Forgiveness or Boundaries?

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


It seems to be a hard fact that others will take advantage of nice people. Open your door to strangers, and you will have more strangers in your home than you can handle. Say yes to one job, and you will have twenty more. Let someone get by with one offense or intrusion, and that person will do so over and over.

Certain people look for nice people to use. They know that nice people have a desire to be nice, to help and give. They also know that nice people have trouble saying “no” and sometimes even more trouble saying, “Stop!” So they seek out people to use and use them until they wear out or break. Then these abusers move on to someone else.

Narcissists are users. Narcissistic parents raise victims for their use. Narcissist bosses hire victims. Narcissist spouses marry victims. Narcissist friends hunt their victims. All narcissists need someone to use.

So the connection between narcissistic abuse and Christian kindness seems almost inevitable.

Some believers have great difficulty reconciling the need for limiting the abuse in their lives with the call to forgive the abuser. In other words, when forgiveness is to come freely and quickly, it seems to open the door to more abuse. Some think that the call to forgive negates any desire for boundaries.

Sometimes the charge of Jesus for us to “turn the other cheek” is brought into the discussion. When someone hits you on the cheek, Jesus says, you should give him the opportunity to hit the other cheek. Jesus says this to help His people understand that suffering is a part of the Christian life. While we may avoid it most of the time, there will be times when—because of our unity with Him—we will suffer. In those times, we should not despair. We should suffer with the understanding that the Lord loves us and is with us.

But there are a couple of things to notice. First, this suffering does not come about because of sin on our part. This suffering is from sin on the part of the abuser. It is clear from the context of the passage (Matthew 5) that the person hitting the victim’s cheek is evil and an enemy of the Lord (or at least acting like one). Second, these are situations that cannot be avoided. The abusive person is in a position of power or authority over the victim. Words like “compel” and “sue” do not suggest that the victim is a willing participant.

So, yes, there are times when turning the other cheek is the only response. Fighting back, striking the abuser, is usually out of the question. Sometimes the bully gets you, but in those times the Lord has not forgotten you. There is a promised blessing in suffering, and you should forgive the abuser.

HOWEVER, boundaries may allow you to avoid such situations in the first place. Or boundaries may give you personal victory in the midst of the shame and abuse. Simply being able to lay blame for the abuse at the feet of the abuser is a boundary. When I refuse to see myself as an unworthy person just because someone is abusing me, I have set an important boundary. When I can admit that my suffering does not come from what I have done, but from the sin of another, there is an important boundary. And, perhaps, the use of other boundaries in my life will help me avoid the abuse altogether.

Boundaries are to protect us. We may not be able to control the actions of another person. We may be called to forgive those actions. But we do not have to allow those actions, or that person, to define us or control every part of our lives. The idea of a boundary is simply that we may reject the control of the abuser.

For example, suppose you have someone who insists on calling you at ten o’clock at night to complain or share problems. Can you, as a Christian and a kind person, tell that person that you will not be able to answer phone calls that late? Of course. You are still a Christian and still kind, but now you no longer have to suffer the loss of peace and sleep those calls brought.

And can you forgive the person with the boundary still in place? Again, of course. The existence of the boundary does not stop your forgiveness. It simply allows you to sleep. You forgive the person separately from your action or decision to stop their control.

The narcissist seems to know how to push our buttons. They know what things drag us down and weaken us so they can control us. In fact, they resist our boundaries as they attempt to control. The person who calls at 10 PM will almost certainly do it after being told not to. Perhaps over and over. The boundaries will be tested, even attacked.

But you can still forgive. Each time.

The point is that forgiveness and boundaries are not exclusive. In fact, they are both part of who we are as believers. There are many boundaries in the Christian life. The young person may say no to sexual pressure by setting a boundary, but still forgive the person who pressures. The Christian who is expected to lie at work can refuse to compromise his integrity by setting a boundary, but still forgive the person who asked for the lie. These are different things.

So when the narcissist tries to control, through one of his/her many methods, you can resist by setting boundaries and still forgive the attempts. There is no inconsistency in this. Forgiveness is not holding the offense against the person. Boundaries are a decision to limit the abuse.

And what about turning the other cheek? Jesus is not suggesting that we invite or even welcome the abuse. He is telling His followers to be strong, to continue to trust in Him, in spite of the suffering. He is saying that we can look our abusers in the eye and endure the suffering—when it cannot be avoided. But there is nothing in the text that tells us we cannot avoid the abuse or try to limit it. The call to forgive is not meant to be a sign on your back saying, “Kick me!”



Filed under Narcissism

22 responses to “Forgiveness or Boundaries?

  1. Janet

    Excellent post, as usual, very spot on, your words express my experiences to a “T”! What you say about forgiveness is exactly what the Lord said to me over the years. I would set boundaries though, over and over and over again, and each time they would be violated. You hit the nail on the head that you end up feeling like you have no worth to the N. The Lord spoke yesterday about all of this suffering we endure from these N’s, and part of it is for us to taste His cup. Its a terribly bitter cup, having to forgive over and over again, but we are sharing in His sufferings.

  2. I like how some boundaries described here are internal. The term “boundaries” suggest something external, a defined line not to be crossed, that takes some level of assertiveness to set in the first place. But that assertiveness is hard to come by when self-doubt gets in the way, so these internal boundaries — to not be defined by someone else’s actions — are a good start toward building the assertiveness to set strong external boundaries. Thank you.

    • UnForsaken

      Yes, Kate! And even if we can’t set any other kind, we can still try to set them in our minds. This has given me what strength I do have and the desire to seek God’s will on all the other, seemingly more difficult, externals and tangible boundaries. Keep building our minds up in the Lord!

  3. Sunflower

    Jesus said to turn the other cheek, not to keep turning like a top, and to go an extra mile, not an extra 10 miles. Seems to me He meant to make a point that I don’t retaliate, but not to lie down and let them bully and bully…….unless it is a direct order from above, like His cross. Before the cross, He would disappear, slip away, or even go after them with words and whips………. being in tune to the Holy Spirit is everything. Forgiveness is not enabling.

  4. JD

    I agree with most of this. However, I think maybe we are called to walk away–thus turn the “other” cheek.

    I’m not sure it is my Christian duty to forgive. It may very well make my life better to forgive, but it’s not my responsibility to pardon the sins against me. It is, however, my responsibility to judge when to put up boundaries. The reason I put up boundaries is because I cannot forget, or forgive (pardon) the sin, and am quite sure I will be hurt again if I do forgive and forget.

    It’s no small point to ponder or argue. It’s the very forgiving nature of Christians that perpetuate abuse. Narcissists count on it. They want to hit the other cheek.

    Flight or fight? In some cases flight is better. Turn the other cheek and run.

    • Savedbygrace

      I agree JD it is no small point to ponder… and I see where you are coming from..
      you said:
      The reason I put up boundaries is because I cannot forget, or forgive (pardon) the sin, and am quite sure I will be hurt again if I do forgive and forget.
      perhaps there is another straightforward dynamic at force here as well… it sounds to me like you are putting up boundaries to be safe. This is a very Christian thing to do and is apart from forgiving/ has to be a priority. I think it is only from a position of safety that we can begin to realistically grapple with the issue of forgiveness and can have enough perspective to have wisdom to know which boundaries to put in place and which boundaries to strengthen that have been constantly transgressed by the abuser. Thanks for your comment.

      • Rachel

        I think you’re right JD about turning the other cheek meaning walking away. Perhaps forgiveness is something that can takes days, months even years to carry out? Perhaps it is only possible with God’s grace?
        I am also wondering about other people setting boundaries for us, rather than the we set for ourselves. Thinking about this in relation to abuse within the Church and lack of appropriate response. Sometimes it is our duty to set boundaries for others who may be too vulnerable to set them for themselves; children, elderly, those who are ill or debilitate, those who are within the trauma of abuse of any kind.
        Also, what about the Lord’s Prayer? Forgive us as we forgive others? And the parables about forgiveness and indebtedness? I don’t know quite what to make of those in the light of how difficult it is to forgive someone who is continually in the present abusing you.
        Blessings to you all x.

  5. grace551

    So wise. Thank you.

  6. AB

    This reminds me of Romans 16:17-18. Tucked right in the middle of these verses it says, “Avoid them.”

  7. UnForsaken

    ” Forgiveness is not holding the offense against the person. Boundaries are a decision to limit the abuse.”

    Thank you for this definition! So many people tell us to forgive, then redefine forgiveness. They are essentially telling us to only do what they want. They may even redefine forgiveness again the next day…and again and again and again. This continues the abuse and confuses the forgiver.

    Often remembering what someone has done is considered to be unforgiving. But I contend that you really must remember what someone is capable of doing to be able to maintain good boundaries. Know their character and realize that “holding an offense” is actually cowardly resentment. If I forget that the N created an alternative reality in that issue years ago ( unfortunately, my bad memory has done this ), then I will be laid open to being blindsided by it again. I can’t prevent it from happening, but I can look for alternative possibilities or ways to defuse the N’s power in my own mind. I still have a long way to go in creating boundaries, especially tangible ones.

    Could you possibly address types of boundaries and how to implement them, Dave? There are tangible and intangible ones, but I think there are also times when we must realize it would be a temporarily bad idea to use any of them. I never feel in a safe enough place to set new boundaries and I don’t know if it’s really the N or my feeling about it, so my “temporary” has been a long time. Being “raised for the abuse”, and knowing there is no way out except by miracle, is a difficult place to see. I would appreciate any impute. ❤

  8. Savedbygrace

    I think this is a very important conversation to have, so thanks so much for opening it up Dave!

    I found it difficult to read some of the post because of the language around ‘victim’. You wrote:
    Narcissistic parents raise victims for their use. Narcissist bosses hire victims. Narcissist spouses marry victims. Narcissist friends hunt their victims.
    I disagree.

    Narcissistic parents give birth to babies whom they target and make into victims. N bosses hire people and mistreat them and victimise them, N spouses marry someone under the banner of mutual love and commitment and abuse them and so make them a victim, and similarly with friends… a person can have many healthy friendships but the friendship with the N is abusive and unhealthy and they become a ‘victim’.
    I think ‘target’ would more accurately reflect what is going on, using ‘victim’ can make a target struggle and ask what is wrong with me that the abuser chose me?

    Let me illustrate, my abuser is my (now separated) n husband. The abuse has cycled and escalated over more than 3 decades. Yes he married a Christian, I was giving, nice, and yes I wanted to please my husband… it has taken me a while for the ‘light’ to go on that that should have been OK..I was not a poor boundary setter or overly giving or loving… in healthy relationships it would not have been taken advantage of, I would not have been targeted and mistreated. In a healthy relationship that degree of openess and trust and love would have been the ‘making’ for an amazing marriage!

    You also wrote:
    The idea of a boundary is simply that we may reject the control of the abuser.
    and you have used the word ‘simply ‘ in describing boundary setting earlier in the post. This plus other books, Christian teaching make it sound so ‘simple’ so ’cause and effect’ – just do it! but I think a lot of victims of abuse have been and are putting in boundaries and had their boundaries transgressed so often they feel powerless or they don’t even know it is happening any more and they accept as ‘normal ‘the reality the abuser imposes. Abuse is very disorienting. And well meaning people are quick to advise them to ‘put in boundaries’..I think people don’t want to believe that someone can willingly transgress the boundary
    (especially whist professing to be a Christian) and they also don’t want to get involved in the complexity of calling out an abuser and truly helping the target/victim.
    I think the advice to give if someone is ‘putting a boundary in place that is repeatedly being transgressed’ is not to ‘forgive’ yet again- it is this kind of Christian teaching that kept me in an abusive marriage way too long- I think it is more helpful to say ‘put in a new boundary/ strengthen the boundary , if it is still transgressed call evil out like Jesus did so often with the Pharisees and separate from evil.. there will be plenty of time to reflect on forgiveness when you are safe’.
    I find Romans 12 instructive as to the attitude to have in the midst of confronting evil- leaving it in the hands of the God who judges, and continuing to ‘do good’.
    I’d be interested to hear what others think..

    • You are certainly right to make the distinction between those who are already victims and those who are made victims. I did not intend to suggest that narcissists only target those who have already been victimized. Instead, they see others as potential victims and choose people they think could be used as victims.

      I don’t like the term victim because it has become misused in our culture, but it is both the right and the best word. Narcissists are aggressors, in all their forms, and those they abuse are victims of that abuse.

      You are also right that boundaries are not simple, nor are they easy. But the call to forgive should not be a deterrent for setting and maintaining them. The two ideas are separate, and must be kept separate. Forgiving and protecting myself cannot be exclusive. Both were seen even in the life of Jesus. If someone is teaching that forgiveness means allowing continued abuse – when you could stop it – that person is wrong. Forgiveness means choosing not to hold the abusive act against the person, it does not mean allowing or encouraging that person to do it again.

      Boundaries are an important part of dealing with narcissists, but they are not easy. They will be challenged constantly. Often you will lose the battle. They have to be crafted in different ways for different situations and adjusted often. But they offer a person (victim) a way to do something. The risk in a narcissistic relationship is to lose one’s self. The battle for boundaries is a way to maintain a sense of identity and integrity.

      • Savedbygrace

        Thanks Dave for your helpful clarification… I agree that putting in a boundary offers a victim a way to do something but only if it is safe to do so as a thwarted N can rage and the victim be subject to harm. This was my counsellor’s approach with me and when I followed his advice the abuse only escalated.
        Your last paragraph really put into words the landscape of my marriage when it broke down…I had lost my sense of self and was losing the battle for boundaries.. it was a point of survival.. I could no longer maintain my personal integrity in my marriage. Forgiveness for me is challenging- usually when I forgive I seek to restore/reconcile a relationship, with my n husband I feel my heart attitude is one of forgiveness but cannot go that next step because of the n shrewdness and charm and manipulation and deceit which makes it unsafe to do so, so then I need to keep the boundary of separation up.

      • Janet

        Psalm 130: 1-6
        “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord;
        2 Lord, hear my voice!
        Let Your ears be attentive
        To the voice of my supplications.
        3 If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
        O Lord, who could stand?
        4 But there is forgiveness with You,
        That You may be feared.
        5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
        And in His word I do hope.
        6 My soul waits for the Lord
        More than those who watch for the morning—
        Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.”

        You see, we ARE deeply WILLING to forgive our Ns. We are compelled by our love for Jesus to OBEY Him. But what is NORMAL to most Christians,
        “but there is forgiveness with You that You MAY BE FEARED”,
        at least with my N, after MANIFOLD forgiveness, there has NEVER BEEN any corresponding FEAR OF GOD. Only continued back biting, complaining, ingratitude and down right blasphemey. This is so difficult to bear, week after week, month after month, year after year, when you see them with raised hands in worship in church, gregarious and smiling in fellowship, yet in the dark, a whole and completely different persona.

  9. I used to think I somehow invited the abuse by being a scapegoat type. But I’ve done 25 years of therapy and now know how to be assertive and have enough knowledge to make a good argument with but with some of these narcissists it still doesn’t matter. They can bully you. Some bully you even once you express disinterest in something and explain why in several different ways. You back up what you’re saying with facts. But a person shouldn’t even need to explain because no means no. And yet they bully you.

  10. LovedByGod

    Thank you for confirming that boundaries must be set when dealing with an N.

  11. Re : Turning the other cheek

    Is turning the other cheek simply turning and walking away?

    While I agree that there are times for us to walk away, I don’t see how that can come from this teaching of Jesus. To turn the other cheek, means to “offer the other also,” as it says in both Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29. We would assume that the “also” means “for the same purpose.” It means to suffer that which is unavoidable and still trust the Lord.

    This is actually a reference to an Old Testament teaching from Lamentations, where the Lord promises His love to those who are suffering.

    Lamentations 3:25-33 (NKJV)
    25 The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, To the soul who seeks Him.
    26 It is good that one should hope and wait quietly For the salvation of the LORD.
    27 It is good for a man to bear The yoke in his youth.
    28 Let him sit alone and keep silent, Because God has laid it on him;
    29 Let him put his mouth in the dust– There may yet be hope.
    30 Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, And be full of reproach.
    31 For the Lord will not cast off forever.
    32 Though He causes grief, Yet He will show compassion According to the multitude of His mercies.
    33 For He does not afflict willingly, Nor grieve the children of men.

    And to Isaiah 50, a messianic passage that tells of the attitude of Jesus toward His suffering:

    Isaiah 50:5-7 (NKJV)
    5 The Lord GOD has opened My ear; And I was not rebellious, Nor did I turn away.
    6 I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting.
    7 “For the Lord GOD will help Me; Therefore I will not be disgraced; Therefore I have set My face like a flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed.

    If there is an opportunity to walk away from an abuser, by all means do so. There is nothing unbiblical about protecting yourself. Even spouses can move out and find safety without compromising their vows or responsibilities. But that isn’t what this text is saying. There are times when we are called to stand and suffer, when avoiding the situation is not possible or we feel called to stay.

    Truthfully, I would have avoided mentioning this text at all, because it is very difficult for us to understand and apply. But I know that it is in the minds of Christians who face abuse and feel called to forgive. The passage seems to be directed at those who face persecution and abuse because of their relationship with Jesus. I am not sure that it should be applied to other circumstances.

    • Janet

      Thank you Dave, these scripture references are actually very comforting.
      Setting boundaries “set off” my N sister in the Lord. With Ns, you either do exactly what they want, or receive abuse. My boundaries were never heeded so I had to go no contact and as a leader in my congregation, that for me is extremely difficult. I too, like SavedByGrace, always seek to reconcile when I forgive. With Ns, this “normal” Christian act is nearly impossible. Everytime I reached out, I got lashed out at and was accused of “violating” HER boundaries, (a classic N behavior, to accuse you of the very thing they are doing; mirroring)! So, as much as I long to be able to “normalize my relationship with my N sister in the Lord because I HAVE forgiven the abuse, its just not possible. She will have nothing to do with me now because I spoke up, revealed what was un acceptable and set boundaries. So, indeed, I am having to” wait on the Lord ” and its been an EXTREMELY heavy burden. I often pray, Lord, will You NEVER act?? Will You never stand up for ME?? So, I have had to clamp my hand over my mouth, and sit in blind trust.
      This blog has been a LIFE LINE for me!!! Know that!!!

  12. THANK YOU for stating the truth about ‘forgiveness’ and healthy boundaries. I am feeling rather beat up because of all the twisted and abuse of Scripture towards the oppressed.

  13. Lene

    Thank you for this post. Not long ago, I was told by someone I admire and trust that it was time for me to forgive my ex-husband. I was shocked that anyone would think they should tell me what to do, so I just said, “I’m working on that. It’s a slow process.” Reading this, it makes me think that a) this person didn’t realize the extent of the damage done (i.e. he thinks I should forgive based on what he knows–my ex cheated; he doesn’t know about the manipulation for years prior to that act); and b)forgiveness doesn’t mean I give up my hard won freedom and self-respect. I can still have boundaries. I think my ex sees forgiveness as “normalizing” our relationship (in other words, he gets to call the shots again). I don’t have to abide by his (ex’s) definition; it’s more important to think of HIS (the Lord’s) definition.

  14. I could definitely relate to being involved with a narcissist . I didn’t know people like that exist and he claimed to be a Christian. I ended things on the first of this year after being together 6 months on and off. The worst and most painful relationship I ever had. I have been asking God to help me forgive this guy and move past the anger and resentment I have been feeling. Forgiveness is a requirement because it hinders the relationship a Christian has with God. It’s also not something we do for the one who hurt us. Forgiveness sets us free and doesn’t excuse the person who wronged us. Really great blog you wrote!

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