The Sheep Need Boundaries (Jeremiah 23:1-8)

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord.

Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: “Instead of caring for my flock and leading them to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them. But I will gather together the remnant of my flock from the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their own sheepfold, and they will be fruitful and increase in number. Then I will appoint responsible shepherds who will care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one will be lost or missing. I, the Lord, have spoken!

“For the time is coming,”
    says the Lord,
“when I will raise up a righteous descendant
    from King David’s line.
He will be a King who rules with wisdom.
    He will do what is just and right throughout the land.
And this will be his name:
    ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’
In that day Judah will be saved,
    and Israel will live in safety.

“In that day,” says the Lord, “when people are taking an oath, they will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who rescued the people of Israel from the land of Egypt.’ Instead, they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the people of Israel back to their own land from the land of the north and from all the countries to which he had exiled them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” (New Living Translation)

All of the Old Testament prophets have something to say on the subject of caring for the flock, that is, on the religious leaders of the people and their sacred responsibility to spiritually meet the needs of others.

God cares for each and every sheep (person) and will do whatever it takes to ensure the flock has everything they need for life and godliness.

So, the Lord’s ire is raised whenever shepherd-leaders don’t do their proper job and fail to live into their vocation of responsibly caring for the flock by watching over it and providing for them.

One of the modern forms this takes is expecting worshipers to serve the institution, rather than the institution existing to serve the worshiper. The telltale signs of institutional centrality in the Church (instead of Christo-centric religion) is continually pursuing the priorities of attendance, money, and the church building.

To put it more crassly, some churches seem to only care about buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew. This makes the people the burden-bearers of supporting the system, rather than the system of leaders supporting the people.

“You get what you tolerate.”

Henry Cloud

Admittedly, I just painted a picture with a broad stroke; furthermore, there is nothing inherently wrong with institutional religion (after all, I’m part of the established religion scene). It’s just that shepherds need to be continually vigilant about focusing their pastoral goals and efforts in ways which spiritually care for the common good of all the flock.

A major reason why there is so much fear and anxiety amongst believers is twofold:

  1. Spiritual leaders have too much power and responsibility over too many things, and so, less time and effort is put into pastoral care and compassionately ministering to the flock of God
  2. Churches give spiritual leaders too much power and responsibility, having unreasonable expectations for pastors
  3. Believers aplenty have given up on church

You might conclude (wrongly) that institutional forms of religion, such as churches, just need to be avoided. However, none of us can completely avoid systemic sin because it resides everywhere. Instead, we need to clarify what we will tolerate and not tolerate.

Abusive situations occur when there are no fences to keep everyone safe, secure, and well-fed. It’s important to have boundaries in place for the life and health of everyone.

What are “boundaries?”

Boundaries define who we are. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to take and not take responsibility for gives me freedom.

No is a complete sentence.”

Anne Lamott

Why is it important to set boundaries?

  • Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them, and the one who must live with their consequences.
  • Boundaries help protect us from “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another into doubting their thoughts, feelings, judgments, perceptions, and/or memories. Gaslighting convinces someone to accept the gaslighter’s version of reality at the expense of their own.
  • Boundaries hold people accountable for their words and actions. Without boundaries, we can easily feel used and mistreated.

What are some ways to set healthy boundaries?

  1. Clarify your values. Is this about preserving personal space? Do you want to make sure your emotions are not dismissed or invalidated? Are you trying to take back control of your time, energy, or resources?
  2. Decide where the fence will go. Where is your boundary line? What behaviors can you tolerate?  At what point does someone cross the line with you?
  3. Identify specific, problematic behaviors. What specific behaviors constitute unwanted trespassing on your life?
  4. Identify how a boundary violation is handled. Will you remove yourself from the situation, or step away from an unfinished argument?
  5. Follow through on the consequences. This is essential. If you’ve stated clearly what your boundaries are and they are crossed, make sure to do what you said you will do.

God makes and keeps boundaries and puts up reasonable fences in order that God’s people will be safe and cared for. The Lord also enforces those boundaries and has clear consequences when they are crossed.

The sooner we respect those divine fences, the better off we will be.

Almighty and everlasting God, breathe your Holy Spirit into our hearts and inspire us with love for goodness and truth. May we respect and honor you, and have no fear to hinder us from doing your will. Help us to be compassionate leaders and followers, knowing your compassion, being mindful of your love, and serving you faithfully, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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