Tolerance and Boundaries

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject of boundaries came up.  Everyone she knows, my friend told me, struggles with setting appropriate boundaries with people.  I told her that I am not perfect at it, but I do a pretty good job with setting boundaries.  She wanted to know how I do it, but seemed less enthused when I told her the secret: you have to be completely willing to let other people be wrong.  I’m not sure why it is, but we humans seem to have a real problem even contemplating simply tolerating each other’s errors.  We feel like it’s very important to do our part to teach the people around us how to be better people (according to our own understanding of what would make someone a better person, of course).  So, we are upset (rightfully) when people think they know what is good for us and try to impose their view on us.  But we’d really like to reserve the right to do the same thing to those around us.  I would guess that some of this is just deeply ingrained human habit. After all, for most of human history we spent our time with very clear-cut rules, roles and expectations.  Now that we have so much more freedom to make our own choices and judgments, we’re busy stepping all over each other’s toes and we’re just figuring out how to deal with not just our own freedom, but each other’s.

Here’s the thing though: it’s not our job or our right to  evalute other people.  Not to mention that it’s terribly pointless.  How often do we stop to think of how someone will respond to our attempt to point them in the right direction.  And not how we think someone should respond, but how people actually do respond.  I mean, if you can show me one gay person who decided to repent and not be gay because they were told that God says its an abomination, I will eat one of my children.  It’s never happened.  It’s not going to happen.  It probably can’t happen.  The same thing is true of our odds of changing anything about any other person by making it clear just how wrong they are.

People will try and argue that they have a right or an obligation to point out the right path because these are paths that lead to destruction or hurt people around them.  We can be right as anything about the damage someone could  potentially do to themselves or others, but arguing, lecturing, shunning or otherwise trying to show another their error or the superiority of your way doesn’t do anything about that!  As hard as it can be to accept, we have to learn to let other people find their own way.  We can share our perspectives, but it must be with the understanding that the other person is under no obligation to accept them without damaging the relationship.

And yes, people will make mistakes and even hurt other people.  This is the way life is.  You cannot change or really do much to even influence this reality.  Hopefully, people will learn from their mistakes.  But one way to make that much more difficult than it needs to be is to let them know ahead of time that they are idiots who are making a huge mistake.  It’s hard enough to be wrong.  It can be next to impossible if being wrong means making someone who doesn’t respect you or approve of you right.

So, here’s the deal on how to set boundaries:

1. Recognize where your boundaries begin and end.  Your own boundaries begin and end between your ears and with your body.  This is yours to control, evaluate, change and direct to your heart’s content.  Really, it takes a lot of nerve to try and direct other people when you can’t even direct yourself well!

2. Recognize the limits of your influence.  We have a few people who we are supposed to influence.  They are our children.  We have a few more people who have agreed to allow us to influence (but not direct or control).  These would be our spouses, friends and some family members.  Other people don’t owe it to us to hear our arguments out, take our evaluations of them seriously or change to be more acceptable to us – no matter how superior our arguments, evaluations and directions may be.  In fact, other people are well within their rights to treat such attempts as an assault on their sovereignty over their own lives.

3. Don’t take anything personally.  You are captain of your own life and keeper of your own soul.  As is everyone else.  What people do or say is all about them and nothing about you.  Even if they are directing what they say or do towards you, it is still coming out of who they are.  So let people have their own opinions – even about you.  This also has the benefit of being able to listen and hear any words of wisdom coming your way that you would normally miss because of your indignation.

4. Once you have a good idea of where your own boundaries ought to be, it is much easier to both recognize when someone is trying to violate your boundaries and not to let it bother you.  The big thing that I think boundaries do is help us identify what are our problems and what are other people’s problems.  If someone doesn’t like the way you are doing something and it doesn’t involve them, they are the one with a problem, not you.  If someone wants you to do something for them, that is their desire and responsibility, not yours.  You may still choose to help them out, but it’s your choice and not your obligation.  If someone is upset over something you did or chose, that’s both their right and their problem.  We shouldn’t carelessly do things that people find hurtful, but the reality is that our reactions and emotions are our own responsibility.

Learning to respect the boundaries of others and keep our own is the real core of tolerance.  It doesn’t require us to give up our own opinions or values, but it does require us to accept that the right of those around us to be wrong.  The reward is not having others trying to tell you who you should be or how you should live your life.  That’s God’s job alone and he does a much better job of it than your average mother-in-law!


Christian Homeschoolers

I went to a church once where a pastor told a joke about two ministers who happened to be seated next to each other on a plane. After settling in, they introduced themselves and discovering their shared profession, set about discerning what their seatmate was all about. Down the list of topics they ran, “bible: inerrant or not, salvation: grace or works, baptism: full immersion or sprinkling” and on and on. The ran through dozens of potential problem spots of the faith and became more and more excited as they discovered that they were in agreement on them all. Finally, one proffered, “lectern: wood or Plexiglas.” “Plexiglas,” replied his neighbor. “Heathen,” the first man muttered and turned away.
Being a homeschool mom I run into many religiously oriented people. Unfortunately, this joke could well have been told about many of the moms I run into rather than about ministers. One almost hates to open one’s mouth about anything remotely religious, even when your Christian faith may be the thing dearest to your heart because inevitably, you will express an idea or opinion which doesn’t pass muster with such people. Just try walking into a religious homeschool support group and saying that you do not see the teachings of evolution and Christianity as being incompatible. Odds are, your children won’t get many playdates from that group. Then tell them that you don’t think the “sinner’s prayer” is the key to opening the door of salvation. At best you’ll have many people working to ensure that you are “saved”. I can come up with dozens of examples of things which can and are used to write you off as not believing the right things and therefore, not safe to spend time with or just not someone to take seriously.
I know that these dynamics are at work in many parts of our society, but I think they are amplified in the homeschooling community. Many people choose to homeschool specifically so that they can transfer their specific belief system to their children. Obviously, such people attach more significance to their belief system than others who may believe essentially the same things, but don’t see the need to take such a radical step as homeschooling in support of it. Also, some churches have cultivated a real community of like-minded homeschoolers and may actually encourage their members to homeschool. While this is wonderful, it does create a social pressure not to fall out of line with the common thinking – since it is the common thinking which brought you together, getting out of line can almost inevitably leave you out of the group, bereft of the support system which made the leap to homeschooling seem do-able to begin with.
While I really do understand the different dynamics which can foster unease and division between homeschoolers who hold different doctrinal beliefs (many more than I’ve spoken of here, BTW), I think this habit is problematic spiritually, communally and practically. The spiritual problem is, in my opinion, the most serious one. The message Jesus actually communicated more than any other was, “don’t be afraid.” However, many Christians live in fear. They are afraid that their children will be poisoned by any contact with the corrupt aspects of the world we live in (I’m speaking of contact with, not immersion in) and end up not knowing what to tell their kids when a relative or babysitter does something which is immoral as they don’t even think their kids should know such things happen. They cannot tolerate those who believe different things than they do and feel that they must always choose right and wrong and shun wrong (and the people who believe “wrongly”). The idea that each of us is responsible to God alone and that God alone can judge takes a back seat to the need to “know right and wrong” as Adam and Eve sought to know right and wrong. What is missing from all of this is a trust that God is big enough to handle whatever dangers we may come across. God is big enough to protect us and our children. That God can and does do what he promises and will “work all things together for good”, even if the path gets a bit scary at times. It’s like many Christians think they must stand alone in the spiritual wars which plague this existence and are only rewarded with God’s presence and approval upon the successful completion of battle. That’s not what God says. Jesus tells us, “In this world you will have troubles, but be brave, for I have [not will , could, would like to, might if you make me happy] defeated the world.” He says, “I will be with you until the end of the age.” God is not sitting on his throne, waiting to see if we do a good job, using the tools He provides us. Paul says, “In Him we live and move and breathe and have our being.” We are not fighting these battles, “It is no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me” – and it is Christ who has already won these battles. Why the fear, people? Why the need to fear and shun and judge? Is this really a reflection of faith in the mighty work God has done for us? He did not die and win the battle so that we could go out onto the battlefield of life to fight for his approval!
Then there is the point where our spiritual well-being meets our need for community. Because we know that we will be judged and either welcomed or feared based on our beliefs, many people are driven to demonstrate that they do, in fact, hold the correct beliefs in ways which run contrary to scriptural instructions. The people Jesus criticized most harshly were those who exercise their faith in ways which are meant to be seen by others in order to gain acceptance or admiration. If you look around a group of homeschool families, you are likely to see explicitly religious shirts, hear scriptures quoted in casual conversation (complete with chapter and verse) and a fair amount of name dropping of respected church members or Christian teachers. This is not to say that one cannot be open about one’s faith, but come on – when was the last time someone came to the Lord because of someone’s t-shirt or bumper sticker? If anything, many people have been repelled by such things. Most of these explicit displays of religious belief really are more about affirming one’s self and letting people know, “I’m one of you” (or conversely, “I’m not your type, so please keep your distance”).
Finally, there are practical problems. We are called to be salt and light, yet when even those who desire good, want to teach their children, want to reject the sorrid culture around us, know they are likely to be judged and rejected, we are like the stagnant water God will spit out – not refreshing cool waters or useful soothing warm waters. We are doing a disservice both to the kingdom and to the important work we are doing in creating alternative communities for people to find sanity and safety for themselves and their children in when we approach one another with fear, judgment and rejection. So, my plea to those in the homeschooling community would be to be more aware of how you are handling yourself and conducting yourself as you move about in the world. When people who are not part of your “group” see you, are they afraid or attracted? Is your need to separate good and evil greater than your instructions to love? When meeting someone who doesn’t believe what you do, do you automatically fear this person’s beliefs or are you secure in knowing God can handle it?
I think that the homeschooling community is doing really important work for our children, for society, for our families and even for the kingdom. However, I think we could be doing so much more if we would let go of our fears and need for judgement and approval. God is too big for us to try and constrain him like that.

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