10 Indicators You Have no Margin in your Life

Although I posted this recently, it’s worth a re-read. In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.

He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.

  1. I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
  2. Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
  3. I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
  4. I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
  5. Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
  6. I often worry about what others think of my performance.
  7. I too easily take things personally.
  8. I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
  9. I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
  10. My devotional times with God are mostly dry.

If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.

If that’s so, what should you do?

When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.

  1. Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
  2. Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
  3. Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
  4. Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
  5. Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.

    After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.

What has helped you gain better margin?

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Are you a Generous Person? 10 Indicators you are

Through examples and commands, the Scriptures challenge His followers to strive for abundant generosity. In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul describes an amazing example from a very poor church (the church in Macedonia) that exemplified lavish generosity through an offering they took up for an even more destitute church than they (the church at Jerusalem). As you read these 10 qualities of a generous person, ask yourself how well your life embodies each.

First, some backstory. The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth, a relatively wealthy church. A year prior they had committed to collecting an offering for the poor church in Jerusalem. But, for whatever reasons they had not completed it. Paul address this issue in 2 Cor. 8 by using the generosity of the Macedonian church in hopes that they (the church in Corinth) would complete the offering. I believe this chapter points to these 10 qualities.

Generous people…

  1. Give out of a joyful heart. Paul describes the Macedonian church as overflowing with joy.
  2. Don’t tie generosity to their financial status. Famine and a heavy handed government worked against the Christians in Macedonia. They were destitute themselves, but didn’t let that limit their generosity.
  3. Willing give. This church didn’t have to be coerced. They initiated giving.
  4. Consider giving a privilege rather than a duty. 
  5. Look for ways to give. They didn’t focus on their bad economic situation. Instead, they looked for how they could help others in spite of it.
  6. Have experienced a work of deep grace. Grace is a theme found throughout the 2 Corinthians. They truly understood what Jesus did for them and their lives evidenced that understanding.
  7. Welcome challenging giving opportunities. Paul wrote in verse 8 that giving  can actually “test the sincerity” of our love. They weren’t afraid to step out in faith with this challenging opportunity.
  8. Match their intentions to reality. Unlike the Corinthian church that intended to give but didn’t, the Macedonian church decided to give and actually did.
  9. Expect wise stewardship of their gifts. In verse 20 Paul says he took pains to make sure that how they administered their gifts looked right not only in the eyes of God but also in the eyes of the givers as well.
  10. Enthusiastically give. One of the Christians Paul sent with this message was described as being zealous. I believe Paul mentioned this quality to point to their need to be enthusiastic about their promise to give.

Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India in the late 1800’s and 1900’s served for 55 years without a furlough and spent the final two decades of her life bedridden. She captures the essence of true generosity with this quote.

You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving. 

How would you describe your generosity?

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5 Spiritual Benefits from Journaling (God’s Spiritual Cross-trainer)

Athletes understand that quality equipment helps them perform at their peak. A baseball player likes a broken-in glove. A basketball player prefers a leather ball. A tennis player wants a well-balanced racket. Although equipment varies from one sport to the next, every athlete requires good shoes. Since many people enjoy several sports, shoe manufacturers created a shoe style called a cross-trainer for use in multiple sports. Journaling, writing down our experiences with God, can serve a similar spiritual purpose.

Richard Peace describes journaling as a spiritual cross-trainer that helps as an “aid to other spiritual disciplines” (Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God). It becomes a powerful tool the Holy Spirit can use to develop Christ-likeness when we exercise spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading and fasting.

Although the Bible doesn’t command us to journal, several of its writers modeled this practice. Many of the Psalms represent David’s journaling as he wrestled with deep spiritual issues. Job struggles with the question of evil in his journal, the book that bears his name. Jeremiah’s journal, Lamentations, records his agony over Jerusalem’s fall. And Solomon pens his search for happiness in his journal Ecclesiastes.

Journaling’s simplicity and profound potential to create spiritual change eludes many Christians. If journaling is new to you or if you’ve tried it and become discouraged, consider these practical benefits.

1. Journaling softens our hearts.

Every farmer knows he must till the soil to soften it before he plants the seed. In the same manner we often need our hearts softened. Hosea said, “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts . . . “ (Hosea 10:12, NLT). When softened, our hearts respond more readily to the Spirit’s promptings.

 2. Journaling sifts truth from error.

As a child I remember helping my mom bake cakes. She let me sift flour through her aluminum can-like sifter. When I rotated the handle the sifter removed the lumps from the flour. Just as lumps were interspersed in the flour, sometimes we unintentionally mix “lumps” of lies in our self-talk such as, “I’m a rotten person,” “God is mad at me,” or “I’m worthless.” When we journal and put these thoughts on paper, it’s easier to sort out truth from error. Then we can counter them with God’s Truth and experience a more biblical outlook on life.

3. Journaling slows our pace.

My first driving experience at age nine on the Model-T ride at Six Flags disappointed me. Expecting to burn rubber when I floored the gas pedal, I barely reached 5 mph. My dad later explained that a device called a governor kept the engine from running at full capacity. Many Christians run their lives at full capacity with life’s “gas pedal” pushed to the max. Journaling acts like a governor to slow our frenzied pace and force us to listen to the Spirit’s voice.

4. Journaling builds faith.

Few of us will remember what God taught us last week, much less last year unless we write it down. Journaling builds our faith when we record God’s faithful acts. Then we can refer back to that record to remind us of his continued faithfulness. Psalms 77:11 says,I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” (NIV)

 5. Journaling releases pain.

I still remember the staccato hiss from my mother’s pressure cooker when she cooked fresh green beans. After she locked the main top into place she placed a small metal cap over the pressure release valve. This allowed the pressure to slowly release. Similar emotional pressure can build up inside us to the point that we want to explode at others. Journaling provides a spiritual pressure release valve for our pain that can prevent that explosion. David encouraged this when he wrote “. . . pour out your hearts to him . . .” (Psalm 62:8, NIV).

Journaling, God’s spiritual cross-trainer, offers many spiritual benefits. If you want to try it, consider these six practical guidelines.

  1. Get a notebook.
  2. Set a consistent time in a quiet place.
  3. Make a commitment to stick with it.
  4. Date each entry.
  5. Write from feeling, not from fact. Don’t just record what happened in your life. Write down how your experiences affected your heart and emotions.
  6. Periodically review your entries to discover spiritual trends in your life.

How has journaling helped your walk with Christ?

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Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 2

In my last blog post, Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 1, I shared an insight that helped me deal with anxious thoughts and emotions when spiritual practices like prayer and fasting didn’t seem to work. I realized that when I prayed for God to take away my anxiety, I was often asking God to do a miracle, to suspend his created laws of nature. I came to realize that often He wanted me to respect His natural created order (i.e., my anxiety may be due to me not taking care of my body). I had to be OK if He chose to work in ways other than a miracle. In today’s post, part 2, I share a simple A-B-C process that God has used to give me greater internal peace.

In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul intuitively understood how our internal world works long before we knew anything about hormones or neurotransmitters that profoundly affect our emotional life.

In verse 6 he commands us do not be anxious about anything, something easier said than done. In the verses that follow, he tells how we can turn down our anxious thoughts and emotions.

Here’s the simple outline that verses 6-9 suggest.

Don’t fret.  

Instead, re-direct your…

Attention

Brain/thoughts

Conduct

Redirect your attention.

He says in verse 6 that instead of fretting and worrying, we should redirect our attention…

from the problem (do not be anxious): whatever is the source of your anxiety

by prayer (by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present yours requests to God): to the Lord, who is the problem solver.

“Prayer consists of attention,” and “the quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” [Laird, Martin (2011-06-29). A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Kindle Locations 232-233). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

for peace (and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and mind)

We must do this because often we get caught in an infinite thought stream and these thoughts and feelings become our identity because we have reinforced them through rehearsing them and ruminating over them. It’s like a video constantly playing in our minds that we can’t seem to pause. These thoughts can actually become the themes in our mind… I’m ugly, fat, skinny, she hates me, life is hopeless, my church will never grow, I can’t do anything, they are talking about me, my preaching does not connect with others, etc.

When we constantly rehearse these anxious thought and emotions, our brain actually rewires itself. It’s called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rezone itself. Those themes become rivers of neuronal networks in our brain and form much like how a river forms. A river starts as a small stream but the more water that flows into it, the deeper the channel the water creates and the wider its banks grow until it becomes a river.

The only way to divert the river’s flow is by starting another small channel that comes off the river. Over time the new stream digs a deep channel and widens its banks until it becomes the main river and the former river becomes a stream.

Our brains work in a similar manner. When we re-direct our attention, our brain creates new networks that reflect more healthy thinking. And as we continue to redirect our attention from the problem to the Problem Solver, we create new networks that diminish the power of those anxious ones (make that river smaller). As we do that, God sets His peace like a sentry over our minds and hearts.

The key is to keep redirecting, even when the anxiety comes back. Repeatedly redirecting our attention is crucial. The re-zoning process takes time.

Redirect our brain/thoughts.

Next Paul speaks directly about our thinking.

Phil. 4.8   Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

When he writes, think about such things, he means a deliberate, prolonged contemplation. Intention is crucial… to deliberately choose to think a different way. And to do that we must be aware of what we are thinking about. This is easy to do, but hard to remember to do. Often our inner mental chatter goes on and on without our conscious awareness. Our minds are often stuck on autopilot.

Yet, as we repeatedly redirect our thoughts/brain to such things, God will create a new river of truth and joy and peace in our minds. He will transform our minds (Romans 12.2).

Martin Laird gives one of the most helpful metaphors about our anxious thoughts and emotions, weather around a mountain.

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. (Ps 125.1)

Mt Zion symbolizes God’s power, blessing, and protection. So, when we trust in the Lord and redirect our thinking and our attention, we are like a mountain and how it responds to weather.

A mountain has weather around it all the time. The mountain does not become the weather. It simple observes it. In Christ we are like that mountain with all kinds of external and internal weather around us. Now we may prefer certain kinds of weather, but we are not the weather.

Your anxious thoughts and emotions are not you. They are simply the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured … When the mind is brought to stillness (what Paul calls thinking on these things) we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. [Laird, Martin (2006-06-07). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-293). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

So, paying attention to our thoughts is essential to spiritual and emotional well being.

Without paying attention to our thinking, we become captive to the changing weather patterns of our lives, our emotions, moods, thoughts, experiences, anything, everything that we have little awareness of, this constant chatter. These thoughts can blind us and victimize us. We can let them become us, or convince ourselves that they are us when in reality they are just the weather in our minds.

We must see our thoughts and emotions like weather and remind ourselves that we are hidden in Christ in God… our rock, our fortress, our sure foundation. We are like Mt Zion.

As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 Re-direct our conduct.

The Apostle Paul then writes in verse 9, Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me put it into practice.

Ultimately, as we pay attention to and redirect our thinking from anxious thinking to that which is good and wholesome, we will develop Godly character and virtues which will show up in conduct.

So, the next time anxiety strikes, heed the counsel of the Apostle Paul.

Don’t fret. Instead, re-direct your…

Attention

Brain/thoughts

Conduct

What has helped you deal with anxious thoughts and emotions?

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Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, Part 1

The Apostle Paul commands this in Philippians 4.6, Do not be anxious about anything. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done. Anxiety, an inner mental and emotional state, often feels like we’re being pulled in a zillion different directions in our soul and in our mind. Anger and regret about the past and fear and uncertainty about the future breed it. An old English word for it captures its essence: strangulation. Anxious thoughts and emotions often seem like a incessant video playing its strangulating messages over and over and over in our minds with seemingly no way to press ‘Pause.’ What do we do when we can’t turn it off? I think I may have stumbled upon how.

For years I struggled with turning off the anxious worry video replaying in my mind. I tried every spiritual practice in the book: prayer, Bible reading, Scripture memory, fasting, confession, spiritual warfare, and even more of the same. But often the anxiety still remained. I wondered…

  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Do I have some hidden sin?
  • Is God punishing me?
  • Am I not doing the spiritual disciplines right?
  • Has anxiety hopelessly trapped me forever?

I struggled with it until I learned this insight that is slowly changing my life: I had subtly missed how God usually works.

First, I believe that all truth is God’s truth, including science and the laws of nature that He Himself created, whether those laws be gravity, electromagnetism, physics, or the biology of how our bodies and brains work.

What I realized, however, as I unsuccessfully dealt with my anxious thoughts and emotions through increased spiritual practices, was this:  Often I expected God to bypass his own created laws of the universe about how my body and brain works when I prayed/fasted/quoted Scripture/etc. for relief. I realized that I was asking God to suspend his created laws of nature. And what do we call it when God suspends the laws of nature? A miracle. I was often asking (or demanding) God to give me a miracle to end my incessant and distracting anxious thoughts and feelings.

I do believe God works miracles. But He more often works through His designed nature of things.

For example, I have no problem NOT praying for God to miraculously transport me to work from my home without driving, à la a Star Trek transporter. Most of us never ask God for something like that. Yet, when I asked God to relieve my body of its anxiety, I was actually asking him to bypass how He created my body and brain to work.

Consider this example.

Let’s say my annual review is coming up soon and for the next two months I incessantly worry about, rehearse all the worst case scenarios, and daily ruminate about how bad my review will be. The result is that the fight-flight part of my brain, the amygdala, sensing threat, signals my adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. For short periods of stress and danger cortisol is a good thing for our survival and response to danger. After danger passes, however, it will settle back to a healthy blood level. However, since I’m continually worrying for two months, my body has become stuck on an high level of cortisol and other blood and brain stress chemicals. And in those cases it takes days or weeks for those levels to drop to a healthy level. Only when those levels come down will the feeling of anxiety go away.

Yet, as I pray for God to make the anxiety go away and plead for Him to give me peace, will He do the following?

“Ah, Charles, I hear your prayers and see your predicament. I will answer your prayer. I choose to suspend my established laws about the biology of your body and brain and give you an instant miracle of no anxiety. I immediately eliminate all the cortisol that has built up for the past two months. I now force your amygdala to go off-line. I fill the thinking center of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex, with positive thoughts about your meeting with your boss. Additionally, I now force your mid-brain to produce an extra boost of the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine and flood your nucleus accumbens, your brain’s pleasure center, with that chemical to make you feel perfectly at peace.”

And poof! I feel great. No more worry. No more fear. No more anxiety. At perfect peace.

Were God to do that, bypass His created laws of biology by instantly lowering those chemicals to remove my anxiety, we’d call it a miracle, on the order of transporting me to work through the Star Trek transporter (well, maybe not that extreme). God could have done it that way. But most of the time He will not suspend the laws He Himself created that work in our bodies and our brains. He often works through His established natural order.

In order to get relief, I had often subconsciously prayed for a miracle. Yet, I’m learning that every answer to prayer does not have to circumvent His natural laws to make it a God thing. 

When I prayed for relief from these emotions, I was not taking into consideration that God may have simply wanted me to respect his biological laws of nature and slowly change my thought life in response to whatever was fueling my anxiety. And by doing so, He would gradually bring down those unhealthy chemical levels, thus reducing my anxiety.

I’m learning that debilitating, difficult, and even pesky emotions may not actually have spiritual roots or direct spiritual solutions (i.e. just pray more and have more faith). Rather, they may lie in a lack of understanding of, a lack of cooperation with, and a lack of respecting how God designed our bodies and brains.

God made hormones that flow through our blood stream and neurotransmitters that traffic in our brain. Both profoundly affect our emotional and mental well being. And our thought lives affect how much they flow in our bodies and brains.

So, as I began to learn this insight a few years ago I began a quest to understand how our brains impact our walk with God, life in general, and leadership. I even have a book coming out next year on this subject that shares my journey, Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry.

When the Apostle Paul commands us to not be anxious, what he says following that statement indicates His intuitive understanding how God designed our bodies and brains, far before science had any idea.

In my next post this week I explain a simple A-B-C process that is helping me more consistently press the ‘Pause’ button on my anxious mental videos.

Do you agree that sometimes spiritual practices won’t give us emotional peace? Why or why not?

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