“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Prov. 22:7 NASB).
Debt can crush us. Debt affects us personally, corporately, and spiritually. Debt itself is not sinful, but it may be unwise. Too much debt can be sinful.
Debt affects individuals personally. We all desire to be debt-free, yet we bind ourselves to lenders. Those who have signed for a mortgage, new car, or school loan understand the weight of that decision. If they didn’t feel the weight of the decision when signing, they feel it when the bills start to arrive. As many analyze their financial health, they feel much like the foolish virgins who have used most of their oil and realize it will run out before the night is over
Debt takes a toll on its owners emotionally and physically. Experts see a correlation between a poor financial situation and stress. According to www.mayoclinic.org, stress has been shown to negatively affect sleep, eating, digestion, moods, anxiety levels, overall mental health, ulcers, increased heart rates, and blood pressure—just to name a few. Since debt tends to produce stress and anxiety, those with mounting debt are more likely to experience these maladies. Christians need to know that debt is something to be avoided; it can rob us of our peace of mind.
Debt affects Christians corporately because it adversely affects relationships. Look at the synonyms for debt: obligation, duty, responsibility, liability, dues, and commitment; none of these produce feelings of comfort and confidence. The stress produced by debt not only affects our intimate relationships, but can also spill over to our secondary relationships. Have you felt that crushing feeling in your chest, the anxiety and fear that debt can invoke? Debt is similar to waves lapping up on the shore: the bills come regularly and relentlessly. If we are not careful, the pressures from debt can build and produce bouts of anger, frustration, irritability, sadness, and depression, impacting relationships we have with others. Financial expert Dave Ramsey states that “disagreements over money and finances are the number-one cause of marital strife and divorce in North America today.”
An engaged couple should make every effort to enter marriage without debt in order to minimize unnecessary burdens and stress. I marvel at couples who spend tens of thousands of their own dollars on a wedding and honeymoon, only to return to a sizable debt that may plague their marriage for months and possibly years. I’ve seen couples who commit to purchases that stretch their budgets to the limit or beyond what they can reasonably afford. These types of purchases and the accumulation of debt cause friction in marriages because mounting debt will eventually rob couples of choices. Both spouses may have to work in order to stay ahead of their bills. When children arrive, the choice for one parent to forgo work in order to be at home and raise the children has been made for them by their unhealthy financial situation. This can produce feelings of anger, shame, guilt, frustration, envy, and anxiety in one or both of the parents, and these emotions work their way into how they interact with each other, friends, and family.
Debt affects us spiritually. Don’t you find it ironic that by definition we as Christians have been set free from a debt that ensnared us, and yet we often take on debt that can ensnare us financially? Being debt-free is a principle and precedent in the gospel that should be applied to our lives. There is freedom in a life without debt. Our debt affects us spiritually because it burdens our emotions and relations and hinders us from performing and caring for one another. Do you know Christians who are working extra hours or extra jobs, or spouses who have gone back to work, in order to pay bills that could have been avoided or minimized? Avoidable financial burdens keep us from ministering to one another. How can we visit the poor, tend to the weak, and minister to the widow, when all of our time is spoken for? How does a Christian catechize his children and lead family worship when he is home late and out early? How does he love his bride and care for her needs and exceed her expectations, when he is preoccupied with work and bills?
Debt affects our ability to serve. Have you ever seen a need and wished you could meet it, but your financial situation prevented you from doing so? There are opportunities to serve or supply financial assistance to a cause, family, or need that many of us would long to support, but can’t. Our beautiful intentions quickly fade as we make the slow walk back from the mailbox, shuffling through the reminders that compete for our Christian charity.
A Christian’s ability to tithe may also be affected as debt accumulates. Christian financial experts encourage families to first pay their tithe and to then pay off their other bills. That strategy is an effective one, but it often goes unheeded. Why? The pressure to pay bills and meet our obligations tugs at us because unpaid bills produce penalties, whereas withholding or short-changing our tithe may be an easier decision to justify to ourselves. Christians, on average, give 2.38 percent of their income to churches, according to Empty Tomb, which has tracked tithing and giving to religious organizations since 1968. According to www.gobankingrates.com, the average American is more than $225,000 in debt (see the breakdown below), and one wonders if our debt load is affecting our ability to tithe. The reality is that when debt occupies more and more of our finite financial pie, we as Christians must make a choice, and the private choice that only our accountant and the Lord see may be to cut back on our tithe. For many, this choice is difficult and is meant to be temporary, but if spending habits do not change, then this situation continues or worsens. The choice of reducing our tithe hurts us spiritually, since the tithe is an important and beautiful reminder that all is not ours. The profound act of regular tithing keeps us mindful, humble, and thankful. God must be the priority and he deserves our affection and full worship. When we take on debt to the point where tithing, supporting church and denominational goals, and caring for each other is jeopardized, we and others are being hurt spiritually.
So should a Christian ever take on debt? I am not a financial counselor or qualified advisor, so I’ll just share with you my rule of thumb: avoid debt when you can. The first reason to live a debt-free lifestyle is the precedent set in Scripture. Deuteronomy 28:12 says, “The Lord will open up for you his rich treasure house of the heavens, to give your land rain in due season, blessing all your undertakings, so that you will lend to many nations and borrow from none” (NAB). God clearly lays out for Israel his expectations of how they were to handle their wealth: they were to be lenders to other nations, not debtors. God understands that the borrower became the lender’s slave because the position of power belongs to the one who controls the purse strings.
If one must take on debt, try to go into debt only for those items that gain value over time. Traditionally, experts have pointed to real estate and education as good examples of debt-worthy investments; however, these past few years have shown that even these can be risky. With most other purchases, financial experts such as Dave Ramsey advise that it is best to save first and then purchase an item with cash. This habit helps to develop a healthy sense of delayed gratification and helps individuals purchase within their financial reality. Take a car purchase, for example. If Tom cannot save $300 per month before he purchases a car, then why would he think that he will miraculously produce $300 per month after he purchases a car on credit? It is the same $300, but paying the money after the purchase binds him to the lender, while he also pays interest on the loan, further reducing his wealth and purchasing power over time. Learning to live on a cash-first basis helps families live within their means, develop a delayed-gratification mentality, and avoid the wealth-eroding effects of interest.
How should a Christian manage his wealth, and what should be his attitude toward debt? Did I say his wealth? I meant His wealth. A correct view of wealth begins with the knowledge that Christians are stewards of God’s good gifts. All of one’s wealth belongs to the Lord, and it is the Christian’s responsibility to manage it in order to bring honor to Christ. One of the advantages of being debt-free is the ability to lend and give freely. The call to be good stewards to one another implies the ability to lend and give from storehouses that are not empty. It is not enough to say to those who are hungry, “Go and be blessed.” We must feed the hungry, but how can we give when we owe? Those who strive to be debt-free are in better shape to help those in need. Being debt-free allows Christians to give abundantly. Striving to make wise financial decisions allows one to tithe without concern.
Being debt-free frees us from the emotional, physical, and psychological effects of the stress and anxiety that often accompany debt. Living debt-free improves our health, our relationships, and our spiritual life, which is tied to our worship of the King.
The author is a deacon at Church of the Covenant in Hackettstown, N.J. New Horizons, June 2014.