A mentor once introduced me to a simple diagram which has brought me much clarity in living a more balanced life and having healthier relationships. It helps us know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” Most importantly, it puts God in His rightful place, resulting in freedom to live a fulfilling and purposeful life.
At the time my mentor shared this with me, numerous people were coming to me with their problems. I am empathetic by nature and tend to feel others’ emotions and distress right along with them. This time was no exception. Not only that, I felt responsible to find solutions for them.
I was also saying “yes” to everything anyone asked of me, especially at church. I was involved in everything from the worship team to kids’ clubs to setting up the church library. This was all on top of a full-time job and taking classes at a university fifty miles away
While I felt fulfillment in all these things, carrying responsibility for so many obligations caused me to eventually become completely overwhelmed and burned out.
A Simple Diagram Changes Everything
When I shared this with my pastor’s wife, she drew a little diagram that helped me then and many times since. It brings clarity to the concept of appropriate boundaries, helping us to know when to say “no” and when to say “yes” and, most importantly, puts our relationship with God and with others into proper alignment.
She drew a triangle pointing up. The two lines coming down from the upper point were solid. The line at the bottom connecting the two bottom points was dashed.
After writing “God” at the top point, “Me” at one of the bottom points, and “Others” at the other bottom point, she explained this simple diagram.
The Solid Line Indicates Total Dependence On and Allegiance To God
The solid line between “God” and “Me” and between “God” and “Others” indicates that the relationship between God and each individual is to be one of total dependence on and allegiance to God. God alone is our Everything — our Lord, our Guide, our Provider, our Counselor, our Protector — He is everything to us. He is the One responsible for our needs and for telling us what to do. No other person or entity can fill this role or carry this responsibility for us.
Because God is our Everything, technically we shouldn’t need anyone or anything else. But God didn’t design the components of His creation to operate independently of the others. Instead, He appointed every element, especially His people, to work on His behalf to mutually meet the needs of the others.
The Dashed Lines Indicate Interdependence
Therefore, the line between Me and Others in the diagram is dashed, indicating interdependence — a simultaneous independence from and dependence on each other. The dashed line indicates that we need each other, but that we are also independent agents fully complete without the other and each with a separate identity and set of responsibilities.
Any dependence on each other must always be within the boundaries of each one’s total dependence on God and each one’s individuality as God created them. Relationships should never threaten another’s freedom or independence, but should rather enhance each other’s freedom and individual identity.
The dashed line means that God sometimes uses Me to meet Others’ needs (but not everyone’s needs, not all of their needs, and not only that person’s needs). It also indicates that God sometimes uses Others, though not always the same person(s), to do the same for me.
To summarize, the triangle illustrates the relationship each of us has with God as our Everything, which is one of full dependence — “Casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.” (1 Peter 5:7) while our relationships with others is that of interdependence — we “carry one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and “carry our own load” (Galatians 6:5).
Full Dependence on God
A relationship of full dependence on God and total allegiance to Him is the foundation of a balanced life and healthy relationships. Without this solid connection with Him, everything else falls out of alignment, as we’ll talk more about later.
God is our Everything. Unfortunately, we don’t always realize this or we forget it. We try to make other things or people our everything. We base our well-being on human relationships, our career or ministry, or on our bank account.
Living with God as our Everything means that we look to Him for our well-being. He is our Provider and the One responsible for meeting all our needs, as He promises over and over again in Scripture.
God as our Everything also means that He is our Authority in all aspects of life. We should never obey another human, no matter who they are, without first asking God if this is what He is asking of us.
When the high priest asked Peter and the other apostles why they disobeyed his order to not teach about Jesus, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).
Full dependence on and allegiance to God is a simple process.
In every single aspect of life, we must:
- Ask God what we should do.
- Listen to what He tells us.
- Act on what He tells us.
This may at first seem too restrictive. In reality, it is freeing. When we operate in life with God as our Everything, everything else comes into proper alignment — our relationships, our work, our purpose, and the fulfillment of every need. This is the only way to experience the abundant life Jesus came to give us (John 10:10) and to make sure we invest what He’s given us so that we eventually hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:14-30).
Interdependence with People
Interdependence means that while God calls us to help each other, we are not responsible for each other. God is responsible for each person and we are responsible to help others as God directs.
Healthy interdependence is when each of us takes ownership of our personal responsibilities while being willing to extend and receive help for burdens too heavy to carry alone.
I mentioned earlier two verses in Galatians 6 which speak of the interdependence we have with others. At first glance, these verses seem to contradict each other. One says “carry one another’s burdens” (verse 2) while the other says “each person will have to carry his own load” (verse 5). A close look reveals that together these verses describe the two parts of interdependence — our mutual dependence on and independence from others.
In their excellent book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend point out that God never intended for us to wall ourselves off from each other. Rather, healthy boundaries are fences with gates so we can let the bad out and the good in. When we open our gates to safe people, we can find healing and community with others.
In his well-known poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost quotes his neighbor, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost goes on to ponder:
Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.
In our zest to create boundaries, we must be aware that building walls that keep others out is just as unhealthy as having no boundaries. We are created to need each other. We would do well to ask, as Frost did, what and who we are walling in or out when we establish our boundaries.
Dependence on Each Other
“Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:2-3 CSB)
The Greek word for “burdens” in these verses indicate something excessively heavy — burdens too heavy to carry alone. These verses tell us we are responsible to help each other carry these burdens — whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. We must help each other do what we cannot do for ourselves.
If we are the recipient, we should not refuse this help. It is God’s provision. Refusing it leads to perpetual pain and defeat when God has provided otherwise.
If we are the burden-bearer, we should not refuse to help even if it means sacrificing our own interests and time, which it usually does. In these cases, we are God’s provision — His hands and feet — for the other person.
Additionally, we are not to think we are better than those God calls us to help. We need others just as much as they need us. We are “nothing” without others. God made us this way. If we think we can be totally self-sufficient — “just Jesus and me” — we are deceiving ourselves.
Independence from Each Other
“Let each person examine his own work, and then he can take pride in himself alone, and not compare himself with someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load.” (Galatians 6:4-5 CSB)
In these two verses, the Greek word for “load” indicates “obligations” or “tasks,” indicating there are responsibilities each individual must carry themselves.
As my Aunt Lula grew older, anyone who attempted to do something for her simply because she was elderly was told firmly, “No, don’t do anything for me that I can do for myself.”
Her mantra is one we would all do well to adopt. She was right. No one should do for us what we can do for ourselves.
Other responsibilities each of us must carry alone include our actions, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings. No one can else can choose these for us. No one can make us happy, successful, healthy, grateful, or productive.
When Someone Needs Help
For some of us, our instinct is to help everyone we think needs help. For others of us, our tendency is to run the other direction as fast and hard as we can.
Neither tendency is the correct response in every situation.
It’s important we remember two things:
- God is the One responsible for each of us.
- God uses us as His hands and feet to help each other
Therefore, we must listen to and respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. If we’re not sure what we should do in a situation of need, we need to pause and ask Him:
“Lord, do you want me to help this person or do You have a better means of helping them? If it’s me You’ve chosen to work on your behalf, then what, how, where and when do you want me to help them? If it’s not me You’ve chosen for this task, then I commit this person into your Hands and fully trust You to take care of them, because I know You will.”
Note that asking God these questions does three things:
- It acknowledges that God is the One responsible for the other person and for solving their problems.
- It acknowledges God as my Lord and conveys my willingness to do whatever He asks.
- It recognizes my responsibility to help another if God is asking me to.
This principle also applies when we are asked to help with a good cause or give a donation. Just because a person asks something of us — even if it’s for a great cause — doesn’t mean that God is asking us. This includes when our pastor or church asks us to fill a role or do a task. It’s not easy saying “no” in such cases, but ultimately we are responsible to God, not to others, and “must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).
Learning to hear what God is saying to us in any situation takes practice. We won’t always get it right and need to give ourselves grace to learn from each experience, because God certainly does.
When I Need Help
I’d like to think I could do everything myself, but in reality, I can’t. No one can. Self-sufficiency is an illusion. God made us to need each other and to be His hands and feet to one another.
When I encounter situations I can’t handle on my own, I must look directly and solely to God for my help, not to others. He then directs the person(s) and means that He has chosen to help me. He always provides the right person at the right time and in the right place. I can testify to this over and over again.
This doesn’t mean that God never prompts us to ask another person for help. Sometimes He’ll tell us to pick up the phone and call someone. If the person says “no,” then we have our answer: God isn’t going to use them to help us — He has another way. Sometimes that phone call is just one of the stepping stones to get to His provision.
Waiting for the help God has for us without knowing who or what it will be can tempt us to fear and panic. Learning to rest and trust in Jesus while we wait for His help is a process. But what a place of peace and contentment when we learn to trust God to meet all our needs.
Flipping the Triangle = Idolatry
Keeping God at the top of the triangle is key to everything in life. I’ve only touched on a few ways this works in day-to-day life. When God is at the top, we experience the fulfillment of a great relationship with Him and life-giving relationships with others. We are able to fully live our God-given purpose.
The sad reality, though, is that we often default to a flipped triangle with either “Others” at the top or “Me” at the top. Both are idolatrous because we are putting something or someone other than God in His place.
“Others” at the Top = Co-dependence
Allowing “Others” to take the top position of our triangle also makes us guilty of co-dependency, which is looking to someone else as the source of well-being — and assuming that role for them.
Doing this takes subtle forms.
One is fearing what others will think, say or do.
“The fear of mankind is a snare, but the one who trusts in the Lord is protected.” (Proverbs 29:25 CSB)
When we do something or don’t do something because we fear others, we are giving our allegiance to them rather than to God.
Another subtle form is when we assume that because the other person is our friend, spouse, family member, or pastor that they should always be there for us. But only God can fill this role. Humans are mortal, fallible creatures and they will fail us, even though they may never intend to.
It’s true that we make promises to care for each other — in wedding vows, in a parent’s commitment to a child, between friends promising support, and in our intention to be good neighbors. This is well and good. We shouldn’t stop making these promises of intent. But when we do, it should be with the understanding that God is each one’s Lord and Provider, and being there for each other must always fall within the boundaries of each one’s full allegiance to and dependence on God.
“Me” at the Top = Narcissism and Egotism
When we put ourselves at the top of our triangle, we become guilty of narcissism and egotism. A narcissistic person believes that everyone and everything should revolve around them. An egotistic person has an inflated sense of their own importance.
This also takes subtle forms.
One is believing that we are indispensable to someone else. We may think that without us, that person or persons will fail, fall apart, or meet some other disaster. We are assuming God’s role in their lives. God is the only One indispensable to any of us. If something should happen to us, God will meet the needs of those we care about or who are under our care.
Another subtle form is believing that we are the final authority to another person. This often happens in certain roles, such as church leaders, adult parents, or even spouses. But it can also occur in friendships, where one believes the other should always follow their lead. Again, if we are attempting to be someone else’s final authority we are guilty of idolatry — inserting ourselves into someone else’s life in a role that is only God’s to fill.
Still another subtle form is believing that the good and the bad that happens to me is always a result of me and my actions. While it’s true that our actions have consequences and that we reap what we sow, ultimately God is the One in control and He determines the outcome despite our actions. He “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
When we think we are the cause of everything good that happens to us, we become prideful and fail to recognize God as the Giver of all that’s good (James 1:17).
When we think we are the cause of everything bad that happens to us, we carry shame that Jesus has already removed through His work on the cross.
When we recognize God as the Blessed Controller of all things and believe His promise to bring good out of everything (Romans 8:28), we are set free. It is a tremendous relief to know we are not the determining factor of everything that happens.
Switching the Dashed and Solid Lines
When we switch the dashed and solid lines in the diagram, we either become weighed down trying to be responsible for everyone else or resentful because others aren’t carrying our responsibility for us. We lose sight of Who God is to us and become anxious and fearful. In our heart of hearts, we know people can’t and won’t always be there for us and so we try to manipulate situations to guarantee they will be. This never works. It only leads to broken relationships.
Perhaps even more tragically, we miss out on experiencing God as our Everything. When we spend our lives looking to others to meet the God-shaped hole that only He can fill, we never experience the abundant life Jesus came to give us.
We need other people, and they need us. But our relationships with others need to be appropriate in their dependency and expectations, always realizing that God is our Everything. When they are, we are set free to fulfill God’s purpose for us and our relationships become a rich blessing as we walk a life of obedience to Him.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39 CSB)