“May I offer you a little fatherly advice?” I asked. “You need spend Mother’s Day with your family.”
Rebecca’s friend and her parents were (and are) going through a difficult patch. She’s at that age where she wants and needs to take on more adult responsibilities—and enjoy more adult privileges. For whatever reason, her parents are unwilling to let that happen. Our house has become a sort of refuge for her.
“That’s what I’m going to do,” she said.
“I know it’s rough, but you’re better off leaving that door open. Things don’t have to be as testy as they are now.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s why I come here. I need to get some distance so I can go home.”
Relational boundaries are rarely easy. They can be hard to establish and even harder to enforce. But sometimes they are necessary. To be sure, in most human relationships, boundaries ensure the well-being of all parties involved.
This isn’t a new development, recently discovered by psychologists and family therapists. It’s something we find even in the first book of the Bible.
Jacob’s rocky relationship with his father-in-law, Laban, is recorded in Genesis 29–30. After twenty years of mistreatment and manipulation (on all sides!), Jacob finally gathers his family and sets off to return to Canaan.
Scripture doesn’t give us many hints about how Jacob felt, but we can imagine. For twenty years, he has endured Laban’s trickery. Not that Jacob was innocent, of course. He bears his share of responsibility for the strained relationship with his father-in-law. Still, eventually the two reached a point where it was no longer possible to continue.
Something has to change, so when Laban pursues them, the two men make a covenant to keep their distance from one another. They pray for each other and commit to staying out of each other’s way. Neither will cross the boundary to harm the other. This is probably the best terms on which Jacob and Laban could part.
Sometimes the best thing we can do for a relationship is give it some space. It seems that both Jacob and Laban come to understand that.
• How can we negotiate appropriate boundaries in the proper spirit?
• When is walking away from a hurtful situation the best option?
• How can we reach a point of praying for the best even for those who have wronged us?
Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.
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