Building walls

Like a city breached, without walls,
    is a person who lacks self-control. Proverbs 25:28 CJB

Another way to think of self control is self direction. As I wrote in my last post, self control isn’t about stopping yourself from doing things, it’s about setting yourself on the path you want to go. Which means saying “no” to other paths, other opportunities, and committing to a direction.

Lately I’ve been studying about boundaries, a topic I’ve touched on here before. Boundaries are like fences (like the one in the photo above keeping the cows safe, fed and out of the way of motorists). We can also think of boundaries as the walls of the house we are constructing. Without walls and boundaries, the city is breached, the house is ransacked. There’s no protection for those inside. Healthy boundaries with ourselves and others are the first step to effective self control.

Recently, I had to go on an elimination diet for medical reasons. For a month I went without gluten, dairy and eggs to see if I had any allergic reaction on reintroducing them. In the end, I didn’t discover any allergies but along the way I learned something interesting about myself. Turns out I am very uncomfortable having people make allowances for me. I hated feeling like a “nuisance” and having to speak up about my needs and refuse things people offered me. I hated offending my kind friends, and I realized that I’ve taken great pride in my ability to go with the flow and not cause drama. I’d always seen it as a virtue, the virtue of needing nothing and becoming invisible.

Humility, wrote C.S. Lewis, is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. It’s tempting to take pride in our lack of boundaries, thinking ourselves martyrs to a greater cause. But without a framework, the sacrifices we make mean nothing — and if they lead to secret pride, they’re harmful.

Building walls after years of letting them be torn down and trampled over can feel like “being mean” and pushing people away. But as I’m learning with my son, boundaries are necessary for communicating love, and they lead to confidence and security in our relationships. Toddlers are meant to look for the limits — that’s a normal part of their development. They’re supposed to say “no” and test our rules. They are learning who they are as a separate person from mom and dad. They are developing into an individual, and finding their place within the family and the community. As I raise my little one, I have to say “no” more firmly and more often than I enjoy. But if I only listen to my own comfort and his temporary emotions, he’ll never develop a strong confidence in his identity. He’ll never feel secure with me because I’ll be unpredictable. And he won’t learn how his actions impact those around him.

It’s also important for us to learn to say no to ourselves. This helps us take responsibility for our own needs. It isn’t someone else’s job to make me happy or take care of my daily obligations. As in the example with my son, my role in parenting him is to take care of the things he isn’t able to do himself, but my goal is to raise him to take care of himself. At this point I brush his teeth, bathe him, and give him snacks but as he grows he takes more and more responsibility for his own “house.” It can be difficult to see the line between our own responsibility and someone else’s, but effective walls keep things inside as much as they keep things out. My boundaries aren’t working if I place the burden of my needs and feelings on others.

I’m sure we all have a long way to go, I know I do. I have a hard time gathering the courage to speak up for what I need, just like when I was on a special diet. But if I can’t learn to control my “house”, or my self, I’ll be vulnerable to the enemy who is looking for a way inside. Without boundaries, the house is unprotected. Without direction, the ship will drift. Self control means bringing these together, under God’s lordship, and seeking his strength to stay on the right path.