Progress at the Cost of Margin

             Richard Swenson states, “There can be little doubt that the contemporary absence of margin is linked to the march of progress… Margin has been stolen away, and progress was the thief. If we want margin back, we will first have to do something about progress.”[1] Culture demands things be bigger, better, faster, and cheaper and while the rich get richer, the middle class is continually shrinking and the separation of those considered to be wealthy to those living in poverty is only increasing. So, if progress, by definition is to move forward or onward toward a destination and if the destination is known to cause margin-less living, can it really be called progress?
            To this statement, this writer agrees with Swenson in principle. There is no denying cultures with the most progress are also the same as those with the least margin. However, to do anything about progress or to try and define how it sabotages margin, one must be able to put progress on hold. For this to happen, Swenson proposes two things must happen: “First, we must regain control of progress; and second, we must redirect it.”[2] While progress is not evil, it does always give more; the question is more of what? Upon this principle, Swenson demonstrates, “Progress works by differentiating our environment, [moving us] toward increasing stress, changing complexity, speed, intensity, and overload… [Ultimately,] the profusion of progress is on a collision course with human limits and once the threshold is exceeded, overload displaces margin.”[3] This is where the majority of people find themselves, as if they were stuck between two worlds. They want to feel good, but they have been lied to and believe the only way to experience joy or happiness is by being something they are not, by buying something they cannot afford, or by taking a magic pill. Society wants the payoff without putting forth any effort and this mindset has created an environment and a sense of entitlement among its people. Swenson could not be more right than in his opening statement: “The conditions of modern-day living devour margin [and] while one cannot blame all the pains of the world on lack of margin, it is fair to say that the lack of margin is a much greater component of our pain than most realize.”[4]
         While Swenson appears to lay the blame entirely on progress, it seems to be more of a contributing factor to the present state of where the world finds itself. A better way to assert Swenson’s conclusion would be to say there is an issue with the way society defines progress. Swenson maintains, “The lessons of history will only be marginally successful in framing our questions and suggesting our remedies. [When one navigates off the map,] they do not know what is around the next bend. Furthermore, they cannot depend on the lessons of history to tell them, for history, too, has never been here before.”[5] Swenson indicates, throughout history, some of the biggest contributing factors to margin are the poor use of time, personal carelessness, and procrastination. Swenson thus poses the question, “should we jettison progress and start over?”[6]
         By ignoring all the obvious benefits that progress has provided would seem foolish because the lack of margin is directly related more to our response to life than the progress in it? What can be agreed upon is the current state of humanity. There has never been a stage in our existence where time has ever been in such demand. This, as Swenson puts it, has caused, “Our relationships to be starved to death by the velocity [of life.]”[7] As a result, progress has caused time to be the most precious commodity, even more than human life. Americans are among the worst offenders, as they view progress mainly according to material and cognitive status. Due to this approach, Swenson demonstrates, “We have neglected to respect other more complex and less objective parameters along the way… especially relationships, [because] people are important beyond description.”[8]
           When encountering a member of one’s congregation who asks for help regarding a lack of margin in their life, the best course of action is to define the priorities in their life. Just as Swenson displays the five environments and how, “The progress we boast of is found within the material and cognitive environments, most of the pain we suffer is found within the social, emotional, and spiritual environments.”[9] As children of God, we are called to be image bearers and imitators of Christ, so by redefining progress to reflect His nature is the only way to truly measure progress and margin or the lack there of. William Wilberforce defines progress best, “[It is] the fear and love of God and of Christ; love, kindness, and meekness toward our fellow men; indifference to the possessions and events of this life compared with our concern about eternity; self-denial and humility.”[10] It is in Swenson’s concluding thoughts on progress versus margin where his proposal of measuring our progress not by our wealth, but by our virtue; not by our education, but by our humility; and not by our power, but by our meekness that he captures the call God has placed on all of His children. Love covers a multitude of sins, love provided a way for mankind’s redemption, and love is what God commands of His children. No earthly possession or title can ensure progress or guarantee salvation, so above all else, “You must measure your progress by your experience of the love of God and its exercise before men.”[11]


Swenson, Richard A. Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004.
Wilberforce, William. Real Christianity: Contrasted with the Prevailing Religious System. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1829.

[1] Richard Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004), 25.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Richard Swenson, Margin, 13 & 27.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Richard Swenson, Margin, 28-29.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] William Wilberforce, Real Christianity: Contrasted with the Prevailing Religious System, (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1829), 91.

[11] Ibid., 123.


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