Everyone who pursues purity and freedom in their life has likely exercised healthy boundaries—or guardrails—in one way or another. Guardrails on our journey of integrity are exactly what they suggest: self-protection measures we intentionally put in place in order to protect ourselves from another crash or relapse. Rather than stumbling blindly into the same, predictable pattern, we bump into a guardrail that reminds us—or forces us—to get back on course and stay on the road to health.
I have been following guardrails in my pursuit of purity for as long as I can remember. For over 15 years, however, these guardrails really didn’t help me. I had measures in place to help me avoid pornography, yet I would routinely breeze past these boundaries that were meant to help me. Over the last nine years, as I have walked in new freedom, I have also had guardrails in place. Having guardrails wasn’t the difference maker. I have had guardrails and struggled, but I have also had guardrails and found victory.
Having the RIGHT guardrails in place
Before I walk through three life-changing guardrails, let me mention a couple reasons why my past guardrails were ineffective at helping me live a transformed life.
For starters, too many of my boundaries were simply about avoidance. Without any clear idea of what my habits and patterns were, my try-harder approach was to avoid seeing anything bad. Block inappropriate websites. Block bad TV channels. Avoid R-rated movies.
While this was helpful at times, inevitably something would get through the block. Or I would find myself in an attitude where I was ready to give up and give in, and the blocks would only fuel my competitiveness to try and see if I could “beat” them. In these instances and so many more, simple avoidance wasn’t enough.
A second reason why my past guardrails didn’t usually work was that I was the only one who knew what they were! Because my sin was secretive, so was my recovery. I would stumble down the same predictable path and then determine—in my own heart—to never let it happen again. I would mentally come up with a list. At times, I even wrote down all the things I would change. Quite frankly, usually this list was unrealistic and overly optimistic. As time would pass—and the pain of my regret would fade—so would the guardrails. Overconfidence would lead me down the path of regret yet again.
A final reason my past guardrails often failed is they were too narrow. My desire was to avoid looking at pornography ever again, and so I had guardrails in place like, “No visiting adult websites” or “No image-searching for models.” These certainly are good things to avoid, but what I failed to recognize was the huge gap that exists between “being healthy” and “looking at porn.”
We don’t plunge from a plateau of joy, relationships, and faith straight into the pit of hell. We slide this way through a multitude of small, foolish decisions.
I had guardrails in place for the cliff, but I knew a thousand trails that wound lead me—step by step—back into the valley of death. I hardly admitted these paths existed, let alone having the wisdom to guard against them!
Perhaps you find yourself in some of these less-than-effective approaches. If you can, you won’t be helped very much by shaming or beating yourself up mentally for the ways you have failed. Instead, I invite you to learn with me a better way.
Guardrails can be so life-giving! If you think about it, even in His perfect creation, God had guardrails. Adam and Even knew limits even in paradise. They needed relationship, they worked, they had foods they could eat and foods they could not eat. They couldn’t fly, walk through walls, or be in two places at once (as far as we know) even when they were absolutely unstained by sin.
So if God created a world where guardrails were needed in perfection, how much more can we apply some wise boundaries in our pursuit of purity? Here are three life-changing guardrails that keep me secure to this day.
1. Guardrails that have nothing to do with lust, pornography, or any unwanted sexual behavior.
The best guardrails I have don’t address my past addiction at all. They address all the patterns that were part of my behaviors.
If we use our cliff illustration, guardrails around lust, pornography, or sex are like waiting until we are teetering on the very edge of the cliff—small pebbles are tumbling into the chasm below us—and then looking for a handrail. At this point in the process, a guardrail may be too late, no matter how well-intended it is.
My very best guardrails are around behaviors like procrastination, wasting time online, and channel surfing. Why? Because, for me, all of these are part of my past patterns of relapse.
In order to have healthy guardrails, we need to have a deep, honest awareness of our patterns. This awareness might come from filling out a weekly FASTER Scale, walking through the Matrix of Addiction (found in Seven Pillars of Freedom, Pillar 4, Lesson 2), or writing up a Crash Site Analysis after a relapse.
All of these tools are available through Pure Desire and can lead to an awareness of our pattern. After all, which is easier? To stop a freight train running at 50 miles an hour or to redirect a train when it first starts moving?
When we construct guardrails early in our pattern, we can redirect a negative thought process before it picks up any more steam.
2. Guardrails that are immovable.
In order for a guardrail to be effective, it needs to work when we feel like following it and when we don’t. The challenge for most of us is that we are effective at keeping our boundaries 90-95 percent of the time. This is great! What trips us up is that 5 percent of the time when we just don’t have it in us.
Maybe we are lacking sleep. Maybe we had a big fight with our spouse. Maybe the boss is threatening layoffs. Whatever the case, sooner or later we ALL find ourselves in a mood where we don’t care about our integrity like we normally do. In these times, we need to have boundaries that cannot easily be moved.
For example, I went five years without a smartphone. Do you know how many times in those years I relapsed because of my phone?
Zero. Nada. Perfection.
Why? As you can see, I simply had no option.
If you have discovered a pattern in your life that seems unavoidable—despite your best efforts, you keep going down that same path toward relapse—you need to create an immovable guardrail.
Are you struggling with one night stands? Stop going on dates.
Are you battling with the TV late at night? Drop cable completely.
Is Instagram your downfall? Get off Instagram AND delete your account.
If you don’t have it—and can’t access it—you won’t struggle in this area. These changes won’t necessarily be permanent, but for a season you may need to get ruthless and cut some things out of your life.
3. Guardrails that are positive and holistic.
Have you ever noticed that as human beings we seem to rebel at the word “no?” Something inside of us recoils at “no” and gravitates toward “yes.” Just say these two words out loud. What do you feel?
One danger of guardrails is that they all become a giant “no” stamped on our life. Feels fun, right? This is why we need holistic guardrails to help us know where the “yes” is in our life.
What CAN you do that increases your sense of joy, health, and well-being? (If you’re familiar with The Three Circles tool of recovery, this is essentially your outer circle.) Guardrails not only protect us from bad places, they also redirect us toward good places! These positive guardrails also need to be holistic.
Your life—and your struggle—is about more than just sex. You are a complex, multi-faceted being and all aspects of your life contribute to your freedom or to unhealth.
So what guardrails could you create around your physical life? Getting 7-8 hours of sleep, limiting sugar to one treat a day, or exercising four times a week are all examples of positive, holistic guardrails.
What steps could you take to implement guardrails in relationships? Dating your spouse each week, having weekly coffee with friends, or choosing to forgive so-and-so and not hold on to any bitterness could work here.
What guardrails do you need to have in place for emotional health? How about a weekly Sabbath day, a good book you are reading, or taking time to see a counselor?
Seeing just as many “yes,” positive guardrails can keep your brain—and your heart—moving toward health rather than shuddering in frustration every time you think of your list.And one BONUS Guardrail!
Don’t Listen to Curiosity.
Curiosity, you may say? What does curiosity have to do with it?
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve listened to someone describe a relapse that began with the words, “I was just curious…” “I was just curious what that article could be about. I was just curious to see who she was. I was just curious to know if I could do _________________.”
Part of maturing is to recognize that curiosity is often a smoke-screen. Little kids are curious. Adults already know. You might not “know” exactly what an article will say, but you can pretty well predict it, can’t you?
I would encourage you to make a personal guardrail that says, “If I ever hear myself saying, ‘I’m just curious,’ I will not do this thing unless I first talk to my spouse or group about the wisdom of this choice.” I believe this simple guardrail might cut out half of the relapses I hear.
Whatever your personal guardrails are, I pray that they will be life-giving for you. At the end of the day, the most important question we need to ask ourselves is quite simply, “Are they working?” Are the guardrails you have keeping you on the road to recovery and helping you regularly avoid relapse? If so, keep going! Forward! If not, I hope you will be able to apply some principles from this blog and discover new guardrails that work for you.