How To Set Boundaries

Title: How To Set Boundaries

Bible Book: Genesis 39

Author: James Merritt

Subject: Marriage Boundaries; Sexual Boundaries; Moral Boundaries



I will never forget the first time I teed up my first ball on my first golf course to play my first game of golf. It looked so inviting – wide open fairways, lush green grass, a straight line of trees down to the right, a beautiful lake on the left and all you had to do is keep it between the woods and the lake. I was thinking this would be a breeze. The ball isn’t moving at 89 miles per hour like a baseball or 100 miles an hour like a hockey puck; it is just sitting there. All you have to do is just hit it down the middle. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? A little ball, a big club, and wide fairway. Yet, the greatest player in the world, Tiger Woods, can only do it a little more than half the time – 55% of the time to be exact. Right down the middle – sometimes the toughest place to hit the golf ball, but the most rewarding.

The other side of that coin is the water and the trees. They are generally marked by white stakes which mean “out-of-bounds”. In other words, if you hit a ball on the other side of the white stakes, where ever those white stakes might be, you incur a penalty stroke - that is you lose a stroke. I have a saying, “out of bounds - lose ground,” you are penalized. A professional knows that one ball on the other side of a white stake can cost you a tournament and millions of dollars.

Life is a lot like golf. Success is determined by knowing where the boundaries are and staying within those bounds. Both penalty and punishment await those who ignore the boundaries that are built into the fabric of life.

* A successful CEO can go to prison for crossing financial boundaries.

* A United States President can be impeached for crossing legal boundaries.

* A marriage can be destroyed by a spouse crossing sexual boundaries.

* A ministry can be disgraced when a pastor crosses a moral boundary.

We are continuing a series of messages that are called “study hall” which is a response to a survey we took with you asking us some of the key questions you would like to have addressed. One of the key questions was, “How do you set boundaries in your life?” In other words, “How do you stay in-bounds in the fairway of life to ensure yourself the maximum chance of being successful in daily living?” As I thought that through and studied the scripture, I came up with three keys on how to do that and in the process came up with this key take away. It is three words that every parent would do well to teach their children and every grandparent would do well to teach their grandchildren. Key take away: boundaries bring blessings.

I. Determine That You Are Going To Have Boundaries

Let me, first of all, define what I mean by a boundary. In real estate, a boundary is a property line that marks the personal property of an individual or a business and separates it from the property of anyone else. In life, a boundary is a personal line that marks the “yes” side of our lives and the “no” side of our lives.

A. Relationships

Boundaries are what keep us in balance, as well as in bounds. Boundaries are the key to good relationships. Everyone has certain boundaries that we should neither cross into from our side, nor allow others to cross into from their side. Boundaries are the key to proper time management. Boundaries help you realize that you can’t do everything, every time, for everybody and you must prioritize what you do and who you do it with. Boundaries are the key to good stewardship and a productive life.

Just like boundaries define property they also define people. In a real sense, boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins.1 Let me say this – many people think of boundaries as limiting who you are and what you are. Boundaries don’t limit who you are and what you are – they free you to be who you are and do what you need to do. If I know where my yard begins and where my yard ends I am free to do within the confines of my yard whatever I like and whatever I choose. Knowing what I am to own and what I am to take responsibility for gives me the freedom to be me.

B. Responsibilities

Furthermore, boundaries show us what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for. It helps us to define what is on our property and what is not on our property. Boundaries let me know, for example, that I am responsible to other people for my actions, but I not responsible for other people and their actions.

The reason why boundaries are so vital is because it helps us to distinguish our property so that we can take care of it. For example, we need to keep things that will help us inside our boundaries and keep things that will harm us outside of our boundaries. Boundaries help us keep the good in our lives and the bad out of our lives.

Do you realize that God is a God of boundaries? In the very beginning, he gave boundaries to Adam and Eve, when he said to them in the Garden of Eden that there was one tree, “…the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…” that they could not eat from. That tree was a boundary.

The Ten Commandments are boundaries. My mentor and hero, Dr. Adrian Rogers, used to say that when God says, “Thou shalt not”, he is simply saying, “don’t hurt yourself.” When God says, “Thou shalt” he is simply saying, “Help yourself to happiness.”

The truth is boundaries are built in our very physical fabric. Think about it. The most basic boundary that defines you is your physical skin. Have you ever known somebody that “really got under your skin?” What you meant by that was they were violating your personal boundary, because your skin, itself, is one way that you learn that you are separate from everyone else - your property is different from everybody else’s property and that you are bounded in ways that other people are not bounded by.

That skin boundary works the way a boundary should; it keeps the good it and the bad out. On the one end, it protects your blood and your bones – holding them in on the inside and keeping them all together. It keeps germs on the outside protecting you from infection. On the other hand, the skin also has openings that let the good in like food and the bad out - well you get the picture!2 we really don’t have much of a choice. We must determine that we are going to have boundaries.

II. Decide What Your Boundaries Will Be

Have you ever heard the old saying, “Insanity is genetic - you inherit it from your kids?” Boundaries are not inherited; they are built. If we are going to be the well-rounded, psychologically adjusted, morally clean, God-fearing people that God wants us to be, then even from early childhood we need to learn how to set proper boundaries. There are two men in the bible that tell us how to do this.

Again, picture life like a fairway. Imagine on one side there is water and it is out of bounds. Imagine on the other side there is a swamp and it is out of bounds. Let’s move this to life. In the fairway of life, the out of bounds are marked on one side by the will of God and it is marked on the other side by the word of God. In your life, if you cross either one of those lines you are going to be out-of-bounds.

The first man that tells us how to set boundaries was a young man named Daniel. [turn to Daniel 1] let me give you the background of this story. About 605 B.C. the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and after they conquered the city, they hand-picked some of the best and the brightest teenagers and deported them to Babylon so they could learn Babylonian culture and become Babylonian citizens. A young man named Daniel was among that group. They began to teach him a new language, gave him a new name and they were trying, in effect, to brainwash him into a new culture.

Daniel loved God and knew God and was totally secure in his faith and he had no problem with their education or their dress or even the new name, but there was one boundary he would not cross.

“Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility- young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table.” (Daniel 1:3-5, NIV)

Daniel had drawn a line at his diet. Understand, it wasn’t so much the food that Daniel objected to, although I am sure some of the food would have been forbidden by the dietary laws God had given in the Old Testament. More importantly, it was what the food symbolized. This meat and this wine would have been dedicated to pagan Gods. Eating this food offered to these pagan Gods was a symbolic way of surrendering to their authority and worshipping them. The big hammer of compromise was now being swung against the wall of conviction and the question is – would the wall hold or not? We face situations like Daniel did practically every day. Think about it. There were two parties who demanded something from Daniel and he could not satisfy the demands of both. He would either surrender his life to the visible king (in this case King Nebuchadnezzar) or he would surrender his life to the invisible king – the God of the uninverse. Jesus Christ said, “no man can serve two masters” but everybody is going to serve one.


In a real sense, the decision for Daniel was really easy. Do you know why? Because, the decision had already been made. Daniel already knew where his boundaries were and what his boundaries were. Listen to the key verse which is verse 8, “but Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank.” (Daniel 1:8, NASB)

Don’t miss this – this is how you keep the golf ball in the middle of the fairway. This is how success begins and ends. It begins with a decision. Before Daniel knew the consequences of a decision, before he understood how he would address the issue, he had already made up his mind.

What motivated that decision? How did he know where the boundary was? The answer? The will of God. Daniel knew, if I do this, I will cross that boundary. If I do this, my life will be out of bounds, therefore, I cannot do it and I will not do it.

Daniel knew if you cross God’s boundary you will be penalized – out of bounds, lose ground. When you cross over the boundary of God’s will, in any situation, you are out-of-bounds and a penalty will be paid.

We learn here that one of the greatest boundary builders in life are your words. As you know in the physical world, a fence or some other kind of structure usually delineates a boundary. In the spiritual world, fences are invisible, but you can create a fence (a boundary) around your life with just your word.

I have learned that the most basic boundary setting word in my life is “no.” It is one of the greatest words in the English language and one of the most important words you will ever teach your children to say.

I realize that “no” is a very confrontational word. I know that “no” at times is an unpleasant word. The bible makes it plain that there are times we need to confront other people when they are wanting us to cross a boundary and say, “no, that behavior does not fit within the boundaries of my life and I will not participate in that.”

Let me just stop and make a practical application. Have you ever thought about what the “no’s” in your life are? May I give you some of mine? I don’t mean to sound “holier than thou” and I want you to know that I’ve got as much sin in my life and more faults than half this room put together. Some of the no’s in my life are profanity, pornography, alcohol, smoking, gluttony, dishonesty, legalism, and adultery. When I was younger, it was fornication. Why? Because, I know none of those things are in the will of God and any time I indulge in any of those things I would be out of bounds.

There is a second man that we need to look at who also teaches us how to decide what our boundaries will be and his name is Joseph. [turn to Genesis 39] he, too, was a young man, who like Daniel, had been kidnapped, moved to a foreign land and yet had landed on his feet and was working in the home of a rich man named Potiphar. Through no fault of his own, he was faced with a situation where he was tempted to cross a personal boundary.

“So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge; and with him there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. It came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, ‘lie with me.’ but he refused and said to his master's wife, "behold, with me here, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. ‘there is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife how then could I do this great evil and sin against God?’" (genesis 39:6-9, NASB)

He certainly was not facing a situation unlike the situation that many, many people face today. Practically every day most of us will get an opportunity to cheat – to cheat on your spouse, to cheat on an expense report, to cheat on your income taxes, or to cheat on a business deal. You have to decide how you are going to respond.

What drove Joseph’s response? He clues us in when he says, “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God.” (Genesis 39:9, NASB)

What drove his response was the word of God. He knew God’s word was clear about marriage, adultery, and unfaithfulness. Joseph said, “I cannot cross that boundary” and he didn’t. Notice what he did do.

“As she spoke to Joseph day after day, he did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her. Now it happened one day that he went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there inside. She caught him by his garment, saying, ’lie with me!’ and he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside.” (Genesis 39:10-12, NASB)

Joseph gives us a textbook illustration on how to make a boundary work for you. Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation will help you maintain proper boundaries. Sometimes you have to remove yourself to get away from danger and put limits on what sin can do to you. Proverbs 22:3 says, “The prudent sees the evil and hides himself.” (Proverbs 22:3, NASB)

Boundaries help you see evil that is coming and get away from it.

The point is this. If you will decide early on in life what your boundaries will be, you are a long way down the road to making sure that your life never goes out of bounds and then all you need to do is take one last step.

III. Devote Yourself To Live Within Your Boundaries

Every day you look down the fairway of life there are always going to be those two boundaries on either side – God’s will and God’s word. That is why is it so important to know God’s word, because as you study God’s word you learn God’s will. You know where his boundaries are and therefore where your boundaries need to be. There is one thing you can know about God – God will always guide you down the middle of the fairway. He will never, ever, ever take your life out of bounds.

If you think about it, boundaries are really all about self-control. The true is we’ve got choices to make every day and nobody is responsible for those choices but us. Part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is the fruit of self-control. Boundaries teach us that nobody can force us to choose anything against our will. We alone are responsible for the choices that we make.

Here are some key questions I want to ask you right now.

(1) Have you set your boundaries?

It would be a good exercise for you and your family to sit down together and all of you go through the exercise of writing out what your boundaries are. Ask your teenagers to set dating boundaries and to set sexual boundaries. Set you financial boundaries and your professional boundaries so your work does not interfere with your family.

(2) Have you shared your boundaries?

It is important that you let someone else know what your boundaries are, so they can hold you accountable.

(3) Have you shown your boundaries?

That is, do you let other people know at the appropriate times what your boundaries are? Where you will go and where you won’t? This will prevent a lot of your so-called friends tempting you to do things that are wrong in the future.

(4) Have you surrendered your boundaries to God?

That is the key.

Let me illustrate to you how important it is that you learn to set boundaries early and keep them on a consistent basis. Everybody likes a “clutch hitter.” The clutch hitter is the guy who wins the game with a crucial hit when the score is close in the last few innings. Or, the guy who hits the game winning shot with just a few seconds on the clock. We tend to think of certain great ball-players who seem to pull the game out of the fire on a regular basis, but statistics reveal that those players only exist in our minds.

Studies done by premier baseball analyst, Bill James, and researchers for stat inc., have determined that the phenomenon of cluck hitters is a myth. Allen Barra and Alan Schwarz, sports writers for the wall street journal have noted,

“What a hitter does in most clutch situations is pretty much what he does all the rest of the time. The statistics even reveal the top hitters in baseball actually average a thirteen point drop in their overall batting average when the game is on the line.”

What occurs on the baseball diamond is no different that what happens in every aspect of life. When things are tough, the person who comes through is generally the same person who consistently comes through day in and day out when things aren’t so tough. The key is being consistent in what you do every day. That will not only keep the ball in the fairway when the shot is not that important, but it also means you will have a far greater likelihood of come through in the cluck when you are really tempted to go out of bounds. So, every day, I pray that we will always keep our lives between the word of God and the will of God. Why? Boundaries bring blessings.


1 Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries, p. 29

2 Ibid, p. 33

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