Monday, July 19, 2010

The Christian And Debt

There once was a member in the Church,
     who left the ministry in a lurch.
You see, because he couldn't pay, at least that's what he did say,  
     he jerked his kid from the Christian school and put him in the public school.
Refusing to pay the rest of the tuition he owed,  
     he decided the teachers could do without their pay,
but deciding that he needed a new car for the road,
     he borrowed lots of money for his Cabriolet.
But the strangest thing that I ever did see
    was when this Christian gave a testimony,
claiming that God blessed him by enabling him to borrow,
     he paid no mind to His heavenly Father's sorrow.
And why would God sorrow for being thanked for a car?
     Because such a testimony God's reputation does mar.
For the Christian worker unpaid by the selfish one's neglect,
     and the child abandoned to heathens for a more important debt.

     Do you like my little poem? It is a poem describing an amazing example of one Christian's ability to deceive himself into thinking that he can justify not paying tuition for his child to attend a Christian school, that he said God led him to enroll his child in. However, he can go out and borrow money to buy a new car, stand up in front of the whole church, and brag on how God gave him the car. What you have to borrow money to pay for God did not give you, because what God gives you God gives you.  Perhaps confusion in this area is one of the reasons so many people are actually lost who claim to be, and who actually think they are, born again people.
     Consider those people who think that God gave them their house, when they will spend the next thirty years paying for it. Consider, also, those who think God gave them their car, and who will also spend the next five years paying for it. Both "gifts" must be paid for and are financed at outrageous rates of interest. Could it be that folks who think such arrangements as these are "gifts" from God are confused about eternal life being the gift of God, as well? Perhaps they also think "the gift of God which is eternal life" must also be paid for, just as these other so-called "gifts" from God need to be paid for. Beyond this person who claims to be a Christian, but who may very well be lost because of genuine confusion about what is and what is not a gift from God, what about the child? As I have observed family after family over the years of my ministry, I always wonder about the children. Our sins always ravage the children. 
     What must the child think who is lower on his parent's priority list than a new car or a hobby? How can my daughter believe me when I tell her I love her if I spend less money on her than a new car? Do not think that people who make these kinds of self-deceiving choices are not aware of their children's scrutiny and the inquisitive thinking of their friends. That is why, almost immediately after they make such decisions as these, despite the hours of counseling, despite the investment of church member's lives in them and their welfare, despite the quality education their child has received from very competent and dedicated Christian school workers, they begin to trash ministries they had praised for so long. You see, it is the pattern of selfish people to do whatever they can to salvage their own testimonies and reputations and to justify their sinful behavior to foolish listeners. After they have done wrong and have sinned greatly against God and others, their own children included, they frequently try to distract the attention of others from their own wicked behavior by speaking against and gossiping about ministries they have benefited so much from. Never mind that the Bible says that the grievances they say they have with the church are to be redressed in private. Never mind that the cause of Christ may be harmed by such careless talk in front of spiritual babes or unsaved people.  And never mind that this behavior guarantees that their own children will never seek comfort and consolation, will never turn to Christ or Christians, in the church they so vigorously badmouth. All the ingrate cares about is the facade of righteousness he has erected and seeks to maintain to the fools who keep his company.
     Why am I speaking so strongly against this kind of behavior? Do I have some kind of vendetta? I speak on this kind of behavior because it is not all that uncommon, and because the Bible speaks to it. The illustration I used of a church member's behavior is true. The names have been omitted to protect the guilty. But since there is nothing new under the sun, the things I have described to you have happened numerous times in the past, are happening now, and will happen again, no matter what steps are taken to prevent it.
     If you have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ, if you have a healthy fear of God and love for God's people, then Romans 13.8-10, rightly understood, tells of the Christian's proper attitude toward and relationship with debt. The Apostle Paul describe the Christian's relationship with others in terms of debt, in terms of obligation. Remember, the church member in the poem felt no obligation to adhere to his word to pay tuition through the course of the school year. That church member felt no obligation or debt to provide Christian education for his child, going back on a previously stated position. But that former Church member did choose to obligate himself for the purpose of borrowing money to purchase a new car, all the while claiming that God gave it to him.
     In Romans 13.8-10, God's Word defines the Christian's proper relationship to debts of obligation. I will leave it to you to look the passage up in your Bible.  Two considerations:


     Generally speaking, what should the Christian's attitude toward debt be? What should the Christian posture toward owing things to others be?  Paul, changing from the believer's obligation toward human government, where he writes "render to all their dues" in Romans 13.7, writes these words in Romans 13.8: "Owe no man any thing." Recognizing that the word "dues" is the noun form of the same word as the verb translated "owe," we see that Paul is still dealing the concept of what a person "ought" to do, what is right to do, what there is a moral obligation to do.But the command, for it is a command, to "owe no man any thing," is couched in a cultural context that is so far removed from ours as to rightly be considered foreign.  So we have an extremely difficult time comprehending what Paul is stating so simply. To illustrate the truth of what I have said you ought to read the comments of commentators. You ought to hear the responses of pastors. So strange is the concept of owing no man anything to modern day Christians that virtually every authority you might choose to consult will maintain, without any scriptural evidence to back up his statements whatsoever, that "owe no man any thing" means to make your debt payments in a timely manner. But what did "owe no man any thing" mean to those to whom this letter from Paul was originally written? How was it taken in light of Old Testament truth? To address these issues consider this plain directive from God's Word in two ways:
     First, considered historically. Do I need to establish that Jews living during Old Testament times were forbidden to lend money to Jews at usury, which is to say they were forbidden to charge interest of any kind on a loan made to a Jewish person?  I do not think so. That truth is too well known to need establishing. Do I need to establish, or is it already understood, that God's desire for His people was for them to loan and not to borrow from Gentiles? Therefore, it should be understood by one and all here today that, since Jewish person A was not to loan money to Jewish person B, unless it was loaned interest free, Jewish person B was effectively forbidden to borrow money and thus be obligated to repay debts in the manner that is so common today. To put it another way:  It is clear that God's plan for the handling of money by Jewish people did not include borrowing money at interest and paying it back over a period of time. Loaning money to Gentiles at interest, however, and receiving payment from them over a period of time, was perfectly acceptable to God. If that establishes a precedent for us to follow today, and I rather think it does, it would be this: Christian, do not borrow from unsaved people and pay them back with interest.  Instead, loan money to unsaved people and let them pay you back with interest. After all, you are the ones with the God Who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and the wealth in every mine. Amen? What are you doing borrowing money from lost people when you claim your God supplies your needs? What did the Christians of Rome, with their strong Jewish background of training, understand this phrase to mean? Read Romans 1.14, and take note of the word   translated "debtor," which is the noun form of our word "owe," and is found some forty times in the New Testament. In both noun and verb forms it refers to that which is owed, to that for which obligation must be discharged, to that which one ought to do. So, the original readers of Paul's letter to the Romans recognized that when the government obligated them to pay taxes, Romans 13.7, they were to discharge that obligation. However, they were not to voluntarily obligate themselves financially of their own free will.
     Now, consider the practical consequence of this command. Do you violate this command when you obligate yourself to pay for electricity that you have already used, paying for it at the end of the month? I do not think so. Why not? Because you have no option. This is not a matter of your own will. It is the way the electric company operates under our socialist system. It would be better for you and me, and the electric company, if they let us draw on a balance that we maintained with them. That way no one would ever stiff the power company, and their additional income from our money they held would mean additional profit and in turn lower power consumption rates. Cheaper electricity. What about buying a house or a car on time, or anything on time? Is that your own choice? It sure is. No one makes you buy a car or house. It is entirely optional. Therefore, the only way you will ever buy a house or car is to intentionally obligate yourself for a considerable period of time, unless you pay cash for it. How much cheaper is a car paid for with cash, saving the interest charged over the life of the loan? This is just the concept of obligation in general.  In general, Paul commands us to "owe no man any thing." Why is Paul so adamant about being debt free?


Notice how Paul relates the Christian's relationship to obligation to love for his fellow man. One phrase or verse at a time:

"But to love one another"

Please take note of the fact that this word "but" does not carry with it the idea that Christians are to "owe no man any thing, but instead of owing any thing Christians are to love one another." That's not the idea here at all.  Understand that Paul's statement here fits perfectly with what he wrote in Romans 1.14, which we considered just a few moments ago. What Paul is declaring is this: The only debt which the Christian is supposed to have is the debt to love one another. The love debt is a real obligation. You can owe a tax bill and then pay it off. Once it's paid off you are no longer obligated. You might even find yourself owing a monthly payment for your credit card. Understand that when that card is finally paid off you have no further obligation. Those are two dischargeable obligations, one you do not and the other you do have a choice about. But they are dischargeable. The obligation to love one another, however, is a debt of obligation assigned to you by God that can never fully be discharged.  Love one guy and when you turn around there is another person you are just as obligated to show Christian love for as the first guy. Could it possibly be that the reason God doesn't want you to voluntarily enter into debts of obligation to others is because He assigned you a debt of obligation that will keep you more than busy? Could it be that although you are a great lover of men you may not be as much a lover of others as you could be if you were debt free? "I don't understand." Though God's resources are limitless, the resources He actually gives to us are carefully measured. By obligating himself to that car payment, our man in the poem could not, with the limited resources given to him by God, express his love for his child as he ought to. Who suffered? His child. But understand this as well: The "one another" in this phrase is not just your child or another Christian. It refers to another person. Your ability to love everyone is limited in some way by your indebtedness, whether or not you recognize it as being so.

"For he that loveth hath fulfilled the law"

What, precisely, the law is that is referred to here is open to question. Is it the law of the land that is fulfilled when you show love for other folks?  Is it the Law of Moses that is fulfilled when you show love for other folks? And I say "show love" because you don't actually love without showing love, do you? Love is not an attitude. Love is an activity. Love is not what you feel, but what you do. Whatever, then, this law is that Paul is referring to, it is satisfied when the child of God actively discharges the only obligation he is supposed to have, the only obligation he is authorized by God to have.

"For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."

In Exodus chapter 20, we find the ten commandments given to Moses by God. Of those ten commandments, four, the first four, describe man's duty toward God. The final six describe man's duty toward his fellow man. Of those six, five are listed here by Paul, with only the command to honor your father and mother not listed. In light of this verse, I would strongly suggest that the law referred to by Paul in verse 8, while not necessarily being the entire Law of Moses, and not being the entire ten commandments, probably consists of the commandments that describe man's duty toward man. So, what Paul is instructing his readers is this: When you discharge your duty to love your fellow man you are doing what God has described your responsibilities to be toward your fellow man in the ten commandments.

"Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."

Does God retain the right to bless and withhold blessing? Of course He does. When God withholds blessing from you, or when He tests and tries you, does He necessarily want others unnecessarily involved? In other words, could God want to take you through a financially lean time and take good old George through a financially fat time? Sure. But what happens when God tests you by laying you off when you are in debt up to your ears? If you owe no man any thing you are tested by God and you can cry out to God for a job to support your family. Period. If you owe money to George, however, when you lose your job you cannot pay George what you owe him. Even after you lose your good reputation you still owe good old George.  Thus, you have sinned against him by defaulting and not paying him. "But, I did not mean to covet when I bought what I could not afford. I did not mean to steal from George by taking his money and not paying it all back. I did not mean to bear false witness when I said I'd pay him each and every month, but couldn't because I was laid off. I love old George and wouldn't do anything in the world to harm him." When you borrowed the money to buy what you could not afford you did so because you coveted. When you could not pay off what you owed because you presumed that God would not or could not work in your life by getting you laid off or laid up injured, you stole and you bore false witness. In short, you could not love George like you might otherwise have had you not borrowed his money and gone into his debt. "No. I only borrow when I have collateral. That way George always gets more than he loaned to me if I default." That way you have literally thrown away your equity if you default. That's good stewardship?

     Christian, if you present your body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service, then you have acknowledged in the third way God's ownership of your life. First, God owns you because He made you. No believer disputes that fact. Second, God owns you because Christ's blood was shed to purchase you from sin. No believer disputes that. And third, God owns you because you consciously and constantly give yourself to Him.
     My, what a wonderful thing it is to live in the freedom of God's will for your life . . . unless God's will conflicts with our own personal hopes and aspirations, that is. Unless God's clearly revealed will dims one's hopes of owning a nice home some day, or a nice new car.God's will is for our lives to be an instrument to express His great love for mankind.  Our usefulness as instruments to express God's great love is hindered when we obligate ourselves in any other way than to express God's love to our fellow man.
     I know from personal experience what it is like to consider this passage and to struggle for another understanding of the passage. I know what bondage to the American dream and its indebtedness is like. I have tried for years to figure out a way to interpret this passage so that I could mortgage a house or finance a car without sinning against God. I have read all the commentaries. I have considered all the options. Every single one of them. I have talked with dozens of pastors. The results are always the same.
     If the Word of God is the final authority, and if the Bible is allowed to speak for itself, then it must be admitted that God does not want His people to financially obligate themselves by going into debt. Financial indebtedness interferes with the Christian's ability to faithfully and fully discharge his obligation to love others. "But the Bible says we are to live by faith." This is most true. However, faith is not presumption. Faith is trusting God enough to live God's way, not the world's way. It is presumptuous to obligate yourself to pay tomorrow what you may not have tomorrow. It is never faith to presume that God is going to do what He has not expressly said He would do in the Bible.
     We do an injustice to the text if we do not conclude by saying this: Paul's whole thrust in these three verses is to describe for the Christian the only obligation God wants us to have toward our fellow man - love. We are not just to love the lovely. We are to love all men. And the specific way we show love to the lost, the particular way we discharge our debt, our obligation, to those who are not saved, is by preaching the Gospel to them. I wonder how bold the worker would be to witness to his boss if he had no mortgage payment and owned his car free and clear? My, how free to do right you are when you owe no man any thing. Think of how you could love on people if you were so unburdened of debt that you could actually use the money that used to go down the drain paying interest to take visitors out to lunch after church. Assuming you now have a credit card balance of $2000 at 18% APR, being out of debt would free up $360 per year to entertain people you'd like to win to Christ. At $40 a meal for four, that is nine times a year. Imagine how this man could have loved his child if he had been so committed to discharging his debt of love, to the child and to others, and shunned the temptation to obligate himself for the purchase of a car. Because his car payment was considerably more than the tuition payment.
     God help us as Christians to just do what God tells us to do in His infallible Word. Borrow money if you want to, buy a house or a car on time if you want to. Just don't tell me, and don't tell yourself, that it doesn't dramatically affect your ability to demonstrate love to others.