Back in the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve about ownership: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen. 1:28).

Made in the image of God, we were created to take responsibility for certain tasks. Part of taking responsibility, or ownership, is knowing what is our job, and what isn't. Workers who continually take on duties that aren't theirs will eventually burn out. It takes wisdom to know what we should be doing and what we shouldn't. We can't do everything.

Do you have great difficulty in knowing what things are your responsibility and what aren't? In your desire to do the right thing, or to avoid conflict, do you take on problems that God never intended you to take on: your mother's chronic loneliness, your boss's irresponsibility, your friend's unending crises, your church leader's guilt-ridden message of self-sacrifice, or your spouse's immaturity? Has your inability to say no affected your kids' ability to delay gratification and behave themselves in school?

Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in your life is a problem of boundaries. Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, you need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for your life to help you distinguish what is your responsibility and what isn't.

This is one of the most serious problems facing Christians today. Many sincere, dedicated believers struggle with tremendous confusion about when it is biblically appropriate to set limits. When confronted with their lack of boundaries, they raise good questions:

1. Can I set limits and still be a loving person?
2. What are legitimate boundaries?
3. What if someone is upset by my boundaries?
4. How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy, or money?
5. Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider setting boundaries?
6. How do boundaries relate to submission?
7. Aren't boundaries selfish?

Misinformation about the Bible's answers to these issues has led to much wrong teaching about boundaries. Not only that, but many clinical psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, addictions, impulsive disorders, guilt problems, shame issues, panic disorders, and marital and relational struggles, find their root in conflicts with boundaries.

Lessons In Boundaries: When to Say 'No' and When to Say 'Yes'

Avoidants: Saying "No" to the Good

The Bible study group that had been meeting at the Craigs' house for six months had suddenly become more intimate. Tonight the five couples began to share real struggles in their lives, not just the usual "please pray for Aunt Sarah" requests. Tears were shed, and genuine support, not just well meaning advice was offered. Everyone, except the hostess, Rachel, had taken a turn talking.

Rachel had been the driving force behind the formation of the Bible study. Caught up in her leadership role, however, Rachel never opened up about her struggles. She shied away from such opportunities, preferring instead to help draw out others. Tonight the others waited.

Rachel cleared her throat. Looking around the room, she finally spoke, "After hearing all the other problems in the room, I think the Lord's speaking to me. He seems to be saying that my issues are nothing compared to what you all deal with. It would be selfish to take up time with the little struggles I face. So...who would like dessert?" No one spoke. Disappointment was evident on each face. Rachel had again avoided an opportunity for others to love her as they'd been loved by her.

This boundary problem is called avoidance: saying no to the good. It's the inability to ask for help, to recognize one's own needs, and to let others in. Avoidants withdraw when they are in need; they do not ask for the support of others. At the heart of struggle is a confusion of boundaries as walls. Boundaries are supposed to be able to "breathe," to be like fences with a gate that can let the good in and the bad out.

Saying "Yes" to Everything

Jim had never been able to say no to anyone, especially to his supervisor at work. He'd moved up to the position of operations manager in a large firm. His dependability had earned him the reputation of "Mr. Can Do."

But his kids had another nickname for him: "The Phantom." Jim was never home. Being "Mr. Can Do" meant late nights at the office. It meant business dinners several nights a week. It meant weekends on the road, even after he'd promised the kids fishing trips and trips to the zoo.

Jim didn't like being absent so much, but he had justified it to himself, saying, This is my contribution to the kids, my way of giving them the good life. His wife, Alice, had rationalized the "dadless dinners" by telling the children (and herself), "This is Dad's way of telling us he loves us." And she almost believed it.

Finally, however, Alice had had enough. One night she sat Jim down on the couch in the family room and said, "I feel like a single parent, Jim. I missed you for a while, but now all I feel is nothing."

Jim avoided her eyes. "Honey, I know, I know," he replied. "I'd really like to say no to people more, but it's just so hard to-"

"I found someone you can say no to," Alice broke in. "Me and the kids!" That did it. Something broke deep within Jim. A sense of pain, of guilt and shame, of helplessness and rage.

How did Jim get like this? He loved his family. The last thing he wanted was to neglect his most precious relationships: his wife and children. Jim's problems didn't start the day he was married. They developed during his early significant relationships. They were already a part of his character structure.

God's desire is for you to know where your injuries and deficits are, whether self-induced or other-induced. Ask him to shed light on the significant relationships and forces that have contributed to you own boundary struggles. The past is your ally in repairing your present and ensuring a better future.

Pray David's prayer:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps. 139:23-24).

The above piece is an adaptation from Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend are popular speakers, psychologists, and co-hosts of the New Life Live! radio program heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at They are best-selling coauthors of a number of books including Boundaries in Marriage, Boundaries in Dating, Boundaries with Kids, The Mom Factor, and Safe People. The principles of their book Boundaries can be learned by attending The New Life Weekend.