The Death Grip of Debt

“A debtor to mercy alone …”  Oh, that the words of this hymn were true for all – just to be a debtor to mercy! Humanity as a whole owes a great debt of worship and glory to the great and gracious God from whom all blessings flow. With the entrance of sin into the world restricting man and creation’s ability to give God His due, a tremendous deficit has accrued since paradise and the initial praise of our first parents, Adam and Eve. In this way, sin robs God of His glory, yet we can all wonder at the fulness of the words of Psalm 69:4: “Then I restored that which I took not away.”[1] Christ at Calvary paid not only our sin debt but that which creation lost in Eden. God finds in Christ and His offering all and more than sin has robbed. The full redemption is yet to be realized, but the restoring price for all back payments has been paid!

While a Christian’s spiritual account is settled forever, an individual’s fiscal account may be very unsettling. Millions worldwide live in personal debt in countries that also carry public debt. Public and municipal debt seemingly causes few sleepless nights, but personal debt can be a burdensome weight pressing on the minds of many. Whether we have ever owed another a letter, a lunch or a large tax, there should be a burden to repay any debt. “Owe no man anything,” Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13, is not a prohibition from borrowing; it is a prohibition from neglecting to pay what is owed another. It should be a priority for the Christian to pay what we owe for the name’s sake of the One we owe the most.

While repaying a debt is just, avoiding debt in the first place is even better. God never wanted any in Israel in perpetual debt, which is partly why He established the seven-year release. At the end of Luke 14, the Lord Jesus illustrates truth regarding discipleship by suggesting it is common wisdom to count cost before committing to a venture. The wise man in Proverbs 22:7 observed that “the borrower is servant to the lender,” not free to pursue his own interests. The Lord said in Luke 16 that a man cannot serve God and mammon. Some devote themselves to the pursuit of riches, while others are quite captive, committed to years of labor in the death grip of debt. In either case, time, strength and opportunities to serve God are lost to serving money.

Debt, like a web, entangles quickly and is often spun by our own choices. Did I really need that particular model SUV and this three-story house in this part of the city? Is this degree from “Lofty University” worth more than my friend’s from “Common College”? Sometimes it’s not the direct fault of an individual at all, as when expenses rise and income remains static or drops altogether. Mortgages, school loans, medical bills and basic operational expenses compound quickly. Tragic or catastrophic events can erase decades of wise investments. The Bible assures us that treasures on earth can be lost suddenly. Debt can quickly grip the old or young, single or married, and even the wise and foolish.

The widow in 2 Kings 4, bereaved of her God-fearing husband, was found in very difficult circumstances. The term was up and the creditor had come to collect. He would not leave empty handed. Debt can force people to do anything to alleviate or reduce the debt. For her, to default was unthinkable – lose her sons into slavery. The pressure was surely unbearable. It was her cry that began the chapter, and it was this cry that reached Elisha. He responded with a workable plan using what she had available to pay off the debt. From a pot of oil, which God miraculously sustained, she filled many empty pots. Selling this abundant stock, she was told to pay her debt and live off the rest. God delivered the oil, and she and her sons delivered the vessels. Working together, the family was preserved.

While it wasn’t a traditional loan, Jacob certainly knew the burden, obligations and emotional toll of working off debt. After leaving home and falling in love, Jacob was willing and wise to “pay in advance,” working seven years before receiving his bride and committing to marriage. But then he was the one deceived as Laban switched daughters under the wedding veil. To capitalize more from Jacob’s love for Rachel, Laban did give him Rachel too, but obligated him to another seven years of labor. This time Jacob was paying post-possession, and felt the frustration and burden of owing time and labor to another. Laban was also a duplicitous creditor who, Jacob noted to his wives, “cheated me and changed my wages ten times” (Gen 31:7 ESV). Jacob, who seemed to remember every day and each long night, recounted with vivid detail the exhausting toil and burdensome responsibility felt as he worked to “pay off” his debt with apparently hidden fees and variable rates. Jacob had been quick to trick his family for blessing but now dutifully served the full years for Laban plus six. In the end, he appreciated that God was with him through it all, and that “God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands” (31:42).

Some can empathize with the presumably young man in II Kings 6. Here was another faithful prophet working with others to expand their residence. While chopping a tree near the flood-prone Jordan River, the ax head he was using fell into the water and was lost. The laboring prophet, who sought to help with borrowed equipment, felt the instantaneous weight and anxiety of the irrecoverable loss. His cry, “Alas, master! for it was borrowed” (v5), expressed the heart’s cry of one who now realized a debt and obligation to the lender. Once again, Elisha answered this cry and the ax head miraculously swam and was recovered. In all three examples, the hand of God and the human hand are seen working to recover the losses.

Many feel the death grip of debt today. And while causes vary, God does hear the widow’s cry and knows the workman’s plight. The same man who wrote “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another” (Rom 13:8) offered to pay any arrears, even if through theft, that the slave Onesimus may have owed Philemon. The only perpetual debt Paul envisions for believers is the love that should be continually paid to one another.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.