“Debt loads are soaring,” and “The Magic of Plastic,” were captions on articles in October 2003 issues of the Toronto’s National Post. Ease of credit and unbridled spending were highlighted as major contributors to the debt load that seriously impacts society. Debt has become an acceptable fact of life, never given a second thought. In fact, we have been acclimatized to it.
While some debt is unavoidable and inevitable, it must all be manageable. The rising cost of post-secondary education is problematic. Few have sufficient cash to purchase a car outright. Acquiring a house requires financing. These large ticket items are not generally the culprit creating the problem.
What should be a believer’s attitude towards debt since we are exhorted “Owe no man anything…” (Rom 13:8)? Does that mean that we are to operate on the “cash principle” and that all credit arrangements are wrong? No, not at all! The verse does not prohibit the use of credit. However, it is a warning about not paying our debts or bills by their due date. Only under exceptional circumstances should believers use the “buy now, pay later plan,” and a vacation is not one of them.
In her book “The Two-Income Trap,” Elizabeth Warren blames credit card companies for dangling temptation before those least able to resist it. Innovative and creative marketers lure individuals with easy payment terms or extended credit limits. Credit and debit cards as well as automated bank machines make spending money possible 24/7, 365 days a year. In an article “We’re playing our cards all wrong,” Matthew Barrett, the former head of the Bank of Montreal, who now leads British banking giant Barclays, told a United Kingdom credit card inquiry, “I don’t borrow on credit cards because it is too expensive.” Yes, they have their place, they are convenient, but if the statement is not paid in full each month, credit cards can be financially crippling.
Statements come in, and, all too often, only the minimum monthly payment is made. The debt continues to soar, just as the lenders intended. Then reality sets in, the discovery is made that the Scriptures are right, “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Prov 22:7) or as Lynn Forman puts it, “he who has the gold makes the rules.”
What happened? Where did things go wrong? For the most part, debt is not the result of not making enough money, but of not handling wisely what one has.
Uncontrolled or impulsive spending is symptomatic of a systemic problem. It is not the symptoms that need to be addressed, but the source. More often than not, dissatisfaction lies at the heart of it all, even though we know that we are to “be content with such things as [we] have” (Heb 13:5), and “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6). Looking at others, as well as by being manipulated by clever marketing, causes discontentment.
Spending beyond one’s means puts pressure on marriage and family relationships. Working overtime becomes the norm, even on a Lord’s Day, just to make ends meet or get ahead of the debt. Assembly responsibilities are neglected. Spiritually, one withers up. Usefulness for God is lost. The message to the remnant in Haggai’s day is still relevant, “Consider your ways” (Haggai 1:5, 7).
Scriptural principles, if applied, will help to deal with the root cause of debt. Understanding the truth of divine ownership, and the companion truth of stewardship, will bring focus to how we handle the problem.
When first saved, the only truth most of us were aware of was that our sins were forgiven and that we would never face the judgment we deserved. That is not all that happened. At that moment we came under new ownership, divine ownership. On two occasions, Paul reminded the Corinthians that “ye are bought with a price” (1Cor 6:20, 7:23) and therefore they were “not their own” (1 Cor 6:19).
While divine ownership is a fact, and we accept it intellectually, our life is often a denial of it. Recognizing that “I am Thine” (Psalm 119:94) should regulate every facet of life. By applying this truth, debt avoidance would be a high priority for each believer. Spending habits would be realigned to be consistent with it, recognizing that money is a stewardship for which there is accountability.
Take, for example, Joseph. Potiphar put all that he had under Joseph’s control (Gen 39:5). Joseph was responsible to manage it, not out of self-interest, but in the interest and for the blessing of his master. Is that not really what it is all about? As stewards, we should act in a responsible manner, recognizing that all belongs to the Lord (1 Cor 4:2). The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-29) illustrates the same truth.
Have you ever noticed how the Lord Jesus relates the secular to the spiritual? Trustworthiness in handling small things will expand one’s horizon in being trusted with greater responsibilities for “he that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10 RV). Unfaithfulness in managing our financial resources results in loss now as well as at the judgment seat of Christ, for “if therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16:11).
Budgeting is an important tool for managing finances. Is that not the principle that the Lord Jesus spoke of in dealing with the cost of discipleship? He posed the question, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he hath sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). Do not spend beyond your ability to pay; work from a budget. Every believer, young and old, should be familiar with, and use, budgeting as a tool to effectively manage finances.
To put the issue in perspective or put it succinctly, as the late Mr. Frank Pearcey often said, “If your output exceeds your income, then your upkeep will be your downfall.”