Setting Personal Boundaries to Resist Temptation
Jack A. Schaap was the revered pastor of a Baptist church in Hammond, Indiana that averaged 15,000 attenders every Sunday. Now he is a convicted felon serving a 12-year prison sentence for sexually abusing a teenage girl who came to him for counseling. His church fired him, his wife divorced him, and his reputation and his life have been utterly ruined.
After initially taking full responsibility for his crime, which included transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes, Schaap sank to even greater depths of moral degradation. In a doomed attempt to have his sentence reduced, he tried to shift blame from himself to his 16-year-old victim, accusing her to the court of aggressively pursuing and seducing him.
What a horrible and excruciatingly painful story! There is absolutely no excuse or palliation for the egregious offenses former pastor Schaap committed.
Yet I don’t believe there was ever a morning when this respected, and to all appearances devout, spiritual leader got out of bed and thought to himself, “this seems like a good day to take advantage of a child’s trust in her pastor, betray my wife and the sanctity of our marriage, subject my church to ridicule and shame, and totally destroy my own life.”
I suspect that when Jack Schaap thinks back over the events of the last few years, he is utterly astounded to have ended up where he is. How could this possibly have happened to him?
None of Us Is Safe
Actually, it could happen to anyone who fails to set proper boundaries for their own behavior. None of us is so strong or so holy as to be immune to temptation. That’s a lesson Scripture teaches over and over, and one that we all would do well to heed before we find ourselves in some unforeseen predicament of our own making, wondering how we ever got there.
The Example of King David
Perhaps the most disturbing biblical example of this is the story of the descent of David, second king of Israel, into adultery and murder. Here’s how it happened:
Then it happened one evening that David arose from his bed and walked on the roof of the king's house. And from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And someone said, "Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" Then David sent messengers, and took her; and she came to him, and he lay with her, for she was cleansed from her impurity; and she returned to her house.
2 Samuel 11:2-4 (NKJV)
The Bible calls David a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet, having started by taking advantage of his position to force the wife of a loyal officer in his army to sleep with him, David ended up conspiring to have that man killed in an attempt to insure that the scandal would not be exposed.
Temptation Can Hit Us Any Time and Without Warning
I’m struck by the introduction to this devastating episode that catapulted King David into adultery, betrayal, and murder: “It happened one evening.”
David got out of bed that evening with no thought of creating a murderous mess in his life. But then he happened to notice a beautiful woman bathing herself on a nearby roof. And that one happenstance started a chain of events that swept David (not to mention Bathsheba, Uriah, and others) over a precipice into moral catastrophe.
Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.— 1 Corinthians 10:12
Here’s the key: none of this was planned. David was caught up in a totally unexpected wave of temptation that carried him along almost before he realized what was happening. The temptations that can devastate our lives don’t necessarily announce themselves ahead of time. They can hit us and, if we are not prepared, sweep us away into deep trouble before we are even aware of our danger.
The Bible is clear: if you think you are so strong or so spiritual that you won’t ever be tempted, watch out! “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall,” the apostle Paul admonishes (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Temptation Can Be a Very Slippery Slope
David cannot be faulted for seeing Bathsheba taking her bath. It wasn’t anything he intended, and he had no way of avoiding that sight until it happened. The issue was, once he realized that his eyes were seeing something that had sexual temptation written all over it, what should he have done about it?
What David needed to realize was that the moment he saw Bathsheba bathing, he was at the top of an extremely slippery slope from which he needed to retreat as fast as his legs could carry him.
I remember my first time on snow skis in Colorado. I was on the most gradual of bunny slopes. But once I started moving, I began going faster and faster, and pretty soon found myself at a place I shouldn’t be, interfering with real skiers at the end of their run down the mountain. Since I hadn’t yet gotten to the lesson on how to stop, I did the only thing I knew to do – I deliberately fell down. And once I had fallen, I couldn’t get back up (how to get back on your feet while wearing skis must have been lesson 3).
Setting Boundaries to Resist Temptation
Many types of temptation, and sexual ones especially, are like that. Once you start moving in that direction, your momentum can increase far more quickly than you expect, and you find yourself being carried downhill faster and faster. Before you know it, you’re in a place you shouldn’t be, headed for a fall, but unable to stop yourself.
That’s why we have to prepare ourselves ahead of time to deal with potential slippery slope situations. In other words, instead of frantically trying to stop our momentum toward disaster after taking some unwary steps into dangerous territory, we need to set up boundaries in our lives that will keep us from getting into such situations in the first place.
We Need to Set Boundaries Ahead of Time
For example, Pastor Schaap could have kept himself from life-destroying trouble if he had put some pre-determined boundaries in place regarding how he would handle counseling with women. As a pastor myself, that’s one of the first things my mentors urged upon me at the beginning of my ministry.
My boundary lines are very simple: I will not counsel with women unless my wife is either present in the room, or in the building and able to walk into my office unannounced at any moment. She always knows about any counseling I intend to do and has sometimes sensed that I needed to be extra careful with a particular woman. When that’s the case, we arrange that she and I will counsel that individual as a team.
I’ve really tried to think through what unintended consequences might arise out of even the most casual of contacts between me and the females of our congregation. So, another boundary line I’ve drawn for myself is that when a female member of our church staff comes into my office to hand me something, I take care not to even touch her hand during the exchange. In our church men and women openly hug one another in the sanctuary during the worship service, but I consider my office too private a location for any male/female touching to be safe.
Does that seem paranoid? Do I consider myself some kind of Adonis that woman just can’t resist? Not at all! And to be honest, I’m very sure that I am in absolutely no danger of having any kind of inappropriate interaction with women in our congregation.
But that’s the point! Temptation can sneak up on you even when, and perhaps especially when, you are convinced “I would never do that.” To paraphrase the apostle Paul, if you think you’re strong enough to stand, you’re setting yourself up for a fall!
Have you set specific personal boundaries in your life?
VIDEO: A lighthearted look at resisting temptation
How to Set Your Personal Boundaries
In teaching about setting personal boundaries, I often use the temple at Jerusalem in the time of Christ to illustrate what’s required. The temple complex was divided into two major areas: the inner courts, and the outer court. The inner courts were considered sacred and inviolable by anyone but Jews. If a non-Jew was found in the inner court, the penalty was death.
On the other hand, the outer court was designated as “the court of the Gentiles.” It was open to any pious person, Jew or Gentile, provided, as Alfred Edersheim states, “they observed the prescribed rules of decorum and reverence.”
Suppose you were a Gentile visiting Jerusalem, and you wanted to see this famous temple. To keep yourself from potentially life-threatening missteps, you would need to think through your options very carefully beforehand:
- Your first option is simply to refrain from going into the Temple compound at all. In other words, don’t cross that initial boundary into the outer court. That way you keep as far away from trouble as possible.
- Your second option would be to allow yourself to cross the outer boundary into the court of the Gentiles. But you would need to carefully study beforehand the “prescribed rules of decorum and reverence” to which you must adhere in order to stay out of trouble. In other words, if you decide to cross that outer boundary line, you need to do so very carefully, fully aware that you are exposing yourself to an elevated level of danger.
- The final possibility is no option at all. Whatever you do, you must not cross the boundary line of the inner courts of the Temple! If you do, it’s possible you might make it out alive, but the probability is that you would pay an extreme price for your carelessness.
An Example of Setting Inner and Outer Boundary Lines
Let’s say you are a married man who has been sent on a business trip along with a female colleague we’ll call Sandy. The two of you will be staying in the same hotel. What boundary lines might you want to set up for yourself ahead of time?
First of all, you identify the innermost of the inner courts – the place that, should you ever find yourself there, you are already embroiled in moral disaster. In our example, we could say that the bed in Sandy’s hotel suite is such a place. Never, under any circumstances, can you allow yourself to end up there!
But is that really a good place to establish your boundary? Suppose you escort Sandy to her room after a long day’s work, and she suggests you come in for a few minutes to discuss how you will handle the meetings scheduled for the next day. Is there anything wrong with just sitting at a table together to talk business strategy?
Remember the slippery slope! Just by being in a place where you are alone with Sandy (and perhaps can smell that alluring perfume she likes to wear), you may be just a slight push away from a downhill run you won’t be able to stop in time.
So, while the door to Sandy’s bedroom constitutes an inner court boundary you are totally committed to never crossing, you might also decide that being alone with her under any circumstances is an appropriate outer boundary. If you ever cross that line, nothing ruinous has happened yet, but you know you are on dangerous ground and need to be extremely careful. You should only cross that outer boundary line when it is absolutely necessary.
Michael Hyatt, former Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, shared some of his outer court boundaries in a post on his leadership blog:
- I will not go out to eat alone with someone of the opposite sex.
- I will not travel alone with someone of the opposite sex.
- I will not flirt with someone of the opposite sex.
- I will speak often and lovingly of my wife. (This is the best adultery repellant known to man.)
Personal Boundaries Should Be Pre-Set, With Both Inner and Outer Courts
Here are three keys to setting personal boundaries that will be effective in keeping you out of unnecessary trouble:
1. Boundaries should be set ahead of time
That moment when you are standing at the open door of Sandy’s hotel room and smelling her perfume as you consider her invitation to come in for a cup of coffee is not the time to be trying to figure out what your boundaries should be! You need to carefully consider potential slippery slope situations you might find yourself in, and pre-determine the boundary lines you will not cross. This should be done at a time when you are not being subjected to the pressure or temptation that may arise from that circumstance, and can think things through with a clear mind.
2. Set inner court boundaries that you will not cross under any circumstances
Here's one way to decide where your "I'll never go there!" boundary lines should be drawn. Any situation about which you wouldn't be willing to stand up in church and tell the whole congregation how you thank God for being involved in it is one you need to stay as far away from as you can (John 3:21).
3. Set outer court boundaries that keep you far away from trouble
An outer court is a place where the level of potential danger is heightened, but where you are not in trouble yet. It is a boundary you do not intend to cross, but if you do, it serves as a signal that you are approaching a dangerous slippery slope and you need to retreat immediately.
For example, to return to our previous scenario, sharing a meal alone with just your coworker Sandy, even if it’s in a public restaurant, is definitely crossing a line. The fact that you have stepped across that boundary is a warning that you have gotten into dangerous territory from which you need to back away as quickly as possible.
Pass It On!
I believe that no matter who you are, or whatever may be your circumstance in life, having appropriate personal boundaries is vital to keeping yourself safe in a very dangerous world. But in addition to making sure you have boundaries in place for your own life, please consider this:
Young people desperately need to be taught to set personal boundaries
We live in a world where omnipresent media sources subject our children to a wide variety of influences they would not even have been aware of in an earlier day. And many of those influences are far from healthy.
The ability to set and stick to personal boundaries is a tool our young people need to have in their life skills toolkit in order to make their way successfully through the tangled web of pressures and temptations they will inevitably face as they grow older.
From an early stage in life, children need to be alerted to the kinds of situations they can expect to encounter, and helped to think through how they will react when those circumstances occur. I am convinced that such training is a vital element of the inner strength and practical wisdom our young people need if they are to avoid the pitfalls the modern world places in their path every day.
If you are a parent, a teacher, or anyone who is in a position to mentor young people, please teach them how to set personal boundaries for themselves!
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Ronald E Franklin