Freedom limited by compassion for others

Compassion suggests that we limit our freedom in ways that will help others on their journey toward wholeness. “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Freedom limited by compassion for others

The news is filled with events and discussion around freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The killing of journalists and cartoonists in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo office was directly in response to their exercise of freedom of speech – printing satirical cartoons about a wide variety of issues and figures, including the Prophet Mohamed. Those who carried out the murders said they were offended, and were defending their own religious views.

In Utah this week the Mormon church held a press conference about their new policy stand – supporting proposed legislation in that state preventing discrimination against people based on race, gender or sexual orientation, including in hiring, housing and other public practices. Along with this, they state a strong preference for policies that also protect the rights of religious people to speak and practice their religious views without retaliation. Depending on which coverage you read, or where you stand on the issues, you see

We in this constitutional democratic republic are accustomed to wrestling between freedom and and its limits based on responsibility to the freedom of others. You may have the right to carry a concealed hand gun, but there are limits to that freedom – you cannot carry it on a public school campus. You may have freedom of speech, but there are limits – you can’t falsly yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre.

These ideas are so well engrained in us that we sometimes get confused when we think about, discuss and practice our faith. We sometimes forget that Jesus came to establish his Kingdom, which is not a democracy. We pray His prayer, asking that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven – essentially pledging ourselves to living and working for that fulfillment. So what of our freedom in Christ within this kingdom that is coming, and is already here?

I’ve written recently about our freedom in Christ vis-a-vis the Law. Free from and Free for. Here I want us to think about the limits on our freedom based on our compassion for others. Take a look at the text again in 1 Corinthians 8:9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

The gist is this: If exercising my freedom would cause someone else to stumble, then I should limit my freedom to protect them. Each party has responsibility. But if the other person is prevented from exercising restraint because of their own brokenness, then my love (God’s love working through me) would dictate that I should not act in a way that harms that person or causes her to harm herself.

Paul uses an example that is anachronistic for most of us – food sacrificed to idols. There are still places where you can find this, but they are rarer than in Paul’s time. And Paul was writing to people who likely would have practiced this form of food dedication in their daily lives.

We may not be likely to encounter this difficulty. So how will we experience this?

Considering healthy boundaries

“You can always count on her.” “He’ll do anything you ask.” “Call any time, day or night, 24/7/365.” “Overworked, over worried, underappreciated, always taken advantage of.” Does this describe you or someone you know? These statements indicate a lack of clear boundaries. People tend to behave consistently across the different relationship systems in their lives, meaning that a lack of boundaries in one area (at work, for instance) will likely also manifest in other areas (family, friends, and personal health).

Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend have an entire series of resources drawing on their landmark 1992 book from Zondervan: Boundaries: When to say yes, How to say no, to take control of your life. We learn most of what we believe and practice about relationship boundaries early in life in the context of our primary relationships. Our parents and siblings, other adults and peers teach us whether it is ok to attend to our own wants and needs, and if so how. Some of us learned that to ever think about self is equal to selfishness. To ever say no is equal to meanness. Others learned that you should always put self first, because no one else will. Selfish and selfless are two ends of a spectrum that show an unhealthy relationship with boundaries – too rigid on one end and completely absent on the other. Having a healthy sense of self and healthy boundaries is a middle way between these extremes.

One of the most powerful chapters in this text is #4 “How Boundaries Are Developed”. The fact that boundaries develop over time, through a process, is an important insight. It means that we can change our understanding and practice of boundaries and develop new ones through the implementation of a new process. Healthy boundaries enable us to say yes to the good/beneficial and no to the bad/harmful ideas, things, relationships and experiences in our lives.

Symptoms – such as addictive behaviors and unhealthy relationships with things like food – express poor boundaries in that particular area. They also often demonstrate a lack of healthy boundaries in a more significant, deeper, and more difficult area. For instance, when someone lacks good and healthy emotional boundaries in their intimate relationships, they will often self medicate to alleviate the pain. People with addictive behaviors surround themselves with codependents who make their addictions possible, and codependents are drawn to addicts because they “need” someone to care for. These behaviors feed off each other, perpetuate the system, and ingrain these attitudes, beliefs and habits in the lives of others.

Me and You – Boundaries are about knowing where I begin and end, what is mine to own and what is not. People with healthy boundaries do not take on others’ emotional issues and struggles, nor do they project their own onto them. Imagine a medical professional, attorney, or therapist who personally (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically) took on the struggles of their clients! We would say their boundaries are too porous. Alternately, when they seem indifferent, we say they are unrelatable, cold and aloof, and have not bedside manner. Either extreme is undesirable. We want professionals who express interest, care and even concern, while not getting down into our hole with us. We need them to stay above, where they can assess the situation and help us move toward wholeness.

Next steps – Ask yourself where you experience emotional stress in your life. There may well be room for developing healthier boundaries. Where do you wish you could do something different, but can’t find a way forward? Again, this may be a boundary issue. The Boundaries series includes workbooks that can be very helpful. A professional coach can help you identify, strategize, and work toward healthier boundaries.

Download pdf here:
Training – Boundaries Introduction