A Critical Review of
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s book begins with an example of what doesn’t work in our day to day lives that makes us feel as if our life is spinning completely out of control. They show us that trying harder doesn’t work, being nice to others out of fear doesn’t work, nor does taking on the responsibilities of others work. They show us that taking ownership of our lives is the only real answer to our problems, and that discerning what is and is not our responsibility, is the key to getting and keeping control of our lives. Learning to say no is vital to drawing the boundary lines between others and our own responsibilities, while the inability to do so is self-destructive. Cloud and Townsend claim that “this is the most serious problem facing Christians today.” They argue that “believers struggle with tremendous confusion about when it is biblically appropriate to set limits.” They believe that there has been much wrong teaching concerning the biblical perspective of boundaries. Their aim is to clarify the biblical nature of boundaries as they can be understood “in the character of God, his universe, and his people.”
Cloud and Townsend believe that the Word of God tells us clearly what our boundaries are and how to protect them, as well as what is not within our borders of responsibility, but that our families, and other past relationships, confuse us about our property lines. “We are responsible to others and for ourselves.” Being responsible to others is doing what they cannot do for themselves. Being responsible for ourselves is carrying our own daily loads. It is when one’s daily load is exceeded beyond what he is capable of carrying, that we should bear one another’s burdens. Both those who cannot set boundaries for themselves and those who do not respect the limits of others have boundary problems. While we are not responsible for others feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, we do have responsibilities to each other. The inability to respond to others genuine needs is neglecting our responsibility to them. Cloud and Townsend purport that setting boundaries does not mean building walls. They propose that our boundaries need to be passable in order to allow good relationships in, yet strong enough to keep out danger.
Some examples of boundaries that Cloud and Townsend expound on are the physical body boundaries, verbal boundaries, truth boundaries, geographical distance, time management boundaries, emotional distance, other people’s boundaries, and consequences of boundaries. “The most basic boundary-setting word is no.” Cloud and Townsend say the Bible is very clear about letting your yes be yes and your no be no. The word no lets others know that you are in control of yourself. Those who cannot say no to others demands passively comply, but are inwardly resentful much of the time. When we say yes, it should be a reflection of our love, not simply an expression of guilt or compulsion. Our physical self is our first and foremost boundary that separates us from others. Victims of early physical or sexual abuse often have trouble setting clear boundaries. Our verbal boundaries should clearly express who we are and who we are not to others. Honesty about who we are and who God is are truth boundaries. Distortions of this reality have disastrous consequences in our lives. If we live in the truth, we are much happier. Those who do not accept the truth of who they are and who God is, live outside of their own and God’s boundaries. Living a lie is a sure path to destruction.
Cloud and Townsend suggest that “the concept of boundaries comes from the very nature of God.” God limits what he allows in His presence. “He confronts sin and allows consequences for behavior.” He guards his property and allows no evil to abide in his presence. He invites all who repent of their evil to come in, while closing the gates on those who do not. “We need to develop boundaries like God’s.” Sometimes we must create geographical distance by physically removing ourselves from a situation in order to clarify and maintain boundaries. We must do this at times in order to replenish ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually just as Jesus often did. Other times we must remove ourselves from evil and dangerous situations. The Bible urges us to separate ourselves from those who continually hurt us in abusive relationships (Mathew18: 17,18; I Cor5: 9-13). Time apart often heals relationships, while leading those who suffer a loss of fellowship to repentance and a change of behavior. Cloud and Townsend show us that setting limits on others behavior is not really possible, but that we can limit our own exposure to people who behave poorly. God lets us behave as we choose, but He does not allow evil to come into His house. All are welcome, but only the repentant can enter in. “God limits his exposure to evil, unrepentant people, as should we,” purports Cloud and Townsend.
Cloud and Townsend truthfully state that our most basic need in life is relationship. We need to be able to both give and receive love. Many people withhold love from others and cannot accept it from others out of fear of relationship due to past hurts. The heart must be able to trust enough to feel safe enough to love. Fear of being alone keeps many of us in abusive relationships for years. God does not enable us to continue acting irresponsibly. The Bible sets consequences for certain behaviors. We reap what we sow. We must also back up our boundaries with consequences when others trespass against us. Threats must be followed through with when behaviors continue to violate in order to let people know the seriousness of the trespass and teach them to respect our boundaries.
Behaviors always have consequences because of God’s law of sowing and reaping, but when someone interrupts the natural progression of this law, that person often reaps the consequence of the other person’s deed. To rescue one from the natural consequences of his behavior only serves to enable him to continue in that pattern. Cloud and Townsend pose that parents often fall into this trap, but propose that “parenting with love and limits, with warmth and consequences, produces confident children who have a sense of control over their lives.” We need to take responsibility for our choices, which produces the fruit of self-control in our lives. Often we try to lay this at someone else’s feet, thereby relinquishing control over our behavior to someone else and avoiding the responsibility of that behavior. But we must realize that we are in control and if we choose to live by the spirit, we will live; and if we choose to follow our sinful nature, we will die.
We are reluctant to set boundaries in various areas of our lives because setting them causes conflict, especially when we have neglected to do so before. Setting and maintaining boundaries teaches others to respect your needs and desires as well as their own. If you do not maintain your boundaries, you will inevitably be in bondage to others whims. People with no boundaries respond automatically to the anger of others by rescuing them, seeking their approval, or getting angry back at them. Good boundaries allow us to be separate enough to love others. You can use physical distance as well as other limits to enforce consequences for those who do not respect your boundaries. When boundaries are enforced, others are forced to use self-control rather than other-control. As long as their behavior controls you, they have no need for changing that behavior. God says he will only do what is right and that he will not participate in evil. So when people continue to go their own way, he lets them alone, and often that is just what we must do in our relationships. One should consider the consequences of setting boundaries and be willing to accept risk and sometimes loss of relationship.
Setting limits is the first step in a long process of gaining freedom from others controlling behaviors. When one is physically overpowered by a controlling person, often abusive behavior escalates. Sometimes we need outside help to enforce our limits. Remaining in an abusive relationship is not a required for forgiveness to take place. Forgiveness is the responsibility of the abused, but reconciliation is the responsibility of the abuser as well. We may not be reconciled to an abusive person if they refuse to change their behavior, though we can still forgive them. We can forgive others, while guarding our heart until we see “fruit in keeping with repentance.” They should produce the fruits of repentance, the evidence of change, before we are reconciled to them in relationship. God is reconciled to his people when they are truly repentant, just as we might be reconciled with a person who has shown himself repentant and trustworthy. Forgiveness is for past offenses, where reconciliation is about future behavior. When people deny responsibility for their own behavior, without really trying or seeking help to change their behavior, then we need not accept reconciliation at the expense of our personhood.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s book on boundaries is one of the best self-help books I have read. The psychological perspectives of understanding differing personalities, helps you to see where you fit in to the relationships that may be controlling you and limiting your freedom and peace. Learning to have peace in your self and in your relationships is dependent on your ability to set appropriate boundaries on yourself and respecting the boundaries of others.
- An Existentialist Approach to Career Development in Victims of Domestic Violence (gofishministries.wordpress.com)
- What I am Angry About and What Would Jesus Get Angry About? (gofishministries.wordpress.com)
- Vengeance is Mine Says the Lord (gofishministries.wordpress.com)