Cornerstone

Saving and Debt

“Saving and debt are intricately related, and developing biblical convictions on both is necessary to being a good steward of God’s finances.”

In the past two posts I discussed our identity as stewards and the process of choosing a lifestyle that glorifies God.  In the next two we’re going to tackle some of the practical implications of those realities.  In this post I want to talk about two of the most confusing topics for many Christians: saving and debt.  Some people choose to spend less than they bring in and save a portion of their income.  Some people choose to spend more than they bring in and go into debt.  Saving and debt are intricately related, and developing biblical convictions on both is necessary to being a good steward of God’s finances.

Saving

First, let’s start with saving.  Saving is the act of forgoing spending now in order to preserve your money for later.  Spending or giving everything you have is oftentimes unwise, and there are usually many good reasons to save for specific purposes.  In Proverbs we see that saving is associated with wisdom:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)

Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man's dwelling, but a foolish man devours it. (Proverbs 21:20)

It is wise to regularly put away an amount of money for a specific purpose.  Maybe that purpose is an anticipated larger purchase like a car or a house.  Maybe that purpose is as an emergency fund for unanticipated expenses like healthcare costs or a car repair.  Maybe that purposes is in preparation for a season in life when you won’t be able to earn the same amount of money you are currently earning.  Whatever the reason, godly savings always has a specific purpose.  And, ultimately, that purpose ought to be to glorify God and bless others.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul teaches that one of the applications of “brotherly love” is being “dependent on no one:”

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)

Saving is a way that we can take care of our own affairs and put ourselves in the position of being a blessing to those around us.  Saving is an important part of stewarding God’s resources.

Hoarding

However, there is such a thing as saving “too much.”  This is called hoarding.  Hoarding is the result of looking to our savings as our savior and the means of provision for our life.  Only God is the provider and only God can take care of us through the high and the low seasons of life.  When we put too much faith in our savings we feel like it’s never enough, we always need more, and we seek to be financially prepared for every possibility.  But, just as Scripture speaks clearly about the importance of saving, it also is unambiguous about the dangers of hoarding.

And [Jesus] told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

Debt

On the opposite end of the spectrum from saving is the issue of debt.  Debt is often what we go into when we have not sufficiently prepared through saving.  However, debt is also what we tend to go into when we are not content with what God has given us and we think that we should have more.  Debt is essentially assuming that we should have more than God has provided and instead of taking our needs or desires to him, taking them into our own hands. 

Scripture warns sharply against going into debt and its consequences, especially in the Proverbs:

One who lacks sense gives a pledge and puts up security in the presence of his neighbor. (Proverbs 17:18)

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. (Proverbs 22:7)

Debt defines our relationship with our lender and our relationship with those around us.  When we are in debt, we are not free to love because we are obligated to pay.  Paul expresses his thoughts on debt quite bluntly: “owe no one anything.”

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:7-8)

Scripture gives us a simple rule of thumb regarding debt: stay out of debt.  Now, it’s not lost on me that the majority of you reading this are probably already in debt.  Which is why Scripture provides us a second rule of thumb for those that are already in debt: get out of debt.

Getting out of debt ought to be the second priority for all of us when we find ourselves in that situation.  Our first priority should remain giving to the Lord what is due to him, for even being in debt isn’t an excuse for our disobedience or unfaithfulness to him, and our second priority should be working toward getting out of debt.

While there may be one or two possible exceptions to the foolishness of debt in our economy, we must consider them very carefully.  One might be housing debt, which is built into our western economy and can be considered an investment as opposed to traditional debt.  The second exception might (and I emphasize might) be school debt.  Certain modest debt to help pay tuition may be appropriate in certain situations which have a high probability of gaining a career in a certain field.  However, I’m afraid that much of what we refer to as “school debt” doesn’t fall in the “wise” category and needs to be re-evaluated, especially as we set expectations for our children in the future.

Any debt that delivers a possession that is worth less than what is owed is especially unwise debt (think car loans or credit cards).  Debt is also especially unwise when it hinders our ability to respond to needs and live generously the way we have been called to live by God.  When we’re in need, instead of turning to credit cards, we ought to develop the habit of turning to one another.  God can provide for our needs in numerous different ways, we don’t have to take things into our own hands by going into the debt that is so easily available in our world.

But for those of you who are working hard to get out of debt, there's a few things that I think are really important to hear.  First, if you are in Christ, you are not a slave.  Your debt does not own you, but you have been set free in Christ.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery....For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:1, 13)

You are not mastered by your debt, but have been set free in Christ to live a life dedicated to him and guided and directed by him.  As you seek first his kingdom and his will for your life, the appropriate speed with which to pay down your debt, the lifestyle sacrifices required to pay down your debt, and the right perspective you need regarding your debt will come into consideration.

But, after all of this, don't misunderstand me.  God isn’t fundamentally after your debt.  He’s after your heart.  As I talked about in an earlier post, God cares about our money simply because of how tied our money is to our heart.  As Abe Serrano wisely told me when I asked him the biggest lesson people in debt need to hear: “Don't waste your debt!”

You see, the problem is that you could follow all of the right procedures, sacrifice all the right things, and be perfectly disciplined in your repayment plan, but if you get completely out of debt and your heart hasn’t changed, you’ve wasted your debt.  God wants to use your debt to sanctify you, to draw you into himself, and to help you fall deeper in love with him.  Discontentment can get you into debt, but it can also get you out of debt.

But that’s not how God desires to use your debt.  God is after your heart, and desires for it to be content in him and him alone, whether you have more money than you need, or more debt than you could ever dig out of.  And it’s to this topic of contentment that we’ll turn in the final post of this series.

Scott Mehl

Scott serves the church by overseeing leadership, development, global ministries, and counseling/discipleship.

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