November 27, 2022
In today’s climate of record-breaking consumer debt, Paul’s exhortation to “owe no one anything” can sound at once profoundly timely and terribly naïve. How should 21st-century Western Christians think about debt? More importantly, how can our members make authentically Christian financial decisions? And how can those struggling with unmanageable debt (as some Christians undoubtedly do) find their way toward freedom?
It’s official: We’re in the most expensive part of the year and continuing through Christmas, this is the season when wallets groan and credit cards smoke ... all of which may enhance your exercise program come January, when you try to outrun your creditors!
For many of us, though, it’s past being a laughing matter. Anyone who reads the paper knows that consumer debt is at record levels ... and some of us don’t have to read the paper to know about it. With more than half of American credit card holders unable to pay off their balance each month,1 there are undoubtedly some here today for whom this is a personal issue, for whom Paul’s exhortation to “owe no one anything” sounds somewhere between laughable and a ghastly judgment.
Consider the Petersons, a family profiled on ABC News.2 A California software engineer and a stay-at-home mom with three kids, they live in a nice neighborhood with a big house, a pool, good cars, a vacation place, all the bells and whistles ... and a great deal of debt. With monthly expenses that almost double their sizable income, they were using credit cards to make ends meet; “and then,” said Mrs. Peterson, “the credit card payments start increasing, and you just can’t make ends meet even doing that.” She wasn’t sleeping very well.
Maybe you know what it’s like.
Or maybe you’re not in that far into debt, and don’t expect to be, and so you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, as any financial counselor will tell you, debt can be a smart tool for building your well-being. Borrowing for an education, for instance, or refinancing your mortgage to get a lower interest rate or free up cash for big projects, can pay off handsomely. Even in the Petersons’ case, this same woman who’s losing sleep over her family’s unmanageable debt has no regrets about having taken an expensive vacation when they were already over their heads; it was a valuable time of bonding with the children, a “gift to my family,” she said.
So, it’s not a simple call. Debt can be helpful, or debt can be unhelpful, or it can be some of each.
But can debt be good? Can it be an appropriate situation for a Christian? Or does religion even have anything to do with it?
I think many of us, especially if we’re over the age of 50, have a deeply rooted “gut sense” that debt is somehow wrong, that it’s inappropriate, dangerous, and morally dubious. “Owe no one anything” seems like a perfectly obvious thing to say. But why? Because to your children and grandchildren, there’s nothing obvious about it at all.
Well, in Romans, part of the reason Paul said to owe no one anything was that Christianity was the new kid on the block, and people looked at it with the same suspicion that we reserve for cults. It was in the church’s interest to prove that Christians were good, responsible citizens — and that meant keeping up with all the tariffs, tributes, and taxes, as well as kowtowing appropriately to government officials, and otherwise keeping their heads down. “Prove that you’re not a threat to good order” is part of what Paul was saying.
But his thinking goes much deeper than that. “Owe no one anything — except love,” he adds, because “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Of all the things that Jesus, and indeed our whole Judeo-Christian scriptures, teach us, the heart and soul can be boiled down to “Love God with everything in you, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And that has economic implications.
Let’s start with the rock-bottom concern of not being a threat to good order. So many Americans are living beyond their means that at least some economists are concerned that household debt could be the straw that breaks the back of the U.S. economy3 — and maybe even the world’s. As the CNNMoney website noted as long ago as 2004, “The world economy is leveraged to the U.S. consumer. And the U.S. consumer is leveraged to the hilt.”4 That’s not small potatoes. Our individual economic choices, taken together, can have a big impact.
But even in the wake of the sub-prime crisis, not everyone agrees that consumer debt poses a lasting threat to the economy. So, let’s dig a little deeper, and ask about what it means, in terms of our individual economic choices, to fulfill the Christian mandate to love. There are a couple of things to consider here.
The most basic — before we even really get to love — is to “pay to all what is due them,” as Paul says in his remarks on good citizenship. And he goes on to point out that “love does no wrong to a neighbor,” so we’ll need to move beyond mere obligation to think about how our economic choices could risk being harmful to others ... and from there think as Christians in more positive terms as well about what is the most helpful thing we could do with our money at any given point, because love goes beyond not harming; it seeks the best.
Let’s start with the basics, with obligation. Right there it would seem that we’ve got the debt issue licked, because what is a debt if not an obligation to pay? And if we’re supposed to “pay revenue to whom revenue is due,” well, then our debts should be paid off in as timely a manner as possible, if not avoided in the first place. Our grandparents’ standard that one should not buy something until one can pay for it outright might just be worth reviving! Apart from a house, a car and perhaps an education, most expenses can be planned, saved ... and waited for — and many would say that they should be.
On the other hand, consumption has become almost a patriotic duty. Consumer spending, after all, accounts for some 70 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.5 So maybe we owe it to our economy to run up a certain amount of debt.
And if we’re talking about love — isn’t a great deal of debt incurred in the name of love? Like Mrs. Peterson justifying that vacation they couldn’t afford because it drew the family closer together — isn’t that love? And the good neighborhood and all the trimmings — don’t those say love?
Maybe now is the time to look again at “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Or, as the medical profession likes to put it, “First, do no harm.” And this is where a lot of soul-searching and inner honesty are required. Because sometimes what looks harmful isn’t; and sometimes what looks innocuous, bites.
We all know that money can’t buy what really matters, that hardship can build moral fiber and that your real wealth is inside you. At the same time, there are situations — on the job, for instance — where appearances do matter; and there is such a thing as our human need to fit in with our peers. So how do we make wise, and authentically Christian, decisions about our spending?
In holding up the centrality of love, Paul gives us a very important standard: Love seeks the best interest of the loved one. While a dream vacation may say “love” to your family, as Mrs. Peterson maintained, over the long haul what says love — or fails to — much more loudly is how much time you spend talking and listening over the dinner table. Let’s not let appearance get in the way of substance. There are many ways to have fun together as a family, many ways to give good gifts. And few gifts could be better than the example of living well within our means and giving our children the skills, they need to do likewise. Indeed, failing to do this can actively harm them. When you are contemplating how, and how much, to spend, think carefully about what the most genuinely loving and helpful course might be. Pray over it. Your decision might surprise you.
It has never been more important to make the effort to think carefully about this. Our culture is not going to help us; we are constantly encouraged to spend uncritically, as if there were not tomorrow. But our faith tells us that we are stewards, managing the earth and its resources — including our money — on God’s behalf.6 And if we are administering on God’s behalf, then we need to reflect both realistically and prayerfully on how we can best deploy our resources in the name of the highest good.
I know that many people find budgeting a pain. One person described the time, thought and discipline required as “soul sucking.”7 But you need a plan. It doesn’t have to be the Encyclopedia Britannica of finance; it just must represent what you need to do and want to do and how you expect to do it. You start by sitting down and talking over with your nearest and dearest what your needs and wants are going to be: You must live, obviously, and you’d like to redo the bathroom, pay for the kids’ education, and live on something other than dog food when you’re 85. Write it all down. Then think about what risks you may face, like unexpected medical expenses or unemployment, and how you want to hedge against them. Then you look at what resources you have, and develop a plan based on those realities. To make it even easier, most banks have financial planners who can help you.
A financial planner can also help you figure out what to do if you’re already in over your head. There is no quick, easy, or pain-free way to get out of debt — nor, for that matter, to avoid getting into debt in the first place. But it is possible. And help is out there.
“Owe no one anything” can sound like a pipe dream. But it isn’t. The God who liberated the slaves from Egypt, who liberated all of us from our debt to sin, will support you in your efforts to live in the liberty of love financially, too. There’s no going back and undoing the past; no one can make a brand-new start. But anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending. May God bless you in your financial faithfulness.
• Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
• The Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey
• On My Own Two Feet, by Manisha Thakor (personal finance for young women)
• www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2007/12/03/free-at-last-saying-good-bye-to-20-years-of-debt/ (inspiring story and sound advice)
• www.creditcards.com (library of articles, including a series on getting out of credit card debt)
1 Lee Hoffman, Joneil Adriano and Jessica Hornig, “Digging out of Debt,” January 19, 2007, abcnews.go.com/2020/Story?id=2804927&page=1.
2 Hoffman et. al.
3 Mark Zandi, quoted by Barbara Hagenbaugh, “Consumer debt loads at record,” Managing Your Money, March 18, 2004, www.usatoday.com/money/perfi/general/2004-03-17-debtcover_x.html.
4 Quoted by Joanne Laurier, “U.S. consumer debt reaches record levels,” January 15, 2004, www.wsws.org/articles/2004/jan2004/debt-j15.shtml.
6 Genesis 1:28
7 “Chris,” Response #8 to “Free at Last! Saying Good-Bye to 20 Years of Debt,” by. “J.D.” on December 3, 2007, www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2007/12/03/free-at-last-saying-good-bye-to-20-years-of-debt/.