Jake came to live with Stacy when he was six. Born a fetal alcohol baby, he’d been abandoned as unmanageable by four different foster homes already. His bright brown eyes and mischievous grin signaled a child behind the almost feral face and spidery tangle of skinny arms and legs. Stacy, an elementary school teacher, was sure all he needed was a lot of love and a little of her professional expertise. She didn’t just foster Jake. She adopted him.
Several psychiatric hospitalizations later, Stacy admitted defeat. She watched as he slid from one therapeutic foster home to another, made the circuit of juvenile jails, finally graduated from high school and joined the military. Soon afterward, he married … then promptly abandoned his young wife and infant child.
Jake’s way of life looked a bit more normal after he was finally treated for bipolar disorder. But the medication he was given, Zyprexa, also suppresses the brain’s appetite control center. On Zyprexa, Jake ballooned from ferally thin to over 300 pounds. His behavior had found limits, but his desire for food recognized no boundary.
The Protective Power of Boundaries
Boundaries and limits often protect us. One of my nephews recalls the boundary his parents set on his childhood play: between sunrise and sunset he could go anywhere he wanted as long as he didn’t cross any streets. That gave him a playground that extended hundreds of acres across several farms, some ponds, a mobile home park, and a few old houses. His boundaries didn’t keep him safe from all harm. He could easily tumble down a ravine into a stream or fall out of a tree. But the limits his parents set protected him from what they considered the greatest danger, being killed by a heedless motorist.
In my own life with bipolar disorder, I have learned to live with boundaries that keep me safe from the worst dangers. One boundary is that I must sleep very regular hours. That means I can neither socialize nor work as late as you might. When I live within my boundaries, I am generally an okay person. When I don’t accept my limits, you might not enjoy my company.
The Danger of Boundaries Refused
When we ignore our inbuilt limits, we can become not just unpleasant but dangerous. We see this at the microscopic level in cancer cells. A cancer cell isn’t an invader. It’s simply one of our body’s own cells that refuses to live within its limits. It can’t accept the idea that it is just one cell among many, with its own assigned place and responsibilities. It insists on endlessly expanding and usurping the place of others.
Our temptations to overstep aren’t so different. We imagine that we could become a bigger and more important someone if only we could escape the “comfort zone” of our familiar skills, desires, and abilities. If I can lead 10, why shouldn’t I target 10,000? Just because my “comfort zone” would hold me to a smaller setting, why should I limit what God can do?
Every Choice Sets a Boundary
We forget that God sets a limit with every creative choice God makes. Trees are green, not purple, because God decided photosynthesis would produce the color green. In the same way, God has made choices which may seem arbitrary in the design of each of us. We’re more or less energetic; more or less insightful; more or less mechanically inclined. These aren’t failings; they’re part of our nature or character. They may limit us individually, but they don’t limit us as a people of God. My extremely high skill in getting lost only limits my travels if I refuse to ask directions or to ride with a navigator or to get a GPS. To accept my limits and agree with God that I need help is one way God draws the body together.
The Good Life Is Defined by the Boundaries We Accept
What’s more, God suggests that the bounded life can be a good life. “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” the Psalmist muses: “Surely I have a delightful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6).
The tiny yard of my townhouse condo tightly bounds my ability to garden. Living here, I’ve learned to extend my garden by helping design, plant, and maintain my neighborhood’s landscape. The community is better because I’m constrained from focusing on my own yard, and my neighbor relations are better because these constraints force me out of my own backyard, shaded by towering maples and pines.
More Danger from Boundaries Refused
The tall maple trees that throw deep shade on my would-be garden plot help my home stay cooler in summer. The 70-foot height God designed for them blesses us.
But imagine for a minute a cornstalk that, refusing its limits, somehow ambitiously attains a 70-foot height. On the one hand, it might provide a lot of food! Each proportionally large five-foot ear would carry hundreds of corn kernels, each the size of my palm. But if a standard corn stalk sways in the breeze, how steady would this giant be? What would happen if one of those five-foot ears came crashing to the ground? And if the smallest kernels of corn are the sweetest, would anyone really want to saw into a kernel as big as the butt end of a 2×4?
We lose when we try to overgrow the boundaries God has set. It’s easy to recognize when we imagine a colossal corn stalk or–worse!–a spider grown to a tree’s stature. Harder to acknowledge when we’re thinking about the ways we want to grow past our own safe boundaries.
Many of us are taught to “stretch past your comfort zone!” because “that’s where growth occurs!” And that can be true. Muscles are strengthened as they are challenged beyond their ordinary activities. Skills grow as we reach past the edges of the skills we already have. Everything new we try may seem uncomfortable–outside our comfort zone–but trying new things is often good.
Still, the best growth into new things occurs where the stretching is safe. Those safe contexts are our true “comfort zone,”—the relationships and places where we are rooted. And solid growth occurs as we live rooted in the places and relationships God has given. We are able to live as children trusting that everything within the boundary our good Parent has set is safe enough. The stretching becomes part of our playful exploration of our Parent’s world, not a harried and overwhelming part of our self-imposed work.
Aiming beyond “comfort” to become “more than conquerors,” we can gain stature disproportionate to the systems that support us. At that point, growing past the limits God has set can get ugly. The greater the attainments, the greater the risks, the greater the anxiety, the more frequent the angry upsets, and the greater the need for special supports. When a Spirit-sent breeze topples the unsteadily overgrown, they endanger more than themselves. As we have watched one towering ministry after another topple, we have to ask: Did anyone consider whether they were working within the God-given boundaries to these earth-bound institutions? How could infestations of sin–even a sin as popular as pride–have been overlooked?
The Time of Promise: When God Breaks the Boundaries
It’s important to remember that God is able to accomplish amazing things, more than we might ask or imagine. Every good thing ever done is done by God’s power, even the things done through fallible humans. There are also times when God breaks the limits God has set, and those are amazing.
I love looking forward to the vision of unlimited provision at the very end of the Bible. The trees of life that line the riverbanks in the city that is to come (Revelation 22:2) bear plenteous good fruit in all seasons, something that farmers—accustomed as we are to the constraining boundaries of weather and seasons and pests—know is a joyful miracle. A tree that is in fruit at all times must also be in flower at all times and in bud at all times and bearing the teeny budlet beginnings of fruit at all times. Trees like these can be home to birds and pollinators and pesky deer and all God’s hungry children at all times. God, at this promised future moment, will overstep the boundaries set for the created world, and it will be very good.
But that’s God. I live with my own created self and its own earthbound limits. And God says of that, too, that it is very good.