Time has always been one of our most precious commodities. We can’t manufacture more, no matter how hard we try. Once we use it, it’s gone. As a result, it’s one of the most valuable gifts we can give. When we invest time in others — even just to stop and say hi — people notice. It’s a rare gift indeed. But we can’t give what we don’t have. When we’re frantically moving from event to event or jumping from task to task, we don’t have the margin to engage with others.
Availability is the key to loving others well. This doesn’t mean signing up for every service opportunity in the church bulletin so you can be “available” to others. Regular commitments end up clogging our schedule as much as work or any other responsibilities. I’m actually talking about the opposite — protect the uncommitted time into your life so that you can pursue the opportunities God places in front of you.
Presence Over Preaching
You can certainly make a difference in the world by donating to a cause or teaching a seminar, but real, lasting impact comes through relationships. Think about someone who truly influenced your life for the better. Did they send you a check or preach words of wisdom, or did they invest in a relationship with you? I’m willing to bet it was the latter. They probably took a genuine interest in your life, whether it was a teacher who encouraged your strengths, a youth pastor who helped you walk through a tough situation or even someone saying hi to you on your first day at a new school. Those experiences, however small, make a difference.
Your intentional presence is the key to serving others well. Not just being there in person, but in spirit as well. We all know that time is precious, so by choosing to spend it encouraging someone, we’re already demonstrating that they matter — they’re worth the investment.
I know that for many of our homeless friends, it can be more significant than we know. Taking the time to do something as simple as ask their name can be extremely dignifying and encouraging — in some ways even more so than giving them a few dollars.
We can see this in the life of Jesus: He didn’t just preach to communities from afar. He took time to walk with tax collectors and prostitutes. He ate with them. He had conversations with people who were typically despised and looked down on, like the woman at the well (John 4:7-29). Jesus was intentional about engaging people face-to-face with compassion, even when others saw it as inconvenient or inappropriate. The Gospels tell a story about Jesus teaching a crowd when people began bringing children to Him. The disciples rebuked them. The ESV says Jesus wasn’t just frustrated, but “indignant” about this. “Let the children come to me;” He said. “Do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 13:14)
Many times Jesus made Himself available when others might have only seen inconvenience or a disruption. In Mark Chapter 5, Jesus is approached by a ruler whose daughter was dying, pleading for Jesus to heal her. Jesus agrees, but is interrupted on the journey to the family’s home when a woman tugs on His garments, desperate for healing. Jesus asks who has touched Him, but the disciples brush this off (I’d imagine eager to get to the ruler’s house, knowing they’re on borrowed time). “You see the crowd pressing around you, yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” Jesus instead paused to seek out the woman and tell her that her faith has made her well. The Scripture goes on to say that while He was still speaking, some from the ruler’s house came to Him saying his daughter was dead, and that he shouldn’t bother Jesus anymore. Jesus, of course, was still able to heal the young girl, and the death made the work all the more powerful. But Jesus made time for rulers as well as people who were seen as less-than.
Even Jesus, who could heal with a word — whose sermons were the literal word of God — chose to not simply preach from a mountain top, but crouch down, look us in the eyes and be in relationship with us, even when it was “inconvenient.”
In my recent episode of the Real Hope podcast, I talked to speaker, author and self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer” Bob Goff about what it means to be available to others. He knows a thing or two about that; he put his actual phone number in the back of his book “Love Does” — and actually answers the calls! To Bob, that’s what “doing love” looks like — being available.
“It’s uncovering in someone else something worth finding — stuff that actually wants to be found in somebody but nobody’s taken the time to find it,” he explains. “There’s nothing like availability.”
Jesus clearly did this in his ministry — uncovering in someone else something worth finding — over and over again. With Matthew the Tax Collector, with Peter who consistently made rash decisions, with the woman at the well — He chose to see them as God’s image-bearers, not people unworthy of a second glance.
In this Real Hope interview, Bob went on to explain that loving people in this way often simply looks like paying attention, because people might be in need of something we have and can easily give.
“If we were just aware that somebody needed what we had — sometimes it’s cash, sometimes it’s just a kind word,” he says.
The kind of availability Bob is talking about doesn’t mean always saying “yes.” It just means saying “no” to the right things so you can say “yes” to — something that matters more. It’s about creating margin so that when opportunities arise, you not only notice them but have the ability to pursue them. When God prompts your heart to take action, you have the time to do it.
“The battle is not against sin or difficulties or circumstances, but against being so absorbed in work that we are not ready to face Jesus Christ at every turn,” Oswald Chambers writes in “My Utmost for His Highest.”
In our country, productivity is king. If you have wiggle room in your schedule, you might feel like you’re not doing enough. Or perhaps other people feel like you’re not doing enough. Being “busy” is often seen as a badge of honor. Boundaries are difficult to establish and even harder to maintain.
A recent study from VitalSmarts, a leadership training company, found that 3 out of 5 people felt like they had “agreed to accomplish more than they can actually do in the time they have available.” What’s more, 1 out of 3 people said they feel like they “always” have more to do than they have time available to do it, and 2 out of 3 said they “usually” do. We are consistently overcommitted and low on time.
But if we want to recognize the opportunities God presents before us, we have to pay attention. And we can’t pay attention if we’re speeding through every second of every day, focused on ourselves and our to-do lists.
We have to get rid of the tunnel vision. We have to be radical about the way we choose to live. Being available is actually quite rare in our culture, so not only will the people with whom you interact notice, but others might observe your unusual priorities and take note as well. Prioritizing what matters most is a powerful witness in our society.
Widening our Margins
So if we want to impact others in our day-to-day lives, we have to have margin in our schedules. But we have to be proactive.
“Margin is not something that just happens. You have to fight for it,” says author and speaker Michael Hyatt, well-known for his work surrounding leadership and productivity.
In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D. defines “margin” as “the space between our load and our limits,” noting that it’s what allows for unanticipated situations.
“…many people commit to a 120 percent life and wonder why the burden feels so heavy,” Richard writes. “It is rare to see a life prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that God sends our way.”
“The unexpected” sounds like we’re talking about a flat tire or a forgotten briefcase, and while margin certainly allows for those setbacks (also a good thing) it also allows for positive “unanticipated situations.” Those situations could be spontaneous opportunities to help someone carry a heavy box to their car or play a game of tag with your son before you leave for work. You could have five minutes to grab an extra bagel and coffee for a homeless friend standing outside the shop because you’re not rushing back for another meeting. Perhaps the opportunity is not spontaneous, but something you hadn’t had time to do before — like going on a run with a non-believing neighbor every Saturday morning because you’re not spending it catching up on work. This is the kind of ministry margin allows.
Jesus told a parable that incorporates this principle in Luke 11:5-8, sharing a story about a man being interrupted in the middle of the night by a neighbor in need of something to feed his guests (being without something to set before his guests would have been deeply shameful — as would have been waking his friend in the middle of the night desperate for something to serve).
“Jesus wants us to expect unexpected needs and respond to them,” writes Jon Bloom for Desiring God, adding that we should expect to do this at very inconvenient times.
An “80 percent” scheduled life can sound like inefficiency. It can even feel like laziness. But really, it’s intentionality. It’s prioritizing what matters and allowing room to impact others in significant ways.
At what percentage capacity do you feel like you’re operating right now? Are there ways you could cut that percentage down to allow more margin for spontaneous opportunities to engage with others?