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Why Christians Need Margins in a World of Busyness

Tuesday, 19 February 2019  | Cheryl McGrath

Conspicuous abstention from labor […] becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.

Thorstein Veblen in his 19th century treatise, The Theory of the Leisure Class

Back in the days of Dickens and Austen, success and wealth were shown through perpetual leisure.

How times have changed. Today, being busy is a status symbol. We’re attracted to the idea of being well-off and time-poor’, driven by the idea that busy people must be highly skilled, ambitious or popular to be so in demand. ‘How are you?’ ‘Busy. So busy.’

Are Christians any different? So many of us take the ‘work at it with all your heart’ verse with such gusto that it’s common practice to be full up with commitments, rosters and small groups. Each night is planned, each weekend is committed like clockwork. Full of good things, sure, but full.

And maybe that’s what’s so insidious about ‘busy’. It feels good and productive – maybe even honourable – to do lots of things.

But what is our busyness costing us? My busyness may not always align with the need around me. My loved ones could have a major life event at any time – but will I be too busy to make time for them? Imagine if my busyness meant that dropping something to help others felt ‘inconvenient’.

And that made me wonder: how many conversations have I brushed off, how many events have I missed, or how many opportunities have I lost – all because I was ‘busy’? And how many times have I been hurt by Christians who have done the same to me?

It’s here that I began to think about the value of margins.

What are margins in Christian life?

‘Margins in mission’ is a term I’ve heard a few times from Christian writers. But what do we mean by that? Margins can be defined as

a border or edge; an amount allowed or available beyond what is actually necessary.

The word isn’t just denoting a boundary. It’s a bounty – a purposeful line in the sand that provides for others as they need it. It allows bandwidth for error or the unexpected. It is above what is necessary.

Putting margin in your life means setting boundaries on your commitments and holding your agendas with open hands. It means creating space to be fully responsive and present to those around you. It means trusting God with your time.

It’s not easy. Our tasks can be worthwhile and good, and our time may seem limited. But the truth is, it’s in the spaces – the margins – where we get to stop and observe what God is doing around us.

It’s in the margins where we build relationships we didn’t expect or have conversations out of nowhere. It’s where we can be generous with our time and attention, do a favour for a stranger, or say to a hurting friend, ‘Yes, I do have time for a last-minute coffee with you.’

When we’re constantly rushing to the next task, these are difficult things to do. Without margins, we will struggle to take part in God’s mission.

The generosity of margins

In Leviticus, the law reads:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.

It’s an encouragement toward generosity, being responsible enough with what we have to give a margin to others. I wonder if this can be applied to our time and attention, too.

That friend who calls us in tears – we can go spend time with them because of margins.

That vulnerable conversation that’s started with a colleague can be extended because of margins.

We can be fully present with our family and friends, without checking our phones or internet, because of margins.

The trust of margins

We don’t need to be busy to make ourselves acceptable or effective. If we offer our margins to God and trust, he can use them for great things.

After all, what is our busyness accomplishing when it’s just for its own sake? As we read here:

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Ps 127:2)

The fight for margins

I’ve often heard Christians say, ‘Well, I’m just in a busy season. I’ll be fine once this is done’.

We all have busy seasons. But I notice some people’s busy seasons can extend and extend into – well – a busy life, and often from the best of intentions.

My position is enviable in that I am a young, single professional who can do what I wish with my time. For others, it is much harder. But even for me, in our fast-paced world, I have to fight for margins.

Because making margins can be difficult. It could mean saying no to good things. It could mean practising a day of rest. It may even disappoint some people.

But if we don’t do it, we can end up feeling the pinch – or someone in our lives will. As Richard Swensen put it,

If we were equipped with a flashing light to indicate ‘100 percent full’, we could better gauge our capacities. But we don’t have such an indicator light, and we don’t know when we have overextended until we feel the pain. As a result, many people commit to a 120 percent life and wonder why the burden feels so heavy. It is rare to see a life prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that God sends our way.

So how do we build these margins?

Learn to say no.

What should I say yes to, and what should I say no to? I can put boundaries in my life, knowing I’m not superhuman and my margins can also be used by God.

Practise Sabbath.

It doesn’t need to be legalistic, but a choice to make time with God a priority.

Hold plans loosely.

Even when I have boundaries, I need to know that God’s plan is bigger than my carefully cultivated schedule. The time I have is God’s, not mine.

As I heard it phrased recently: is my diary compassion-proof?

Pray for eyes to see people – even when I’m busy.

My busyness usually makes me fall into task mode, but it comes at a cost. I can easily end up with tunnel vision about my own tasks, and I stop seeing the needs of people around me.

The next time I’m tempted to reply to ‘How are you?’ with ‘I’m soooo busy’, I’m going to stop and think: Did I forget the margins?

Cheryl McGrath is a writer by passion and by vocation. She works as a full-time copywriter in Melbourne, Australia, and blogs on Christian culture, psychology and creativity at Twenty-Six Letters.


Walter Hampel
March 1, 2019, 4:22AM
I'm in a season of rethinking my busyness. This article is going to be of great help in working through this. Thank you. May the Lord bless and keep you.

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