the problem of debt

The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is slave to the lender.

Proverbs 22:7

As we hear about the financial crisis in Greece and the growing possibility that Greece may default, go bankrupt and slide out of the Eurozone, the reality of the crushing burden of debt hits home for to many of us in the wealthy countries such as here in the United States. The economy of the United States is built largely (and I think, foolishly) on credit which means most people are going into debt to the point that there is little hope that they will escape that shadow at least anytime soon. And as long as people can borrow, they might make some sacrifice (some of that involuntary), but by and large they will keep up a lifestyle that not only meets their needs, but many of their wants, as well.

It does seem unrealistic to avoid debt and even the most conservative anti-debt advocates such as Dave Ramsey, make an exception for a home in what is called a mortgage, but I’m unaware of any other exception he and others like him might make. Unless one gets a scholarship into a full or partial ride through school, it is next to impossible to avoid debt in the form of school loans. And we know that it all depends on the salary one gets as to whether such a tact is a good one or not.

Let’s not forget investment of 401 Ks or the like. One should start in that in their twenties and leave it alone. Even if the United States has years of decline, it is a pretty sure bet that in the end, compound interest alone being a huge factor, there will be plenty of money to see one, or them and their spouse through “retirement” years. In my view just because one is in debt doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be investing toward retirement. One should be working toward paying off their debt and saving for the future at the same time. Don’t make the mistake of paying off the debt first, then saving. One loses out exponentially if one doesn’t start saving as early as possible and lets that saving accumulate over the years.

We must beware in all of this kind of proverbial wisdom thinking that we put our confidence and trust in anything less than God himself and God’s word. By seeking to be wise in these ways, we are trusting in God who in the end is our true Provider.

I for one am not a fan of debt, even if by having it and making payments in time one builds up good credit. That credit is good only to keep on borrowing. What is better by far is to avoid debt altogether insofar as that is possible. To do so in radical ways early on. One way that comes to mind is to trust the Lord for needed finances to avoid debt, and if those finances don’t come to simply refuse to proceed. In other words the radical idea that I won’t go to school unless the Lord provides the funds. That provision may come over time by working and saving. One should be willing to say no to whatever purchase seems necessary (with the exception of a home, I think) if one can’t pay for it upfront without debt. Faith would grow as a result, as one sees God answer prayer and provide for needs.

But for many of us that window of opportunity has come and gone. We’ve simply taken the American way of borrowing and borrowing some more and some more and on and on, so that borrowing is the way we make major purchases, after that taking years with oftentimes signficant interest against us, to pay them off, only to be greeted with more seemingly necessary debt. It can become such a way of life to us that we can easily fail to make the necessary changes to seriously cut into the debt beyond what is required and eventually cut it out altogether. Debt should always be the exception and never the rule, and when we do accrue debt, we should pay it off as soon as possible.

Life is not over though, if one is either head over heels in debt, or seriously enough so, even if later in life. Surely life will take on signficant challenges which those well off can hardly imagine. But the Lord is faithful to provide for his own as they seek first his kingdom and righeousness in their lives. We can do the best we can with what we have learned and the resources we have. And encourage especially younger people to do better, even as I’m trying to do here.

I agree with John Wesley’s counsel on money: Make all you can, save all you can and give all you can. But even if we have little to give (and by the way, I think people should continue to give to the Lord’s work, especially to the church, even when in debt) we can say to anyone: “Silver and gold I do not have. But what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” We who are poor in this world (certainly a relative term given the abject poverty in too many places in the world) can be rich in faith and a blessing even to those who have plenty in material goods but may be wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked (see the Lord’s description of the rich yet empty Laodicean church in Revelation 3). We have to learn to be content with little, generous with what we do have, and dispensers of the true riches in Jesus which last forever.