How Much Margin Do You Have in Your Life? by Lau Ying Kheng

from Amazing Roads

from Amazing Roads

I had just spent three hours with David. The campus staff told me, “I’m burned out. I’ve lost my love for discipleship. I now find reading, which was my passion, burdensome.”

It is heartbreaking to meet staff workers, half my age and triple my technological prowess, telling me they are giving up. Yet "burnout" is no respecter of gender, temperament or physical capacity.

Someone once defined "burnout" this way: it is when “what used to be fun is not fun anymore.” And when we stop enjoying what we do, we lose the soul to our endeavors.

David admitted that his staff life was “work, work and more work” for years. Because of “ministry demands,” he stopped playing tennis—he was a competitor in school—and his only friends were his disciples. From “Mr Cool," he found himself rushing about, yet always late.

David had no margin.


I am sure that there are many factors that contributed to David’s present state, but for now, I would like to focus on "margin" or "marginlessness," which is where many problems begin. Over the years I have spoken on this topic here in Singapore and throughout the region. Everywhere I have gone—even in China recently—someone would tell me, “This is what I need to hear.”

Margin is the life space we need

The term "margin," coined by Dr Richard Swenson, refers to “the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits” (Swenson 1994). The medical doctor had predicted that, with faster machines, we will have more "overloads" and less time.

“Margin is the space between breathing freely and suffocating,” he wrote. “It is having breath left at the top of the staircase, . . . and sanity left at the end of adolescence.”

To me, margin is like white space in art. Without it, nothing is salient. It is the pause we schedule into our lives, which tones down the noise and saves us from addiction to movement.

My daughter had 13 hamsters growing up, so I can talk about them with some credibility. Hamsters have nothing much to do but they are very busy, especially on the spinning wheel. They’d dutifully go round and round until they became giddy and literally dropped into sleep.

If we are not careful, we become like hamsters—constantly moving, but going nowhere. If we are not careful, we confuse busyness with fruitfulness. Busyness stems from the hunger for self-promotion (Tozer, The Pursuit of God, 1948); fruitfulness comes from abiding in Christ and resting in His power through surrendered lives.

How do we know when we are losing margin?

  • We keep saying “Yes” when we want to say “No.”

  • We’re busy serving Jesus but have no time for Jesus.

  • Our public life is cluttered while our private life is empty.

Years ago, while I was  in Hong Kong to speak to staff, God woke me in the middle of the night and asked, “YK, what’s in your life?”I lowered my head and was shocked to see desert land. Empty. Dry. By God’s grace, I learned to abide in Jesus again through daily prayer and the Word. I restored margin in my life.


How do you restore margin?

Here are some activities I recommend.

  • Walk slowly. Most of the time. We. Really. Don’t. Need. To. Rush.

  • Sleep seven hours.

  • Say “No” to something "important" every week. Patrick Morley (Seven Seasons, 1998) says, “It is a wise man who knows the two or three places where he is truly indispensable.” We don’t need to attend every farewell or reunion. Sure, they’ll miss us—for all of 10 minutes.

  • Wait, before pressing that "send" button. You’ll be surprised how perspectives change, even after 10 minutes.

  • If someone cancels an appointment, don’t fill it up. Take a walk. Smile. Visit the florist.

  • Take your sabbath. Honor the Lord.

  • Give room for failure. We still get to heaven even if that piece is not edited perfectly.

  • Here’s my favorite. Spend 10 minutes daily resting—in the middle of work. Close your eyes. Pause. You don’t even need to pray. Connect with your emotions. A Korean pastor wrote me, after attending my seminar: “that ‘10-minute’ pause feels like a long nap.”

Why do we need to have margin again?

So that we can love God with heart and soul.

So that we always have enough emotional energy left to stop and love that Samaritan along the way.

How are you adding margin to your life?


Lau Ying Kheng has been in full-time ministry since 1976, and is still having fun. She is a faculty member at the East Asia school of Theology (Singapore) and speaks on "margin," "formation" and "going the long haul" for Jesus.