Margins (Exodus 23)

Margins (Exodus 23).

We all need margins. You can’t constantly live right on the edge, spending every penny and cramming every minute. Like the blank space around a page, we need a buffer-zone in our lives to keep balance and prevent us from falling off the edge. This idea of ‘breathing room’ was the focus of a teaching series at my church C3 last year, and over several weeks we saw how it applies to our finances, to our relationships, to our personal organisation and to our use of our time. In a world that always seems to be demanding more and asks us to keep pushing ourselves, it’s an important message.


It’s also one of the most profound, counter-cultural and counter-intuitive messages of the Bible. We see it in Exodus 23 in a series of laws relating to justice, mercy and the Sabbath. The Israelites were to work six days, and then rest on the seventh. God is a God of rest as well of work. He Himself rested and decreed this for us as the best example to follow. He knows we need to rest. After a week of work He knows we need time to recharge, but also time to focus on more important things than work: relationships. Relationships with God and with each other.


As much as we think we can get more done in seven days than in six, it’s not true. Constant work leads to stress, burnout and anxiety. After a certain point the more you push yourself the less productive you are. Whether you’re studying or earning a wage, the hours you try to cram in on the seventh day when you’re tired will be far less fruitful than if you have a rest and come back at it fresh after a day’s rest. God finished His work in six days, and so can we. I remember one friend of mine at university refusing to study on a Sunday, even though everyone else in his demanding course did, and yet he didn’t suffer for it; he performed better than the others. It’s a lie that you will somehow miss out, fall behind or be worse off if you take a day’s rest.


I’m not advocating a hardcore Sabbath of doing literally nothing, idleness is not the point. You can rest while doing some pretty energetic things. Some people actually recharge by playing football. I know my mind and spirit are much better off for a good walk. If we couldn’t do anything at all we wouldn’t be able to meet together and worship God, or help people in need, or enjoy leisure time in any of a thousand ways. The legalistic rules of the Pharisees were absurd and took things to an extreme. The point is not ticking boxes but doing something that you find restful. Likewise, it doesn’t have to be a Sunday – which isn’t possible in certain occupations – so long as it is one day a week.


This Sabbath pattern for the week was to be played out on a larger scale too, working the land for six years and then foregoing the harvest in the seventh. Most people know about the weekly Sabbath even if they don’t practice it, but very few know about this rule for the 7-year cycle. Not only does it seem irrelevant, since most of us aren’t farmers, but it too seems non-sensical on the surface. Just like you wouldn’t want to waste one day in seven, why would you waste one year in seven? Didn’t they go hungry in that seventh year, if they couldn’t grow food?


Well firstly Leviticus 25:6-7 adds more detail and shows that people could still eat what the land naturally produced. It was just food cultivated by their own efforts that was ruled out. Secondly, the people would have prepared for this seventh year by saving up during the six, just like Joseph did in the famine of Genesis 41-47. Saving is a good Godly principle, encouraged elsewhere in Scripture. So no one would have starved or gone without. Thirdly, God can make six years cover seven. Just like when they collected manna in the desert and what they collected the day before the Sabbath stretched for two days, so God would give them enough in the sixth year to provide for the seventh as well.


Most important of all, giving up the seventh year wasn’t just a waste or simply an act of forbearance. It was specifically in order to provide for the poorest members of society, the people on the fringes, the people without land of their own, without jobs or prosperous families to support them. The seventh year was for them (and presumably God had other ways to sustain them during the other six years). So it’s about social justice. It’s about moving the focus from profit and greed to countering poverty and looking after the needs of others. Despite the alienness of this ancient agrarian practice, surely it translates into our modern context? Can you imagine what the world would look like if everyone gave their entire wages every seventh year to charity? What could those billions of pounds do for the good of society? Can you imagine?


It’s also about the environment, allowing the land to recover. It’s an important lesson of stewardship for Christians but also for all of us in the human race: this planet of ours has finite resources; we should not and cannot plunder it for all it’s worth, stripping it entirely without thought for the future. We need to steward its resources, using them sustainably and allowing them to replenish.


When we follow God’s rules like this everyone wins. The poor are looked after, the environment is managed responsibly, and the people doing the giving up don’t suffer. It’s similar when it comes to tithing. When you give up 10% normal logic dictates that your 90% will be less than someone else’s 100% who didn’t give. Not so in God’s economy. God blesses the giver more than the non-giver (Proverbs 11:24-25). God stretches the 90% further than 100% ever could. Somehow, we are worse off when we keep everything to ourselves. We won’t grow as God intended, we won’t see the miracle of His provision or know the joy that comes from blessing others. So we can give without fear of how to make ends meet. We can rest without fear of missed deadlines or empty bank accounts. It all comes down to trusting God – He will provide for us and take care of us if we follow His guidelines. They’re the best way to do life, even if the precise applications vary in different times and cultural contexts.


A margin of rest around the business of our lives is good and necessary. We need it to refresh ourselves and reset our perspectives. It’s not all about us and it’s not about how much we can gain. Instead of running ourselves into the ground thinking that it’s all down to us we should spend rest time connecting with God, gaining spiritually, emotionally and mentally instead of materially. A margin around our finances is good and necessary also, whether it’s the harvest or the monthly pay packet. We have a responsibility to others around us, and also a wonderful opportunity to see God at work when we trust Him instead of doing it our own way.


Are you allowing enough margin?


To take away:

In what areas of your life do you need to allow more margin?

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