What is Love?
For years, I had the wrong idea of love. I thought, as a Christian, I was supposed to say yes to everyone around me and that I was not allowed to have boundaries. The church also perpetuated this idea by encouraging service and sacrifice above relationship. Give, give, give. That was my idea of love.
Several years ago, a family member moved in close by. We’ll call this person “Nancy”. Now, my husband and I knew that Nancy was not leading a healthy life. She didn’t take care of herself physically, emotionally, or spiritually even though it seemed to be in her ability to do so.
When Nancy first moved in a few doors down, I figured I could help her get healthy. I liked to cook healthy meals and I knew a little bit about taking care of my body, so I would invite her over for home-cooked meals and even send over Tupperware meals when we had extra food.
Not only was I attempting to help Nancy in her physical health, but Josh and I began taking on the responsibility of her mental and spiritual state as well. In reality, we were allowing Nancy to bull-doze our boundaries for the sake of “loving” her. She would come through our door whenever she felt like it (sometimes four to five times a day) and I would just allow it because I thought that’s what loving Christians do. Plus, I still had it in my mind that I could change her.
The more we gave Nancy, the more she seemed to want from us. She would come over around dinner time most days and assume I would invite her to stay (which I usually did). She would rummage through my cupboards. She would come over crying, needing me and Josh to listen to her sob stories. She needed favors and continued emotional support, yet we failed to see her make any effort on her end.
Nancy had stopped going to church and had absolutely no community. She began to rely solely on me and Josh. At this point, I began realizing that, as Henry Cloud puts it, we were putting in more effort and taking more responsibility for her life than she was. And that’s called enabling.
I’m sure Nancy really wanted to change, but she probably didn’t believe she could do anything about her condition. In her mind, she was helpless and didn’t just want help; she wanted rescuing. And she happened to find two insecure people with lax boundaries on which to unload her personal responsibilities.
Around this time, I began learning more about boundaries so that I could say “no” to the things that got in the way of the more important things God had given me to steward—myself (body, mind, and spirit), my marriage, my family, and the vision God was giving me for my life. Even though I was finally getting through my head that I couldn’t change Nancy, my actions still said otherwise.
I would uphold boundaries sometimes, but other times, to avoid looking mean, I would again allow Nancy to cross my boundaries. My resentment became a tool God used to let me know when I had allowed Nancy to cross my boundaries.
I would feel resentment when I let Nancy unload her responsibilities onto me. Nancy basically expected us to feed her, keep her company, invite her in whenever she wanted, let her see our kids whenever the mood struck her, and generally just make her happy. If we didn’t oblige (even with good reason), we were being “mean”, “rude”, or “selfish”. She perceived every boundary, every “no”, and every decision made for me and my family as being against her.
On the reverse, I would also feel resentment when Nancy usurped my authority by parenting my children without permission or showing up at my family’s hang out spots without an invitation. She was constantly attempting to fill our needs when we hadn’t asked for help. It didn’t feel like help; it felt like meddling.
My problem was that I had confused enabling with love. I wrongly believed that I could love Nancy by taking responsibility for her life. In reality, I was taking over stewardship that belonged to her. And, in return, I was really slacking on the responsibilities that were truly mine to manage.
In the end, Nancy was no further along in her life. She had not received anything I gave her as though it were love and she was always left wanting more. She failed to grow or mature, which is only possible with true relational connection. In fact, my enabling most likely made matters worse. And now, I had neglected my own responsibilities in my feeble attempt to change her.
The worst part of everything was that, because of my intense resentment, I now lacked love for Nancy. Any action that appeared kind-hearted was done out of a heart of bitterness with the goal of appeasing her. So, I knew I needed to get back to a place of love. To do that, I needed to define my boundaries.
Stewarding Our Gardens
In my blog, Are Boundaries Unloving?, I borrow Danny Silk’s analogy from Keep Your Love On regarding how boundaries are like a fence around our personal gardens. Our gardens are our lives and the responsibilities we have that God has given us to steward and cultivate. When we don’t have a property line, some people in our lives can act like deer. They invade our property and take what they like.
The goal of our property lines or boundaries is to define our space and give us the freedom to choose how we give, when we give, and to whom we give. When we don’t have a fence, it’s a free-for-all with a first-come/first-serve basis. This gives us absolutely no control over our lives. We are essentially handing over authority and control to whomever is neediest and takes first.
When we garden this way, we have a terrible relationship with the deer as they’re constantly eating what we have painstakingly grown and we get angry. Gardeners who choose to fence their gardens, on the other hand, have a lovely relationship with the deer as they are not constantly on guard to protect what they have. Because of their boundaries, they can choose to pick veggies out of the abundance of what they have faithfully stewarded and, in turn, lovingly give them to the deer.
This is the goal of boundaries—to love out of our own freewill instead of feelings of obligation or attempts to appease others. When we find ourselves at our limit and giving with a heart of resentment, we need to stop and take an honest assessment.
Oftentimes, we continue to give and give and give, thinking that our actions will cause our hearts to suddenly feel loving, but it only makes things worse. We have to accept that we have limits and we, too, have needs.
When we love others, we are sharing the heart of God. When we have boundaries, we communicate that there is a Source and it’s not us.
Learning to Love
When I began incorporating boundaries in my life, my heart began to heal and my love for Nancy began to grow. From there, I could take stock of what I had regained authority over and freely choose to give from my heart. I was now giving out of my own heart of love instead of allowing Nancy to dictate how and what I gave.
One of the most important things I learned from this experience is that love is something we cultivate in our hearts. In the beginning, my actions could have been seen as loving, but my heart was far from love. Through this process, I needed to learn to love and value myself before I could properly love anyone else, and this included allowing myself to have boundaries and regaining authority over my life.
It was a really sobering realization to see how little love I truly had. As I became more aware of my limits (using resentfulness or anger as cues), I became more aware of my capacity to love. From this, I truly began to understand my need to seek God more. It feels awful when the people around you need love and you don’t have it to give.
But we’re not without hope.
Part of this journey of moving to where God has lead us is for God to grow my capacity to love. I want more love for my husband, more love for my kids, and more love to change the world around me. I can’t do that without seeing my need first.
As long as we are masking our lack of love with actions that merely appear loving, we will never get to the point of seeing our need and turning to God for increase. The realization of our neediness is probably one of the most uncomfortable and vulnerable processes to go through, but it is absolutely necessary in order for God to use us and grow our love.
Oswald Chambers explains it this way in My Utmost for His Highest: “When I reach the frontier of need and know my limitations, Jesus says—‘Blessed are you.’ But I have to get there. God cannot put into me, a responsible moral being, the disposition that was in Jesus Christ unless I am conscious I need it.”
When you come to the end of yourself, what will you do? What choice will you make? Will you continue to push through and attempt to appear loving, while anger, bitterness, and resentment grows in your heart? Or will you admit your limitations and turn to God? It’s a beautiful thing to finally see your need and surrender your life and your will to a loving God. I’m not content faking it anymore. I want to offer people genuine love.
This is not the end of this story. Please read Loving Better With Boundaries to hear how God led me beyond boundaries and into loving actions.