Walking the Fence Line in the New Year

By Carolyn Moore

One of my best lessons in making resolutions came during a Thanksgiving holiday while walking the fence line of a family farm. My in-laws, Joe and Marie Brinson, lived at the time in Tyus, Georgia, near the Alabama line. Whenever we visited, Joe would have us walk the fence line with him. It’s something farmers with livestock do a lot because your animals are only as safe as your fence is sturdy. So, while we were walking the fence line, Joe told us about how he had recently hired a guy to do a controlled burn on his property.

Listening to Joe talk about that project, I realized there were some pretty amazing spiritual principles involved that dovetailed with evaluating your life and assessing the weak places and figuring out how to make our lives healthier and more fruitful. There are three principles I picked up on the farm that might help us get in the right frame for starting the new year more productively.

First, walk your fence line and look for gaps. This is straight out of the Bible. We are encouraged to test ourselves, to be fearless in looking for spiritual gaps and places where the enemy can get to us. “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). This is about getting our motives right. When our motives are prideful (we want to win) or selfish (we want what we want), God will step back and let us do our own thing. But when our motives are right – our hearts are pure and we’re after the things God values – then we can be confident he’s in there with us. We have his power and authority and blessing behind us. That’s why David prayed like that. He knew he couldn’t know himself like God knew him and he knew if he was going to succeed, his motives had to be pure. Knowing God is full of grace and mercy, he had no fear about asking God to clean house. So, if you’re hoping to be more effective, more productive, more in tune with God’s will this year, then start with David’s prayer.

Farmers don’t walk their fence line because they like finding problems or making work for themselves, but because they want a better farm. A weak fence is an open invitation to a predator. It’s also an invitation for a horse or cow to go where they shouldn’t go.

We used to live in Kentucky, and my husband Steve drove through a pretty rural stretch to get to work every day. Once he was on this little two-lane road when he came up on this huge pig, standing right in the middle of the road. Steve says this pig was as big as his car – big as a hippopotamus! Steve was worried that if it stayed there, a school bus might hit it and the bus would lose that fight. So he got around it and drove to the nearby country store to see if anyone knew anyone who lost a pig. As soon as the guy behind the counter heard what Steve had seen, he picked up the phone, dialed a number by memory and said, “Clem, your pig’s in the road again.”

Clearly, Clem needed a better fence. Good fences keep the things we value inside and the things that stalk us outside. Good fences reduce anxiety. I once heard about a woman who spent most of a night chasing down her horses after a deer broke through her fence. The horses took that opportunity of a gap in the fence to see if the grass really was greener on the other side. The fence, as it turns out, had been developing that gap for a while but it finally fell at 3 a.m. So she was out in the middle of the night chasing her horses in other pastures.

That’s how it usually happens, isn’t it? Always at the worst possible moment. I’ve noticed that my car’s “check engine light” seems to be connected to my checking account. The light will come on when I have the least money to fix it. Same with home repairs and illnesses – and with my ability to deal with life in general. It seems like the worst things happen when I’m least able to handle them. No wonder God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, has encouraged us in scripture to walk the fence lines regularly to look for gaps.

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40). Paul writes, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). And he asks this question, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” Paul comes right back to motives. He’s challenging us to remember that we have the power to overcome our weakness. We don’t have anything to fear when we walk the fence lines. We may have gaps, but we can fix those. We can begin again.

Are there places in your life where the fence has fallen down? How about your prayer life? Your Bible study?

While walking the fence line with Joe, we came to a big gap in the fence – and this gap was there on purpose. It was the thruway for the cows from one pasture to another. Joe has an agreement with the guy who owns the pasture next to his, so the cows are able to come and go freely between the two pastures. But on a farm, even planned gaps have limits. Joe pointed out a couple of issues with the gap we were looking at and he said he was going to have to tell the guy that if he didn’t take care of those issues, then he would close the gap and the cows wouldn’t be able to cross over any more.

This made me think about the lessons from the book called Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. There are good boundaries that make healthy relationships. Good boundaries limit evil. Healthy boundaries set us free. Furthermore, Jesus died to set us free from sin, from the devil, from the world around us. And that is what good boundaries give us: freedom from weakness, the enemy, and the world.

Too many gaps in your fence – even planned gaps – and the whole point of the fence is lost.

As we enter the new year, what places in your fence need to be repaired to keep the predators out, to keep your values in, and to keep the anxiety low? Where have you allowed unhealthy gaps? Are there too many planned gaps, too many commitments, too much for you to do well?

Second, dig your firebreak. While we were walking the fence, Joe pointed out a shallow ditch that ran along the fence line. He said it was a fire break. The farm is about twenty acres of pasture surrounded by about twenty acres of woods. The wooded area is mostly on the perimeter, near the fences. Joe wanted to burn off the underbrush in the wooded section and he told us that before they started the fire, they had to build in a fire break – a shallow trench about five feet in from the fence all the way around the perimeter of the property.

The point of the firebreak is to keep the fire from burning over onto the neighbor’s property. What really struck me was seeing the firebreak not on the property line but a good five or six feet inside the property line. It struck me that if we’re going to be respectful of the people around us, we’ve got know our limits and live, not at them, but inside them. Build a fire break – not just for you, but for them, too.

Maybe this is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:25-26). I hear Paul calling us to stay within healthy spiritual boundaries – in step with the Spirit – so we don’t end up provoking people or becoming envious of what they have.

James puts another spin on it, when he talks about the tongue. He says, “We all stumble in many ways. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:2). Then James goes on to say that the rest of us need to learn how to put controls in place so we don’t get beyond our limits. And he talks especially about getting beyond our limits in how we talk to each other. He says, “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5).

When we get past our limits emotionally, we may end up blowing flames in the direction of people who don’t deserve to be burned. That’s why we need a sort of firebreak, personal limits that keep us from letting our frustrations bleed onto other people. I think if James were writing to an audience today, he’d make a comment here about email. He would encourage us to step back from negative emails and refuse to fire off kneejerk responses. What a great forest is set on fire by these sparks!

What firebreaks do you need to dig inside your fence line? Do you need to set a personal policy for stepping back rather than jumping in when you get negative feedback? Do you need to evaluate your life to see where you’ve gotten beyond your limits and to re-establish new boundaries? Are there relationships that need repair because you’ve stepped across lines?

Third, practice controlled burns. After they dug the firebreak a few feet in from the fence line, they set the woods on fire. On purpose! The point was to clear out the underbrush, get rid of dead trees and limbs and stimulate seed germination.

I love this idea. This is about getting rid of the stuff that seems harmless, but is actually sapping the life out of us. It’s also about getting rid of the stuff we know is hurting us. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

Jesus is talking here about a controlled burn. About getting rid of anything that might start a fire in your life or sap nutrients from the more important stuff. Paul wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31). Do a searching and fearless moral inventory and get rid of the sin in your life.

When we’re talking about spiritual things, our tendency is to think only in terms of our relationship to God or Jesus Christ. But the fact is, if our relationship to sin does not get weaker, then our relationship to God cannot get stronger. So, considering your relationship to the weaknesses in your life, can you say you are further along spiritually than you were a year ago? If not, then what needs to be burned away so you can grow a healthier spiritual life?

Walk your fence line and look for the gaps that need repair. Dig a firebreak, well inside your property line, not just for yourself, but for the people around you. Do a controlled burn. Get rid of the underbrush and the dead wood. Prime your soil for new growth.

Be fearless. “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of  Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia, and the author of When Women Lead (Zondervan). Her MDiv and Doctor of Ministry degrees are from Asbury Theological Seminary. She co-hosts a podcast and writes at artofholiness.com.



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