Godly Boundaries

Are we ever justified in putting a limit on the love we show to someone who abuses us?

In the Bible we see God modeling good boundaries. He even puts boundaries and limits on his love and forbearance. In the book of Hosea, we see God finally breaking off His relationship with northern Israel, because it repeatedly refuses to turn from its evil and abusive ways and be faithful to Him. Hosea shows us how God drew a boundary with a nation of abusers.

In Hosea 1:6, God declares that He will no longer show His love to northern Israel. Because His very nature is love, He wants to restore His relationship with them (Hosea 11:8-11). In order to turn them from their destructive course and bring them back to Him, God withholds the loving benefits and care He desires to show them (Hosea 2:9).

In Hosea 2 we see God taking the following steps to deal with Israel’s boundary violations:

  1. Rebuking (firmly addressing the transgression) (Hosea 2:2)
  2. Explaining the boundary violation (Hosea 2:2,5)
  3. Requesting essential behavior changes (Hosea 2:2b,20)
  4. Stating what He will, and will not, do (Hosea 2:6,9,21)
  5. Setting consequences, if necessary (Hosea 2:3-6,10-13)
  6. Setting conditions under which there can be a relationship (Hosea 2:2,16,20)

In Hosea 4:1-2, God very clearly describes the abuses Israel is guilty of, including cursing, lies, adultery, violence, and lack of love — the very behaviors often seen in domestic violence! God names these as "boundary" violations (Hosea 4:2; 5:10). We, too, can use these steps in drawing boundaries with the boundary violators in our life.

Women may feel they are being unloving or unfaithful when they take action against an abusive husband. But in the Bible, God shows us that it is appropriate to end abuse, and even shows us how to set healthy boundaries. Godly boundaries begin with openly speaking to the issue. This could mean expressing how a spouse’s behavior hurts or causes pain, and inviting change. Christian counselors Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, in their excellent book titled Boundaries In Marriage (Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), recommend approaching the problem first as if it is an "ignorance issue." If you are correct, the boundary violator will either accept the problem and want to make changes, or resist. If they accept the need to change and ask for forgiveness, forgive them and reaffirm your love. Talk about the problem and offer your help. Agree on a follow-up plan.

If they resist, you may need to respectfully set consequences, so that the other person will experience some discomfort for his irresponsibility. This consequence addresses what you will or will not do if the violation is repeated. This is a boundary around the only person you can take responsibility for – yourself. For instance, a wife might say, "The next time you yell or rage at the children or me, we may need to leave the house for a while, to see a movie or some friends." In Hosea 5:15, God draws this kind of boundary with Israel saying, "Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me."

The Book of Hosea shows us that it can be appropriate to withhold from chronic abusers the privileges and benefits they may be used to, in order to communicate and reinforce a boundary. It shows God doing so out of love and mercy, in order to restore a right relationship. God reassures Israel that He wants to be able to take them back and show His love to them again, when they stop the boundary violation.

Sometimes the situation has escalated to the point of being dangerous. It may not be safe to confront an abuser. You must weigh the situation carefully to judge whether confrontation might jeopardize your safety. Have a safety plan  (If you do not have the Adobe Acrobat Reader you can download it here: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readermain.html ) in place if you are unsure; you can call a domestic violence program for advice on the situation. Drs. Cloud and Townsend note that in such cases, it may be necessary to use physical distance or intervention by others (domestic violence counselors, church leaders, or friends).


Discussion Questions:

  1. Think of a boundary violation you need to confront. How might you use God’s six-step procedure demonstrated in the Book of Hosea to address the problem?
  2. If you are concerned about the safety of expressing a boundary in person, you might be able to find some other way to express a boundary, such as:
    • Transmitting your boundary in writing
    • Do it through a counselor or church leader.
    • Communicating your boundary once you have left and are in a safe place. A protection order might be helpful. (See Proverbs 22:3)

    Can you think of other ways to communicate your boundary safely?

Copyright 2005   Judy Kennedy