Boundaries: No One Should Make You Feel Guilty...Really?

A look at some of the many Boundaries teachings that contradict Scripture.

This is one in a series of articles evaluating the claims of the Boundaries books and online teachings. Because Boundaries authors claim to be sharing biblical advice, we should evaluate it with biblical principles.

Chapter 15 of Boundaries is titled “Resistance to Boundaries,” and Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend spend time defining what they call guilt messages.

Their main example is a little over-the-top with a mother pretending she has trouble using her vocal cords because her son hasn't called her often enough. The other examples they offer could be appropriate depending on the situation.

But the author's conclusion is that pretty much any statement that expresses disappointment or correction is a “weapon in the arsenal of the controlling person” (page 273). 

This kind of language is typical in Boundaries' teaching. Instead of people being occasionally manipulative or annoying, they are wielding weapons intentionally meant to control us or make us feel unworthy. 

Boundaries sees most relationship problems as the result of bad people with evil motives trying to control good people with good motives. And they must believe that only good people read their books.

They make it clear that any statement that expresses disappointment is a weapon: “People who say these things are trying to make you feel guilty about your choices. They are trying to make you feel bad about deciding how you will spend your own time and resources, about growing up and separating from your parents…” 

Another consistent aspect of Boundaries books and articles is their misuse of Scripture. In this case, the authors explain that we have a right to spend our time and effort however we wish, and they confirm this belief by quoting, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matthew 20:15a).

This verse comes from a story of a man who gives all of his hired help the same wage whether they started working early or late in the day, pointing to his generosity, not his protection of his time or assets. In fact, the whole verse reads this way, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 

This story in Matthew 20:1-16 symbolizes that God (the landowner) gives all who come to Him (the laborers) eternal life, no matter how long they have served Him (see Parable of laborers in vineyard). It's bizarre to use this verse to claim God wants us making up our own minds about how often we call our mother or whether to attend a family event.

A look at some of the many Boundaries teachings that contradict Scripture.
The Boundaries authors tell us to examine our behavior to make sure we aren't being selfish but very little time is spent on this important aspect of relationships. The main message is that anyone who tries to make us feel guilty is manipulative and we should ignore their “guilt messages.” 

There are negative forms of guilt, but guilt is also a healthy part of repentance (Luke 18:9-14; James 4:7-10; 1 John 1:8-10). If we've been doing something wrong, we should feel some guilt/regret when it's brought to our attention.

But, according to Boundaries, once we've defined something as a guilt message, we must not offer an explanation: “Do not explain or justify. Only guilty children do that… You do not owe guilt senders an explanation.” 

If we have legitimate reasons for our behavior, why are we afraid to explain them? What would Scripture actually tell us to do if a parent complained about neglect? 

It would have us carefully and prayerfully evaluate whether we are treating our parents with “honor” as God commands (Ephesians 6:2-3). In fact, using the Matthew 20:1-16 parable which Boundaries authors misused, we could remind ourselves that we serve a generous God who expects us to be generous with our time, money, and effort (Proverbs 11:24-25; 1 Timothy 6:18-19; Philippians 2:3-4). 

If we have truly been behaving in a way that is godly and considerate, why would we refuse to explain ourselves, describe our schedule and limitations, and express our desire to please the other person as we are able?

Let me offer some examples:

If you aren't contacting your mother regularly:

Sorry, mom, I should be calling you more often. I've been overwhelmed with things at work lately. But you're important to me. Why don't you call me every Saturday morning between 9AM and 10AM because that's a good time for me, and I want to talk to you.

If mom is expecting too much:

“Mom, I love you, but I can't call you every day. That's too much to expect. It's not that I don't think about you and pray for you, but my life is busy with work and family and we're going to have to keep the phone calls to once a week unless you have a special need. I hope you can understand.

Even if your mother maintains her belief that you should call her daily, you can continue to treat her with respect while refusing to be manipulated. 

Instead of learning how to deal with manipulation biblically, Boundaries, recommends that we refuse to offer an explanation. They claim we should “be assertive and interpret the message as being about their feelings” not about our behavior. For example, they suggest saying, “It sounds like you are hurt because you think I should call you more often.”

This is a common suggestion used by psychologists, and it may be appropriate in rare situations where you have fully explained yourself, but applying it across the board, as Boundaries does, allows it to be used selfishly.

In summary, the Boundaries teachings promote stubbornness. They make no distinction between parents, family members, co-workers, or acquaintances, and they often use Scripture to deny the very things it teaches. In many ways, the type of behavior that Boundaries promotes is just as manipulative as the behavior they claim to prevent.


All Boundaries quotes are from Chapter 15 in New York Times best-seller Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. For a collection of articles addressing Boundaries errors, see Are Boundaries Biblical?

Bible Love Notes


  1. Hello there! Im not sure if this is an old post, but I came across your blog because I'm attending a restoration ministry and one of the persons who teach mentioned the boundaries book. I can see how their teachings were somehow influenced by this book for some of the things you mentioned, however, although they do not use the passages the author uses to make their teachings biblical, I can see how allowing God to set limits in our life can lead us to a healthy christian walk. For example, in the case of getting a message from someone that has the purpose of making us guilty is to be recognize because most of the time their motivation is to control, and that is true. This behaviour is not healthy for the giver of the message nor for the receiver. In the example of a mother who wants to be called by her children more often, which is absolutely valid, if she is a healthy person and do not put their contempt on anyone, she can express it without trying to force the other person to do what she wants or need out of guilt. It is different to say "I'd love to hear more often from you because I love you and really enjoy talking to you" Than saying something like " One day you will want to speak with me and I might be gone by then and you will regret not calling me more often". Here is the point of guilt the author is trying to make. Here the disscusion is not to reject any comment that might bring a sence of guilt, like if someone makes you see and error with the intention that you would repent and correct you. The whole issue arise from the intention of the other person. When someone wants to control, it is evident that they will use things like guilt with the intention to obtain what they want and it comes from a selfish intention. In regards to having issues within the family, it is also important to set boundaries and this do not go againts the bible. One dealing with an unrepentant person, the limit is more complex than trhowing them out of the house. For example a cheating husband that pretends to go on cheating but still enjoy the family he is choosing to destroy can only find repentance if he can see the consequences of his actions and the harm he is causing. In such case a wife can put limits, not out of hate but actually in other to let the person live his sin fully with the consequences and let God do the work in his heart. Not doing so is actually so unloving to the cheater husband not allowing them to see the bad of his choices. once the affected people set limits with love they are allowing God to deal with the person.

    1. Hi Gabriel,

      The things that you've explained further confirm for me the error in the Boundaries teachings. Boundaries encourages us to judge everyone harshly while expecting everyone to judge us with grace.

      An adult son can selfishly neglect calling his mother, but she better not make him feel guilty about it. If she does, she's the bad person, not him.

      This is the Boundaries teaching in a nutshell: Everyone owes me careful, gracious, unconditional love and if they don't do exactly what I expect them to do then I will cut them off. I've read their books and articles, and this is the consistent theme in all of them. Perhaps 10% of what they teach is about examining ourselves, but the main focus of their teaching is to examine others, judge them, and put them in whatever prison, fence, or box you determine they deserve.

      Your last example isn't really relevant in that I'm not aware of any teaching, biblical or otherwise that wouldn't tell us to confront a cheating husband. But it does highlight another problem with Boundaries teachings. They consider everything a Boundary when it's not a boundary at all. And that's because the authors believe, and I quote: “one of the most serious problems facing Christians today….Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries.”(page 27)

      This is ridiculous. The most serious problem facing any of us is sin - our sins, not the sins of others. As Christians our goal is to become more like Christ and one way we do that is to learn to get along with people, even difficult people, forgiving them and learning how to work constructively with them, not protecting ourselves from criticism. And part of our walk with the Lord is realizing we are not the perfect judge of everyone in our family. We have biases and sin problems just like they do. We've received grace, so we should give it.

      Christianity is about self-denial, not self-protection. It's about maturing in our relationships, not avoiding difficulties. Boundaries is popular because it feeds our fallen human nature, giving us the easy way out of every problem, telling us that we are the good guys and everyone else is responsible for our problems.