Book Review: Boundaries

What do you do when someone asks you to do something that you really don’t have the time, energy, emotion, or resources to do for them? Do you say yes anyway, and then fret over how to meet the commitment? Do you say yes, and then resent that person for asking? Do you say no, but then feel guilt and regret for having done so? Do you say no and just put it out of your mind?

What about those times when someone asks you for something that you’d really like to say yes to, but because of other commitments you simply cannot? Do you begin to regret or resent those other commitments?

Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend is all about – as their tagline on the book cover says – when to say yes and how to say no to take control of your life. Drawing on Biblical principles, psychological research, and plenty of experience working with individuals in therapy, the authors lay out their theory about what it means to grow into maturity. It involves a healthy sense of what I can give to another person, what I cannot give, and how to confidently express that in my life so that I feel a sense of balance, well being, and contentment.

Having recently finished this book, I’d like to offer a brief review of what is good, not so good, and what I think is most important to get out of it.

The Good

1. Firmly grounded on Law and Gospel: The authors are clearly very committed Christians. Though the book has a place in the greater world of self help and self psychology, they are not afraid to write it with a plethora of Biblical references and a solid grounding on Christian philosophy. They make it clear from the beginning that their concept is based on the nature of who we are before God, and what God has graciously done for us by saving us from our sins. That theme runs through the entire book.

2. The “big idea” is solidly Biblical: Early on in the book they lay out that the concept of boundaries is really a Biblical concept. They provide some good exegesis of Galatians 6:2 & 5. Vere 2 says “carry each other’s burdens”, but then a few verses later (5) it says, “each one should carry their own load.” In English this sounds like a contradiction, but Cloud & Townsend point out that the Greek word translated a “burden” is a word that we could just as well translate as “boulder”, because it refers to anything that is just way too big for any one person to handle on their own.

3. Solid psychology: While the authors rely heavily on Scripture, they also draw on a satisfying well of psychological understanding and experience. Both being very actively involved in counseling and caring for people in emotional and mental distress, they have learned much about how people operate, and they pass this on. As I read I often found myself having little “ah hah!” moments where their explanation made something really clear to me about myself or someone in my family. They share many examples of people they have worked with, which makes the principles they present very real and relatable.On the other hand, the word translated as “load” is a word that generally refers to a backpack or rucksack – something a man can carry on his own. So, boundaries are about shouldering my own gear as I walk the path of life – not passing it off to someone else or accepting someone else’s – but also knowing when to help someone – or accept someone’s help – with a big old boulder that blocks the path.

The Bad

1. Out of context Scripture: This is not a contradiction of points 1 and 2 above, but rather a clarification on the authors’ use of Scripture. While it is true that their use of Scripture in the “big ideas” of the book is very good, their use of Scripture for the rest of the text is just short of abysmal. I say just short only because they don’t use Scripture to back up unBiblical claims; they just use the absolute wrong passages to back up their Biblical claims. Rather than looking for a verse that demonstrates their point – but maybe requires a little explanation to connect the dots – they frequently slip in little Scripture quotes that sound like they apply directly to the concept. However, anyone with a passing knowledge of any one of those quotes will recognize that in context they say something completely different. And while you could make the argument that it’s only a bother to those who are very familiar with Scripture, playing fast and loose with Scripture is just never a good idea, regardless of whether or not you’ll get caught doing it. One of the primary principles of good Biblical interpretation is to keep the verse in its context and only use it to say what it actually says, not what you want it to say. Cloud & Townsend fall short on this principle.

2. Abundance of pathology: The authors give many examples of people struggling with boundary issues, and this is a good thing. However, they don’t have many examples of normal people living fairly normal days who just need a little help overcoming their boundary issues. Reading the book, one might get the impression either that everyone has major issues with boundaries, or that boundary correction is only for those who have really major boundary issues, and doesn’t apply to people who are mature in many areas but struggle with boundaries in certain contexts.

3. Assumption of support group: Throughout the course of the book, as the authors give advice on how to develop appropriate boundaries, they regularly fall back on what you should talk about or do in a support group to develop boundaries in a safe environment. This is good advice, and getting into a support group is a good idea. It does provide an emotionally safe environment where people can work through issues without fear of suffering consequences in their daily life (provided the support group is run appropriately). But what about people who don’t have access to a support group? What if they aren’t able to find a local group, or build such a group in their area? What if they don’t have a church or community group to lean on? What if they don’t have any friends (and yes, there really are people without friends)? An improvement to the book would be to add some more concrete steps for those who can’t make use of counseling and support groups.

The Takeaway

Despite its few shortcomings, I think this book has a lot to teach. I certainly learned and grew as I read through it. The most significant piece of learning is simply that it is both Biblical and appropriate to say “no” once in a while to people when they ask us to serve them in some way. This is appropriate for two reasons: 1) It is good and necessary to safeguard your own time, energy, and blessings against those who would take advantage of you, and 2) it is good and necessary for others to allow them to handle the challenges God has given them to help them grow.

The corollary to that is that it is also Biblical and appropriate to say “yes” to someone’s request for help when they really need it. The key is that we are usually only personally free to be able to say yes to someone’s legitimate need when we have responsibly said no when we need to.

Finally – and I would say it is just as important – is to understand how to tell if this issue, whatever the issue facing me is, is really mine to deal with, or if it really belongs to someone else. For example, someone at church may be upset and express those feelings to me, and if I am not able to determine whose issue it is, I might internalize it and take it personally and feel I must do something about it.

One of the major lessons of Boundaries is how to step back for a moment and ask the question, “Is this my issue?” Perhaps I will come to realize that this issue really belongs to the person who is upset, or maybe belongs to a third party entirely, and that the person speaking to me really just needs to get it off their chest. At that point, either I can help the person own and handle the issue, or I can point them to the right person to help them, and I can walk away without feeling burdened by someone else’s issues. On the other hand, it also helps me determine when I really do need to own something, and I have the emotional energy and strength to own the issue and do something about it.

The point is that a good understanding of boundaries is incredibly freeing, because it gives me permission to carry only those things which God has given me to carry, without feeling the need to shoulder the burdens of others. This makes it much easier to see God’s promise to “never give us  more than we can bear” at work in our lives.

So, if you are struggling to get control of your busy life and your overful schedule, or you are feeling emotionally wearied by the people in your life, Boundaries might be a very good book for you. And if you’re looking for some good principles in handling your close relationships in your marriage, parenting, and friendships, Boundaries is worth your time.

Have you read Boundaries? Do you have additional thoughts about its value –  or cautions to take with it? Please share!

Note: In the future I hope to do more reviews of books, videos, and CD resources I have in my Family Resource Library (that’s what I am cleverly calling the shelf in my office that holds all my Family Ministry materials). If you’re a member of St. Paul’s and/or live in the New Ulm area, I welcome you stopping by to borrow something. Soon I hope to get a list of all the resources I have on our website at http://www.splnewulm.org.

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