I hung up the call. Dread hit me deep in the gut as I realized the level of commitment I had just made on another work project. A week later, I sat in a meeting and found my head nodding silently to a speaking engagement while my mind screamed, no! A week after that, the email came: “Would you offer two sessions for the upcoming conference?” Within a couple of weeks, my well-established level of margin had evaporated. And I was floundering . . . again.
In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson writes: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”
When I read this several years ago, we were in a place of wearying overcommitment. We were verging on what Swenson aptly describes as suffocating. I had unexpectedly begun homeschooling, which was necessitating more time and energy than I had anticipated, and we had full-on become involved in a new church plant, in addition to our weekday ministry life.
Margin was exactly what we were craving, and what we needed for any sort of longevity in our life overseas. “Hurry,” Dallas Willard famously wrote, “is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” (John Mark Comer wrote a needed book on this topic with this very quote as inspiration.) At that point in time, gratefully, God gave us the wisdom and discipline to reject hurry and to build in margin; shortly after, we also began a weekly Sabbath practice.
Building in margin was highly restorative. Some weeks, we felt we had extra capacity and could offer hospitality more freely. Other weeks, we scaled back on further commitments, holding space for that margin for the personal and familial challenges we were facing. We have, over the years, purposefully limited our children’s extracurriculars, our own social commitments, and our work and ministry projects, not because we would not enjoy it all or because the need has been filled, but because at what cost? The destruction of our peace? The unavailability to respond when a need arises, whether inside our home or beyond its walls? The deprivation of rest deep in our souls?
Recently, however, familiar doubts crept back into my heart and mind. Am I doing enough? Will this read impressively in my newsletter? Is our ministry fruitful enough? And from this lowly place of insecurity, doubt, and discouragement, I forfeited my margin.
Sure enough, within a week of all those commitments colliding, the strain hit me. My mind felt in a constant place of hurry; my responses to the ordinary demands of my children were short and tinged with resentment; my unanswered calls to family members were piling up; my spiritual life felt anemic. What had I gotten myself into, and how do I back out again?
Let me tell you: not easily. Our counselor wisely told us, “It is much easier to say no before a project starts than to pass it off in the middle.” So true, I thought. In the middle of my hurried, overcommitted stretch of a few months, I tried to formulate a plan to pass some projects off, but to no avail. I was stuck; I had to finish it out. I had made my bed, yes, and I was lying right in the middle of the enormity of it.
Once I realized the inescapabilty of my situation — and after wallowing in shame for several days — I began to ask God for glimpses of margin, for restorative moments in the middle of my overcommitted present. Graciously, he gave me the eyes to see them.
Margin was in the early predawn minutes when I climbed out of bed to sit silently, alone, until the creak of the children’s beds alerted me that precious little bodies were descending.
Margin was in the little moments of homeschooling, when I must put aside all other work commitments in order to give my undivided attention to these little budding minds and hearts under my wing.
Margin was in the early morning forest walks with a dear friend or in the afternoon campus walks with my husband when the children rollerbladed around us, interrupting every few minutes with their essential declarations (they are all essential, you know).
Margin was at the dinner table, when the cooking and tidying was mostly finished, and we could gather with thanks for provision and lively chatter about the day.
Margin was in those sleepless nights, those restless midnight hours when although I would rather my body sleep, He could grant my mind rest.
These small moments of margin were many; moments to pause, to acknowledge the beauty around me, the goodness and grace of God in the in-between places. There were as many moments in a day as I needed, if only I had the eyes to see and the heart to receive.
In other words, margin is where God sustained me.
The overcommitted season has mostly passed. A few more weeks, and my plate will be filled with the usual amount of commitments again, and I am eagerly awaiting. The pace of my hurried mind has gratefully slowed; my mental state is no longer a flashing billboard of work commitments at lightning speed. My capacity for the ordinary demands of life and my children has improved, my soul can more readily sense the presence of God, and I do not plan to forfeit my margin again anytime soon.
Although God can meet us there in that messy middle, I do not believe it is where he wants us to stay. Rather, we make a habit of building margin so that we are available to the purposes of God. Regarding rest, a foundational part of margin, Swenson writes that it “is a self-weakening unto God-strength. It is a self-emptying unto God-fullness. It is the rest of full surrender.”
What if we were to put aside our ill-conceived, worldly perspectives on success and productivity? What if we rejected the false narratives of self-importance and worth based on accomplishment? What if we, like Christ, “self-empty” ourselves unto God? “What if,” writes Swenson, “instead, we were to begin measuring our progress not by our wealth but by our virtue; not by our education but by our humility; and not by our power but by our meekness?”
This is the margin I am committed to building, for the sake of my soul, for the health of my family, for the glory of Christ.