a bit monkish.
It’s been unsettling to watch the news and peruse social media in recent weeks and months. Many people - including friends and acquaintances of mine - are angry, bitter, cynical, and spiteful. Some folks are upset because their candidate lost. Others are angry because their denomination is heading in a certain direction. Still other people are frustrated because the federal government isn’t addressing spiritual and/or Biblical issues.
I wonder if much of this negativity stems from the loss of a word that used to have significance in our culture. It’s a word that has fallen out of social fashion and has been deemed politically, socially, and spiritually incorrect. I’m referring to the word "boundaries".
A boundary is a dividing line. It’s a social, political, or spiritual demarcation that provides sometimes necessary space between people, nations, or beliefs. Boundaries distinguish variation or definition. Without them, we would have no order or differentiation.
When I’m at Gethsemani Abbey, I frequently see gates that read, “Monastic Area. Do not Enter.” I could have an attitude of “How dare they keep me out. I deserve to go in there.” It’s a boundary that, if I allowed it to, could invite cynicism and frustration to enter my heart. The signs are not for me, but for the monks. Their calling is to serve the world behind the walls. My calling is to serve the world outside the walls.
In the Old Testament, geographic boundaries were important, for they marked territory and national borderlines. In the New Testament, Jesus didn’t mark the Kingdom of God with a map, but with the heart: Citizens of His Kingdom should act and believe in ways that are contrary to those who are not citizens of the Kingdom of God. The Bible talks about distinctions between those who are holy and those who are not holy. If there are no differences between the beliefs and actions of God’s people and of those who are not God’s people, then what’s the point of living as children of God?
Many Christians in the United States are frustrated and downright angry at recent government policies they believe to be not consistent with Biblical teaching about welcoming strangers. Yet, according to the Bible, what is the role of the government? In Romans 13, Paul offers some insight as to one purpose of the government: It’s to keep peace and ensure the security of its citizens. We may be forgetting that a boundary exists between the role of the Church and the role of the government. History has shown that when this boundary is eroded, bad things happen - both politically and spiritually. Jesus acknowledged these differing roles, as well (e.g. Matthew 22:19-22). Christians should not expect the secular federal government to adhere to Christian ethical practices. Instead, we should live-out those ethics ourselves, serving as role-models in society (Colossians 3:17, 4:5-6).
As human beings, we need boundaries in our lives. We were created to understand distinctions between men and women, young and old, Christians and non-Christians, and even dog people and cat people. These distinctions bring identity and purpose to our lives. Any competent parent will attest to the truth that children need boundaries, as they instinctively long for accountability and rules. When young children do not have a set schedule, many times they will exhibit stress. Despite the demands of many adults for everything to be open and acceptable, our anthropological roots as human beings lead us to a longing for boundaries in ethics, morality, and belief. Without them, we - like children - can exhibit stress manifested as anger, bitterness, cynicism, and spite.
Healthy boundaries of all sorts are woven through the whole of Scripture because God created us to have them. As St. Augustine wrote in the early lines of The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” Without healthy boundaries in our lives, our hearts are anxious.
Let's be clear: boundaries are not about isolationism or segregation. Rather, boundaries center on identity and purpose. The monks behind the monastic walls are not completely isolated from the world, for gates exist in those walls. Boundaries, like the monastic walls, are healthy for Christians to shield us from the temptations of the world around us. When we knock down those walls, we expose our holy hearts to that which is not holy.
Those in our secular culture have anger in their hearts because they haven’t yet encountered the risen Christ. When Christians exhibit the same frustration and anger, we’re modeling the behaviors of pre-Christian people and we're tearing down an important boundary. May we never forget that we’re God’s people who have experienced the peace and love of Jesus Christ by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Let's live as people of truth, but also of love.
Unless, however, we understand those distinctions as unnecessary boundaries between people.
(c) 2017 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.