Henry Cloud and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Shortly after 9-11, my pastor preached about an intriguing book which I later bought and read. The book suggested lifestyle changes that over time led me to find a better job and discover a call to ministry. The book? Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
What is a boundary? Cloud and Townsend write: Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t (25).
Cloud and Townsend start their book by outlining a day in the life of a mother named Sherrie. In the first chapter, she is anxious, overworked, motivated by fear, and micro-managing those around her (24-25). She trouble seeing where her world begins and where it ends. In the final chapter, they return to Sherrie who is now self-confident, works hard, knows her limits, and helps people assume responsibility for themselves. Sherrie learned to manage her boundaries.
The increasingly common use of the term, boundaries, today makes defining boundaries especially important. Cloud and Townsend talk about boundaries by outlining ten key concepts (laws). The first three of these are:
First, the law of sowing and reaping: you reap whatever you sow (Galatians 6:7-8). Codependent people make a lifestyle of rescuing others from their bad decisions. Establishing boundaries breaks the codependency cycle and helps weak individuals accept responsibility for their own actions (84-85).
Second, the law of responsibility: I am responsible for myself; you are responsible for yourself (86-87).
Third, the law of power: boundaries define what you have control over and what not. The serenity prayer provides a great summary of this law: God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference (87-88). Elsewhere, Cloud and Townsend comment: the ultimate expression of power is love; it is the ability not to express power, but to restrain it (96).
The list continues. It is interesting that the original Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 likewise establish concrete boundaries with God and with our neighbors.
Why Good Samaritan is not Great
Cloud and Townsend’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan provides an excellent life application of their concept of boundaries. Jesus tells this story in Luke’s Gospel:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back (Luke 10:30-35 ESV).
Why is this story about the Good Samaritan rather than about the Great Samaritan? The Samaritan did not walk on the other side of the road like the priest or the Levite, but he also did not drop everything and nurse the man back to health. Instead, the Samaritan focused on what he was able to do. Then, he delegated further assistance to the innkeeper and continued his trip (38-39). In other words, the Good Samaritan saved the man’s life and, still, displayed healthy boundaries.
Life Changing Book
Cloud and Townsend’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan story affected me deeply. Anxiety about not being able to “save the world” had left me feeling powerless to initiate simple steps of charity that were well within my reach. Understanding the healthy boundaries displayed by the Good Samaritan empowered me to take steps to become more charitable myself.
Cloud and Townsend explanation of abuse was also life-changing. Abusers are people who disrespect unspoken boundaries. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries; it is their responsibility to respect them. Both parts are important. One I learned to articulate my boundaries, much of the pain and anxiety involved in my relationships simply vanished–most people do not want to be abusers and hate the inference that they are. Establishing boundaries takes time and effort, but the rewards are enormous.
Do yourself a favor–read this book. You will be glad you did.