In my first post on Margin I noted how we all need –or at least I need – to set up margins in our ever-hectic, driven-to-succeed culture. But I want to be careful here to point out two things. First, I am not an expert on the things I am describing, in fact I am only now learning things I should have known long ago. I rely heavily on the fine book by Swenson called Margin and on other readings.
Second, setting margins in one’s life cannot become an excuse for laziness.
Most ministers I know (as well as most believers) have a deep hunger for God. Our combination of wanting our lives to matter and our conviction about the mission of God drives us, sometimes to the point of marginless lives. I know several outstanding ministers who lately had to get off the Ferris wheel of daily ministry for a season. I am confident part of the reason had to do with the need for margin. But there are ministers whose lives sadly reflect sloth more than industry, lethargy more than vitality. They gradually slide into unhealthy patterns: from disciplined bodies to no exercise and bad dietary practices, to only studying the Bible to prepare the next sermon, which then leads some to download other people’s sermons and preach them.
But for the majority who have the greater danger of burning out than rusting out — to paraphrase George Whitefield — I want to remind us that margin does not mean avoiding all stress and activity. It means to focus on removing the DISTRESS and increasing the EUSTRESS in our lives.
Distress refers to the things in our lives that cause destructive responses in a person. This is what we normally think of when we consider the subject, and too much of this demonstrates why we need margins. Swenson observes that too much distress brings us harm:
“An excessive volume of stress is called hyperstress. The volume is important because how we deal with stress depends on how much of it we are confronted with. If the amounts are manageable, we can learn to avoid distress and possibly turn it into eustress. If, however, the amounts are at hyperstress levels, then stress reduction is more important than stress management. If the stress reaction is resolved successfully, no apparent damage is noticed. If, however, the result is failure or frustration, multiple pathologies may ensue: tissue aging occurs at the cellular level; the immune system may malfunction; cardiovascular catastrophes, such as stroke or heart attack, may occur.”*
I have too often been too stressed. Have you? But note the other kind of stress Swenson mentions: EUSTRESS. From the Greek prefix “eu” meaning “good” (i.e. euangelion or Good News, Gospel; eulogy or a “good word”), eustress refers to the kind of stress that helps us. Lifting weights provides healthy stress for muscles that helps them to grow. Rigorous study helps to stretch the mind. Healthy emotional stress is what athletes call “psyching up” for the big game. We need this kind of stress.
I get eustress when I travel to preach at a DNow or speak to leaders, and when I teach my students. The traveling, the new audience, the desire to see God move, all provide stress. But for me this is a wonderful stress, pushing me to pray, to seek God, to want to be used by Him. But for some people the idea of traveling somewhere and speaking to a bunch of strangers provides nothing but distress leading to hyperstress. For me, detailed work, like grading and scheduling and similar tasks stress me out in a bad way.
Each of us has been hardwired by our Lord with certain passions and interests, and focusing on the things that give us good stress while minimizing the things that cause bad stress can help us to create margin in our lives. The things that bring me eustress may bring you distress and vice versa. If I were forced to be an accountant my whole life I think I would go mad.
For me it means this practically: I am giving all my scheduling to Mrs. Peggy, my secretary. I have always managed my calendar, which is not helpful. The Greek word for that is dumb. The traveling does not stress me; I have traveled and preached all my adult life. It is an essential part of my calling. The detailed work that goes with it is what stresses me out. In other ways I am moving to delegate to others things that I should not be doing because 1) others can do them better, and 2) they stress me out.
Dawson Trotman founded the Navigators. This quote by Daws at first convicted me. Now it is liberating me: “Never do anything that someone else can and will do when there is so much of importance to be done which others cannot or will not do.”
We need margin. But margin does not mean sleeping in till 10 every day and doing the minimum for our Lord Who gave His all for us. But margin recognizes that as our great God rested, we need rest. We need less stress that distracts us — or that will ultimately destroy us. We need to be pushed to things that matter, to live our lives large for the glory of God. But we must do so in such a way that we reflect our Lord, who constantly slipped away for time with His Father. We need to evaluate what we are doing that does not help to fulfill our calling and delegate or say no to such things.
*Swenson MD, Richard A. (2012-01-05). Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives with Bonus Content (p. 45). Navpress. Kindle Edition.