The Importance of Setting Thresholds

The Tyranny of Absolute Freedom


As a child I didn’t have much self-control. Few kids do. Yet, in truth, during my early years I didn’t need much. My mom regulated how much TV I watched, how many desserts I ate, and how many soft drinks I consumed. However, starting around age 10 I began to spend half of my summers away from home with other family. The shift was like moving from Moscow to Las Vegas during the Cold War. I went from living in a meticulously legislated world to a space with absolute freedom. I relished the unbounded freedom, so much so that after a mere 6 weeks I had logged countless hours of daytime TV and put on 25 pounds of flab (keep in mind I was only 10). My mom did her best to conceal her surprise as I rolled off the airplane like the Pillsbury Dough-boy.

Thankfully, my mom never chastened me for abusing my freedom. Instead, being patient and wise, she used the opportunity to teach me the importance of setting thresholds. The idea was to set reasonable limits in certain areas of life so that freedom could indeed remain free. In my case this meant having no more than one dessert a day and two Cokes a week when away from home. These limits both protected my freedom and reinforced my self-control. I learned that, in order to not be tyrannized by desire, the will needed to be restrained. Self-control was not the enemy of freedom, but its protector. Without self-control, freedom was impossible.

The Value of Thresholds

The application for men is this: to be good stewards of our lives we need to set wise limits on our use of time, money, amusement, exercise, and so on. What should a man do if his income continues to increase through the duration of his career? Should he correspondingly raise his lifestyle unceasingly to match his salary? No, to do so would be to allow circumstances to dictate lifestyle rather than the call to follow Jesus. A better approach is for a man to sit down in prayer before God and to determine a threshold of how much he personally feels he can spend on his lifestyle as a good steward of the gifts of God. Any excess above this threshold should be used to invest in the kingdom of God. After all, the goal of life is not self-improvement, or to have a good time, but the glory of Christ.

The same principle can be applied to watching TV. What happens if a man does not set a threshold for how much time he can spend, for example, watching sports or following a new show on Netflix? The answer is binge-watching. Without a twinge of guilt, a guy squanders 6-10 hours on a weekend watching multiple football games or plowing through an entire season of some show on Prime. And why doesn’t he feel any compunction about this? Massaging his conscience is the excuse that others do the same. Instead of being guided by principle, he is guided by pattern.

The remedy for this behavior is to set a threshold. A man needs to decide, for example, that in good conscience he can only invest 30 minutes a weeknight on TV and only watch one full sports game on the weekend. Once he sets a reasonable limit (the above is an example, not a rule), he will have criteria to judge when freedom begins to distract from responsibility.

The same principle can be applied to other areas of life. How much can I invest in personal fitness? There is no single answer to the question. Each man must determine for himself how much time he can invest in the gym, or on the golf course, or fishing. The threshold is personal even if the principle is universal. The standard for all is stewardship before Christ; the task at hand is working out the details of what it means for me individually to be a bond-servant of Christ.

An Issue of Conscience, Not Law

The point needs to be repeated ad nausea that this task of setting thresholds is an issue of wisdom, not edict. Christians cannot outsource this task to a pastor or read a book to get the answers. This is part of our calling to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Each of us must kneel in prayer with a Bible and legal pad until we have a clear conscience before God. He alone has the wisdom we need to do the math.

Questions for Small Groups and Self-Reflection

  1. Why is it important to set thresholds to govern key areas of life?

  2. How does a man gain the wisdom he needs to set these thresholds?

  3. How could a group of Christians help each other set up and maintain godly thresholds?

  4. What are some of the dangers of setting up these thresholds? How, for example, could having thresholds lead to legalism or self-righteousness? What can we do to avoid these dangers?