Dr. Richard Swenson has defined margin as the space between our loads and our limits. Overload tends to happen when we exceed our limits, or as one of my southern mentors says, “When we out-punt our coverage”. I think I know what he means. Naturally, God wants us to experience margin, not overload. In fact, the more I study the Scriptures and navigate life, the more I believe He has intentionally designed the Christian journey so that it’s impossible to thrive without margin.
The only way we can be financially generous is if we have margin. My neighbors will only be loved by me in ways they can feel if I have margin with my time. Jesus models this. Have you ever thought about the amount of ministry Jesus does that was never scheduled in advance? He gets finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount when a leper shows up needing help. Or he’s on his way to the home of a synagogue leader, when a woman touches the hem of his garment. In both of these instances and more we don’t meet an inconvenienced or harried Jesus, instead we see a compassionate and caring one. Jesus had margin (As a preacher I’ve always wanted to teach a series of sermons on these unscheduled encounters. I think I would call it, “The Ministry of Interruptions.”).
Margin is that vintage car, or the aging wine who becomes more precious with time, and needs to be carefully and vigorously protected, even to the disappointment of others. No, I’m not advocating laziness. As Kevin DeYoung puts it in his book, Crazy Busy, God expects us to be, well, busy. Yet within the busy-ness there needs to be margin.
Mark 1 beautifully teaches this. Verse twenty-one begins the first day of Jesus’ ministry, where he walks into a synagogue and astonishes the crowd with his preaching. No sooner does the sermon end that a demon oppressed man is brought to him and he heals him. Immediately- a favorite word of Mark’s- Jesus heads over to Peter’s house where his mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Having just quit the family business, I’m sure Peter is wanting Jesus to work his “magic,” thus putting his in-laws at ease he had made the right decision in giving up his paycheck. Sure enough, Jesus heals her, and at the end of the day Mark says the whole city comes out to Jesus bringing all who were sick and afflicted, while Jesus heals many.
Talk about a terrific start to ministry. Who wouldn’t kill for this? With all this momentum the average leader would strategize on how to make the most of it. Maybe do multiple services the next week while we start a building campaign. But not Jesus. Instead, the next morning, while it is still dark, he slips out of the bed and goes to a desolate place to pray, telling no one as to his whereabouts. Even more astounding, is when Peter catches up to him and suggests he go back, Jesus responds by saying they are leaving to go to the next place.
Progress and notoriety is not the friend of margin, many times it’s the foe. The bigger things become, the more requests roll in, the more opportunities that are presented, you and I will find ourselves easily venturing from margin to overload. We’ll “out-punt our coverage”. Jesus in his humanity, submitted to certain limits, and so should we. When all the sick were brought to him, Jesus chose to just heal the many, and not the all, which meant some heard him say “no”. When the widows needed to be cared for in Acts 6, the apostles said choose seven men to minister to them, we can, but we won’t.
No sounds harsh and uncaring doesn’t it? Actually, no is the kindest and most compassionate thing you can say. No really is the most liberating word in the English language. Learn to say the word. Go to war with the people pleaser in you, or your drive to have or do more. Figure out your priorities- relationship with God, family, work, etc- come up with a plan to ensure you’re allocating your time to what matters most. Stay attune to your rhythms. What seasons do you find yourself venturing over the edge of your limits? Scale back.