Tool for HeartConnexion® Living

The Spirituality of Setting Boundaries

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” – Matthew 5:38-41 NIV

Many of us learn to set healthy boundaries by trial and error since we had few models in our family-of-origin. People affected by our new boundaries may not always immediately appreciate the change. I was recently asked if setting boundaries is consistent with Jesus’ challenge to “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile.” A friend had suggested their boundary was not the response of a spiritual person but it felt like they were being asked to go back to being a passive doormat. Their friend was turning Jesus teaching into non-resistance to evil, which seems more than a little strange. While Jesus is the model of self-sacrifice, he is also a model of setting boundaries and non-violent resistance to evil.

The Greek text in the passage above has the meaning of “do not resist evil violently.” Jesus’ concern is the kind of response rather than teaching us to doing nothing to resist evil. That makes these verses consistent with Paul’s position in Ephesians 6:13f where he uses the same term to challenge believers to “stand firm” against evil.

When you imagine being struck on the “right cheek” do you picture a left fist coming at you? However, in that culture Jesus is referring refers to someone using their right hand to backhand the other person’s right cheek in a humiliating gesture. The left hand was considered unclean and to even gesture with it while speaking was a punishable taboo. It would have been dishonoring to slap anyone with it. By exposing the “other (left) cheek” Jesus was saying, “Set a boundary against further humiliation.” He knew that if they hit again with their right hand they would have to acknowledge the other person was their social equal and that was not likely to happen.

In the second example, Jesus suggested response recognized that a creditor could take a poor man’s long outer robe as collateral for a loan but they had to return it each evening to provide something in which to sleep. Jesus’ literally said when they sue you to take away your coat for good to not only turn over your outer garment but also “go ahead and give them your underwear too.” Obviously, he was not promoting nudity but he understood that in Jewish culture it was more shameful to cause someone to be naked than to be naked. The courts were rigged and the poor had little hope for justice. The creditor would win the case but by “giving them your underwear too” it would be humiliating and the system would be exposed and shamed for letting it happen. By humorous exaggeration Jesus suggested that the powerless had a choice other than violence.

In the third example, Roman soldiers often forced people to carry their burden for one mile. Military code made carrying beyond that point an infraction punishable by fine, flogging, reduced rations or by being forced to stand in front of the general’s tent all day with a clump of dirt in hand – a public humiliation. The soldier never knew for sure which punishment might be used. Jesus did not recommend aiding a cruel enemy. He did suggest that cheerfully carrying the load further after the first mile suddenly placed the soldier in an awkward defensive position. “Why are they doing this?” “What’s in it for them?” “Is it a set up? Will this person turn me in to be punished?” The generosity of the powerless exposed the vulnerability of the powerful and became a threat to them.


Without healthy boundaries we react to the unhealthy demands of others with resignation and passive surviving or with a simmering anger that may become violent reaction. Neither reaction is healthy emotionally, relationally or spiritually. Jesus’ examples suggest that there are many ways to resist evil without using an evil means or with passive submission. That was truly revolutionary news then and it remains so today.

Jesus modeled healthy boundaries by refusing to be what everybody else thought was best for him. Scripture suggests that on several occasions he stopped healing and teaching to go aside alone to pray even though there were still some sick, afflicted and confused about what he was saying. At one point Jesus’ family thought it best that he come home for a while but he set a boundary and resisted their apparent concern the trouble his subversive teaching was going to create. He sent his disciples to various locations to share the good news and defined how to set a boundary and leave if the people are not receptive. He even gave them a physical ritual of “shaking the dust off” their sandals to communicate the boundary. His personal boundaries included confronting conventional wisdom and making self-sacrificing choices to accomplish his life’s purpose. It cost Him his life and he suggested that following Him in saying. “Yes.” to God’s would require saying, “No.” in many challenging ways, His resurrection, after the humiliation of being stripped naked and dying on a cross, was a boundary setting too. It symbolized God’s ultimate boundary over the power of death.

Small Group Sharing:

  • How have you personally interpreted this Scripture in the past?
  • How have you experienced resistance from others about the boundaries you were setting to resist the “evil” in their choices?
  • How does this information about the background change the way you feel about the spirituality of setting boundaries?
  • What support do you need to hold on to boundaries you have set or to put some new ones in place?
  • How would your life be different if you started using this tool for HeartConnexion living?

Dr. Paul D. Fitzgerald, ©2002 HeartConnexion Ministries
Adapted from Walter Wink The Powers That Be Doubleday, 1998