The Christian money gurus of the day champion the idea of debt free living as if it’s in the Bible.
While I’m not against someone wanting to be debt free, I am against the ‘debt shaming’ that has emerged from this kind of teaching.
Christian Financial talking-heads seem to be concerned with avoiding debt based on a few proverbs. They essentially say, “If you can afford I with cash… you can have it.”
This teaching is way outside the bounds of the story of the Bible as it pertains to money.
When someone bases their entire money theology off of one verse out of the Bible. You should run…fast!
Especially when that single teaching is not unique to Christianity.
What these ‘Christian’ Money guys are teaching is just as Taoist and Muslim as it is Christian.
Money Proverbs Across the Religious Spectrum
The idea that debt is dangerous is not unique to Christianity. Once again, “Christian Money guys” take secular worldly advice, wrap a pretty little Christian Proverb around it and feed it to the church as a moralistic entrée.
Dave Ramsey loves to quote: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Proverbs 22:7
But he could just as easily quote this Chinese Proverb:
“Happy is the man without sickness. Rich is the man with no debts.”
Or this African Proverb
“Debt is slavery”
From my experience being a banker, Islam is better known for its avoidance of paying interest than Christianity.
Taken by itself, there is nothing uniquely Christian about this proverb. It’s a misuse of the purpose of a proverb.
This proverb from the Christian Bible is simply stating a fact: There is a power imbalance between a lender and a borrower.
So then does that mean we shouldn’t borrow?
Focusing on the Symptom
When Christians focus on the avoidance of debt, they are focusing on curing the symptom of a larger problem.
This is just like the patient who refuses to change their exercise and eating habits and instead relies on medication to keep their vitals in order. It keeps them in the game, but it’s not altogether healthy and causes plenty of side effects.
This is what I call ‘Shoe-shine’ Christianity. Where the goal is to look good, look holy, look acceptable. Anything to avoid what’s actually going on in the heart.
When I can avoid debt, work hard to get cash, and shame anyone else who happens to be in debt, I get the dual benefits of appearing financially ‘healthy’, and righteousness.
Jesus had some harsh words for people like that.
Debt is not the problem.
Our consumerist drive, our need to satiate every appetite without delay, our discontentment with our current belongings. These are the things that drive our debt.
And these are sicknesses of the heart, not the wallet.
But the problem doesn’t go away just because we use cash.
Hedonism is hedonism, it doesn’t matter how you finance it.
What is Debt Really?
One of the Five Principles of Mission Minded Money is to avoid entanglements.
I’m not advocating debt.
I’m not saying you should go open up an Apple credit card and swipe away.
What I am saying is we should deal with each of these issues individually and recognize that ‘owing someone something’ goes much deeper than simple debt instruments.
We are all in debt (financially or otherwise) all the time, and that’s actually just a part of living interdependent lives.
Monthly payments: Dave Ramsey barks that it is “stupid to give your future income away to somebody else”.(And just because I can’t help myself here’s Dave acting like a child)
But, a world without commitments is a highly individualized selfish economy.
I have monthly commitments towards ministries, missionaries and my church.
Are these payments dumb?
Sure, if I don’t pay them there is no recourse, and I’m free to modify my ‘commitment’ at any time. But if I do, I’m ‘defaulting’ on a promise.
A 12-month lease (A promise to make monthly payments) is also a form of debt. Try breaking your lease and see if there is no recourse.
Monthly payments, in and of themselves are not bad things. They are commitments we make to people for a variety of reasons, but we should enter into commitments seriously, thoughtfully and prayerfully and not to satiate our appetites, but to accomplish the mission.
We commit our time and affections to lots of things, like organizations, people and employers.
These commitments require daily, weekly and monthly inputs. We should enter these things carefully, because we are committing our future time, money and affection to these things.
Where you commit your affections concerns God much more than where you commit your money. But, where you commit your money reveals where your affections are.
When we use monthly payments to get into vehicles, houses and goods that are beyond what is mission essential we are trying to get something out of this purchase that we should be getting from God. Just because we can complete a purchase without using debt, doesn’t make it OK.
The problem isn’t the debt instrument. The problem is our heart.
We think this house or vehicle or purchase is going to make us feel, safe, or important or satisfied. But it simply stokes our discontentment, binding us to a physical asset instead of God’s mission.
Interest Payments: Championing the avoidance of interest payments is more Muslim than it is Christian. Commitment towards interest payments can become an entanglement, but it can also be an efficient use of dollars.
Let’s think of it this way. A church saves $500,000 for a building and they purchase it cash. That is $500,000 that didn’t go into the community to feed the poor, to help the lost, to nurture the community. To me, that’s a crying shame.
On the flip side, they could have saved $100,000 and invested another $400,000 in to the community over that time. Actually, making their city better. Loving their community to life. I don’t know… being like Jesus?
An organization could look at the interest expense as the cost of doing business and trust God to provide on-going support for the payments. This is no different than if the church were to forego the purchase altogether and simply lease a building.
I’m not saying every church SHOULD borrow. I’m simply questioning, how much ‘holiness’ there is in withholding $400,000 of support to your community so that you can pay cash for a building for…you.
We pay for convenience, ease and accessibility in so many other ways. All interest is is paying for money. Just like we pay for utilities, internet or fuel for a car. When that money is going on mission, it can be money well spent.
A church that withholds money from a community so they can buy themselves a building is a country club, not a mission base.
Debt getting in the way of your mission? Get the Debt pay-off worksheet and paying it off fast!
Commitment: This is the least talked about, and the most dangerous part of debt. I have no problem with paying for a good or a service (interest), or making monthly payments. But entangling ourselves with commitments can limit what we are able to move into in the future.
But we do this all the time.
“Johnny has t-ball”
“Janie has soccer”
“I have a meeting at work I can’t get out of”
We are over-committed people.
We commit our time and our dollars and our affections towards so many things, there is no room for more. There is no room for God.
But it’s not the debt’s fault.
Because even if we paid cash for the house or the car or the education. We are committing our time, our affections and our love towards these things that we purchase.
And we cause ourselves to go into ‘debt’ in all the other empty promises we make and the promises we make to God to go on mission once we get things “set-up”.
The Mission minded approach to debt, is one with an open hand.
One that is willing to orient their decision making around what God said, not what Dave says.
We need to be more open to acknowledging that some people are called to ‘debt free living’. But others aren’t. That the Bible isn’t clear on this subject at all and the call for the Christian is to take risky steps for the Kingdom. The Gospel is one of risk, not risk avoidance.
It takes more faith to step into something you think God is going to do, than it does to wait for all the money to be there before you go.
I believe that God can speak to us.
So, I believe he can stop me from entering into a debt agreement if I’m doing it for the wrong reasons, but He can also guide me toward creative financing solutions.
If we fix the heart, we fix the problem.
Debt free living, taught as a Biblical mandate is preaching the “doctrines of man as the commands of God.”