“Now therefore, come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” (Genesis 31:44, NKJV)
Today, it is common to hear people talk about “setting boundaries.” Usually, this phrase is used in connection with an attempt to cope with a dysfunctional relationship. One individual has continued to hurt another. All attempts to reconcile have failed. There is nothing left to do, but set boundaries – lines that must not be crossed – lines that will protect the other individual from further hurt.
Similar situations have occurred throughout history. One such situation is recorded in Genesis 31. This passage records a very dysfunctional relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban. Jacob made a deal with Laban to work for him seven years in exchange for his younger daughter, Rachel’s hand in marriage. At the end of the seven years, Laban gave him the older daughter, Leah, instead. Still in love with Rachel, Jacob made a deal to work for Laban another seven years to marry her as well. At the end of the seven years, Jacob married Rachel and continued to work for Laban. Laban continued to cheat Jacob by changing his wages. In spite of Laban’s efforts, God blessed Jacob and caused him do become rich. When Laban and his sons became resentful of Jacob’s success, Jacob took his family and all his possessions and fled from Laban. Laban pursued Jacob and confronted him. The result of that confrontation was a boundary to keep the peace between the two.
Jacob and Laban followed clear steps to establishing a healthy boundary. Today, we can use these same steps to establish healthy boundaries and bring peace into our lives.
The first step to establishing healthy boundaries is to follow God’s direction. Jacob knew he was in trouble. But he did not leave until he had a clear direction from God. (Genesis 31:3, 11-13) This was not the first time Jacob had an encounter with God. (Genesis 28) Jacob had an ongoing relationship with God. Part of this relationship was direct communication with God. Today, we can have direct access to God. We enter into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that sin separates us from God and brings death, but we can have eternal life through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who took the death we deserved when He died on the cross and rose from the dead on the third day, so that all who turn from their sins and believe in Jesus will have eternal life. (Romans 5:8-11; 6:23) When a person repents and trusts in Jesus, he or she begins a relationship with God. In the course of this relationship, the person learns to hear God’s directions for his or her life through prayer, Bible intake, and spiritual disciplines. Hearing God’s direction is an essential part of establishing healthy boundaries.
Another important step to establishing healthy boundaries is to consult with trusted family and friends. Jacob called his wives, Rachel and Leah, and discussed the situation with them. (Genesis 31:4-16) They agreed with Jacob that it would be best to leave Laban. Consulting trusted family and friends is helpful because they can often provide an objective opinion. When those family members and friends are Christians, they can provide Godly wisdom to aid us in our search for God’s direction.
Another important step to establishing healthy boundaries is to withdraw from hurtful people. Of course, reconciliation should be attempted. There are times, however, when reconciliation is not possible. Sometimes attempts to reconcile fail. An abusive situation requires withdrawal from the abusive individual to prevent further abuse. Jacob removed himself and his family from a manipulative, hurtful situation. (Genesis 31:17-18)
Another important step to establishing healthy boundaries is to diffuse arguments. Laban pursued Jacob and accused him of stealing his household idols. (Genesis 31:25-37) Jacob allowed Laban to search for his idols. Unknown to Jacob, Rachel had stolen the idols; however, Laban did not find them in his search. In allowing Laban to search his possessions, Jacob diffused Laban’s accusation of theft. This action did not solve all of their differences, but it did help calm Laban down and prevent further escalation. The temptation is to lash out at someone in such a situation. That only escalates the conflict more. When possible, we should seek to diffuse an argument.
Another important step to establishing healthy boundaries is to clearly state one’s grievances. Both Jacob and Laban clearly stated their grievances. Although they did not reach an agreement, each listened to the other. (Genesis 31:36-43) Being able to state one’s grievances face-to-face allows each to know why the boundary is necessary. Both Laban and Jacob knew that reconciliation was impossible. Another solution was necessary to keep the peace. Also, being able to state one’s grievance face-to-face provides closure and helps release negative thoughts and emotions that can lead to bitterness if allowed to build up. It is important for each party to patiently listen to the other during this step.
Another important step to establishing healthy boundaries is to set limits. Laban and Jacob made a covenant with each other, before witnesses, that they would not pass beyond a certain place to harm the other. (Genesis 31:44-52) This covenant did not solve all of their disagreements. It simply set boundaries to prevent each party from harming the other. Each still felt cheated by the other, but they agreed to the boundary that would prevent further harm. Instead of going on-and-on about what the other party did to hurt you, find a boundary that both can agree on that will prevent further harm. The past harm is done, and often cannot be undone. But future harm can be avoided with proper boundaries.
Lastly, an important step to establishing healthy boundaries is to recognize God’s authority. The covenant between Laban and Jacob recognized God’s authority in two ways. First, God was called as witness of the covenant. (Genesis 31:50) The covenant was not just an agreement between two men, but a covenant made before God. The knowledge that God is witness of the agreement and the conduct of the parties provides an added incentive to keep the covenant. To break the covenant would provoke God’s wrath. Second, God was called as judge between the two. Instead of each continuing to try to prove he was right or get even, God was to be the judge. This was a way to let it go. Did each feel he was cheated? Yes. Would either be able to convince the other he was right? No. So they decided to trust God’s judgment. He knows exactly what has happened, and is able to pass judgment accordingly. Continuing to hold grudges and try to get even just causes bitterness and resentment to fester in a person’s heart. No one can do this without trusting God. An ongoing relationship with God helps us to trust Him.
Setting boundaries is sometimes necessary in life. To set the right boundaries requires proper relationships with God and people. Make sure you have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Try to maintain good relationships with the people in your life. When boundaries are necessary, follow the biblical steps to setting the right boundaries and bringing peace into your life.