards holiness in the midst of significant suffering.

Many counseling systems start with the philosophy of reclaiming what is rightfully yours and regaining control of your own life, which you believe was taken by your abuser. This approach is born out of the objective to forbid any additional abuse. While this objective is appropriate, if it becomes your sole focus you will become primarily concerned with self, personal comfort, and total control. You will ultimately lack a God-centered worldview in regards to the abuse that you experienced, and you will also lack a heart of reconciliation towards your abusers. This man-centered premise does not reflect the call of the Scriptures: Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31–32 Neither does it reflects Jesus’ teaching when he stated,  But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27–28

As painful as it is to begin to think about loving or blessing those who hurt you, as you look to Jesus’ response to his abusers, you can find strength to love as he loved.

[This post is an excerpt from the new mini-book, HELP! My Parents Abused Me when I was a Kid.]



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