In-Sight: Margins

When I began elementary school, our teacher had us purchase notebook paper.  On the left-hand side were two little blue lines running from top to bottom.  We learned that it was called the margin.  We were not to write to the left of those lines.

We also learned not to write all the way to the right-hand side, or to fill up the page from top to bottom.  It was as if there were invisible margins all the way around the page.  If we honored them, our page looked neat and balanced.  If we violated them, the page looked jammed and messy.

Faith is like that.  We are supposed to have margins.  Two of them are especially important.

(1) The margin for Mystery–we simply do not know everything about the nature and activity of God, the nature and activity of the church, or the nature and activity of our lives, etc., etc.  If we violate this margin, we turn Christianity into explanations, answers, and certainties with respect to some things we really have no idea about.  If we honor the margin, we cultivate faith: being able to say, “I do not know how this works, but I know that God is good.  I leave this to God.” The saints give us this witness through holy unknowing.

(2) The margin for error–no matter how committed and devout we are, we surely get it wrong sometimes, and we never have the complete picture.  If we violate this margin, we become arrogant, judgmental, and condescending know-it-alls, who really don’t need to live anywhere but in our own heads. If we honor this margin, we cultivate humility: being able to say, “I could be wrong; you could be right.  Let’s talk and offer each other our respective light, so we can experience God’s larger Light.” The saints give us this witness through the virtue of humility.

In our spiritual formation, we need to look at our souls like notebook paper, and make sure we maintain margins.  Otherwise we will try to cram more onto the page than God intends, turning the Message into a mess.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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5 Responses to In-Sight: Margins

  1. Amy Gill says:

    This is very thought provoking. I am anxious to discuss it with folks back in Tallahassee when we get home from vacation.

  2. Mary Jacob says:

    Thanks so much, Steve! Very helpful insights about ‘margins.’ I appreciate your gifts and hope your daughter-in-law is improving. Mel

  3. Steve Munday says:

    I confess that I am indeed a 3-time repeat offender–arrogant, judgmental, and condescending know-it-all.

    Thank you for sharing. I will do the same.

  4. Peggy Weinauer says:


  5. Jack Harnish says:

    Well said. Simply, clear and thoughtful. Really appreciate the imagery of “margins”.

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