10 Indicators You Have no Margin in your Life

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?

Related posts:

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?

Related posts:

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?

Related posts:

A Unique and Fresh Approach to Bible Reading

A few years ago author and discipleship expert Bill Hull introduced me to a fresh approach to Bible reading through one of his books. He explained an ancient yet growing Christian devotional practice called lectio divina, which includes four phases: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. I took those four concepts and created my own acronym to make it more easily remembered: RIPE. RIPE stands for Read, Immerse, Pray, and Execute. Try reading your Bible in this way and see how it can freshen your experience. It’s also helpful to record insights you learn in a journal.

First, pick a section of Scripture of reasonable length, say 10-20 verses. Then read that section four times and apply each part of RIPE each time you read the passage. Here’s how to do it.

R: Read

Slowly read the passage, both silently and out loud. Make yourself aware of cultural, theological, or other biases you may be bringing to the passage. Read it without allowing those biases to cloud your reading. Read it first from the viewpoint of a child who knows nothing about the cultural and theological underpinnings of the passage. After you do this first, then bring into your thinking the background or theological insights you already know about the passage.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

I: Immerse

As you read it a second time, immerse yourself in the scripture and ponder it by imagining yourself as one of the original hearers of this passage, physically present in the time and place in which the scripture was spoken, written, or read. Use all five senses to re-create the context and setting in your mind. Enter into the hearer’s world. Center your thoughts on how the passage relates to Jesus.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

P: Pray

Pray over the scripture and actually ‘pray’ the scripture by personalizing it for yourself. Allow the Lord to search your heart as you ponder it. Let Him speak to your heart and reveal His will to you. Choose a learner’s posture as you ask the Lord about what He wants to stop, start, change, develop, or grow in you.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

E: Execute

Now, as you read it one last time ask yourself what you learned as you immersed yourself in the reading, and what you felt God impress upon you to do. Commit to the Lord that you will carry out today what He has impressed upon you to do, be, or change. Write down what you will do. Be specific in your commitment.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

What Bible reading methods have helped you keep Scripture reading fresh?

8 Benefits of Silence and Solitude in a Leader’s Life

We leaders live in a world that bombards us with incessant visual stimuli and noise. And it’s easy to become addicted to such noise without even realizing it. Our so called time saving technology such as smart phones and high speed internet access relentlessly remind us that we can get more done in less time so we have more time to get even more done. As a result we are addicted not only to noise, but to hurry. As John Ortberg writes, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”[1] Leaders desperately need what the ancients called silence and solitude to help us lead at our best. I suggest 8 benefits of building this discipline into your life.

John Ortberg tells a delightful story in Leadership Journal that describes how a pastor or a leader’s life can sometimes get out of whack.

Some time ago, a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, carried the story of Tattoo the basset hound. Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off for a drive with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

Motorcycle officer Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it, “the basset hound picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could.” He chased the car to a stop, and Tattoo was rescued, but not before the dog had reached a speed of 20-25 miles per hour, rolling over several times.

Leaders often live like Tattoo, our days mark by picking them up and putting them down as fast as we can.

Hurry and noise and incessant busyness are enemies of a healthy spiritual life.

I can attest to that. Yet, God does not want us to be controlled by nor conform to the noisy, hurried life that our culture and churches often push us towards. Some of the greatest spiritual leaders and influencers of the past said much about this practice.

Henri Nowen, who taught at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame, and wrote 20 books said, “Without (silence and solitude) it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”[2] He also wrote, “It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.”
 (The Way of the Heart)

The late Dallas Willard wrote, “(this one) is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops.”[3]

Blaise Pascal, the scientist and Christian thinker of the 1600’s wrote, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room.”[4]

Austin Phelps, a pastor in the 1800’s noted, “It has been said that no great work in literature or in science was ever wrought by a man who did not love solitude. We may lay it down as an elemental principle of religion, that no large growth in holiness was ever gained by one who did not take time to be often long alone with God.”[5]

The Bible also speaks often on silence and solitude.

  • There is. . . a time to be silent … (Ecc 3.7)
  • Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. (Ecc 5.2)
  • Be still, and know that I am God…” (Ps 46.10)
  • Moses and Paul, some of the most recognized figures in history were transformed in times of extended solitude.
  • Jesus lived in a world of inner solitude and frequently experienced outer solitude. He was busy but was never in a hurry. Silence and solitude was Jesus place of strength.
    • Before he began his public ministry he spent 40 days in silence and solitude. (Lk 4)
    • Before he chose the 12, (He) spent the night praying to God.(Lk 6)
    • When he heard of John the Baptist’s death …he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matt 14.13)
    • After feeding 5000 …He went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. (Mt 14.23)
    • He often… withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Lk 5.16)

Before I suggest 8 benefits, here’s a quick definition of each, as they are both cousins to each other. They both go hand in hand and without silence, solitude has little effect. In essence they are practices of NOT doing something–not interacting with society and people–withdrawing from human contact, voice, noise, phone, tv, radio, newspaper, etc… for a few minutes or a few days. The following definitions combine thoughts of Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, and Richard Foster. When I speak of silence and solitude below, I will speak of them as one thing.

  • Solitude: The practice of temporarily being absent from other people (in isolation or anonymity) and other things so that you can be present with God. Its not loneliness nor is it getting away from people just because we don’t like them. It’s more about what we do with our bodies.
  • Silence: The practice of voluntarily and temporarily abstaining from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought. It’s about what we do with our tongues, what we say.

Silence and solitude is a tool God uses to restore our souls by breaking engagements with the world. It is really more of a state of heart than a place. Granted, it does include awayness from others, but as you mature you can even be in a huge crowd and experience the rejuvenating power it offers. On the other hand you can become a hermit and never experience its power.

Here are 8 practical benefits of silence and solitude.

1. It (they) break the power of hurry, our addiction to a ‘have-to-do-this’ mentality.

 Willard explains it this way. The person who is capable of doing nothing might be capable of refraining from doing the wrong thing. And then perhaps he or she would be better able to do the right thing.[6]

It helps create an inner space for us to become aware of what we are doing and are about to do.

2. It helps renew our souls. 

Francis de Sales who in the late 1500’s developed sign language to teach deaf about God wrote, “There is no clock, no matter how good it may be, that doesn’t need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, at least once a year it must be taken apart to remove the dirt clogging it, straighten out bent parts, and repair those worn out. In like manner, every morning and evening a man who reallly takes care of his heart must rewind it for God’s service . . . Moreover, he must often reflect on his conditon in order to reform and improve it. Finally, at least once a year he must take it apart and examine every piece in detail, that is every affection and passion, in order to repair whatever defects there may be.[7]

The Bible speaks pointedly to this idea.

  • Be silent before the Lord God! (Zeph 1.7)
  • My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be shaken. (Ps 62.5-6)
  • For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength.’ (Is 30.15)

3. It reminds us that life will still go on without us

It interrupts the cycle of constantly having to manage things and be in control. It breaks us from a sense of being indispensable.

4. It clears the storm of life and mind for wise decision making and planning.

Luke 6:12-13 tells us that Jesus spend time in silence and solitude when deciding whom to choose as the disciples who would travel with Him. And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.

 5. It creates inner space to hear the voice of God.

God spoke to the prohet Elijah right after he had come from a power encounter with the Baal worshippers on Mount Carmel. He had fled because he heard that Queen Jezebel had placed a price on his head. He hid in a cave and God asked him what he was doing there. Then God told him to leave the cave and that He would speak to him. Elijah saw a storm and then wind and then an earthquake and then fire. Yet God was not in any of those. Rather, God spoke in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19.2).

We are usually surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear God when he is speaking to us.[8] Silence and solitude frees us from life’s preoccupations so we can hear God’s voice.

6. It allows us to disconnect from the world and deeply connect with our soul.

Henry Nouwen said, “In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding.” And what is scaffolding? It’s the stuff we use to keep ourselves propped up be it friends, family, tv, radio, books, job, technology, work, achievement, our bank account, etc.[9]

 7. It helps us control our tongue

James 1.19 says, My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry….

Silence and solitude can free us from the tyranny we can hold over others with our words. When we are silent and yield to the advice in James, it becomes more difficult to manipulate and control the people and circumstances around us. When we practice silence we lay down the weapons of words. It often reminds us that we don’t need to say as much as we think we do. We find that God can manage situations just fine without our opinions on the subject.

 8. It helps us with the other disciplines

When we include silence an solitude it enriches prayer, Bible reading, and fasting.

What would you add to this list of benefits of silence and solitude?

Related posts:

References:

[1] John Ortberg, The Life You Always Wanted, p 84

[2] Richard Foster/James Smith, Devotional Classics, p 95

[3] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p 161

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p 358

[5] Whitney, spiritual disciplines, p 194

[6] Willard, The Divine Conspiracy p 359

[7] Ortberg, The Life You Always Wanted, p 94

[8] Foster, Devotional classics, p 95

[9] Ortberg, The Life You Always Wanted, p 92