21 October 2009

When does debt become a moral issue?

One trillion is big. If you counted back one million seconds, it would be a little over 11 days ago. One trillion seconds ago? 31,710 years. One trillion is big. Yet, that number is often bandied around as the increase in our national debt this year.

This arouses my indignation toward our bureaucracy until I look at the choices we make with our own money as individuals. About 43% of American families spend more than they earn every year. The average household carries $8000 in credit card debt for a grand total of just under 2 trillion dollars**. Clearly debt accumulation affects every area of our culture from the family to the government. But is debt a moral issue? Does God have anything to say about it?

In Mark 10:17-22, Jesus told a rich young man that his salvation was dependent on giving all he had to the poor. Yet in Luke 19:1-10 we see that Jesus extolled Zacchaeus’ salvation, who had pledged to give half of his money away. Is our salvation dependent on what we give away? If so, how much is needed? The answer lies not in the details but in our hearts. Christ must be in his proper place as sole ruler of our lives and this is revealed in what we do with our stuff.

Debt is a moral issue when it points to our idolatry. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that our fundamental sin lies in our worship and service of created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). Where do we seek life or help? (John 17:3 and Psalm 121:1)? If money becomes our life and help, there is never enough. Debt is often a sign of the discontented worship of money.

Consider the following signs that may indicate money has become your security and/or borrowing money has become your savior.
  • Does your debt come at another’s expense? Love does no harm to a neighbor (Romans 13:10). Will someone else have to pay your debt? If so, it will do harm to their finances and it’s a sign that money has a place it shouldn’t.
“Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” – Romans 13:8
  • Is debt a persistent struggle? This may indicate an insatiable search for life and security that money cannot satisfy.
  • Do you struggle with dishonesty or lack of transparency with respect to financial matters? Jesus connected truthfulness with obedience when he told Pilate “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37). Dishonesty is often the tool we use to get what we want more than God.
Why it must be addressed?
God has created a world where immoral behavior has devastating downstream affects. Immoral debt is enslaving to us (Prov. 22:7) and, often, comes at other’s expense. To live insatiably robs men of dignity (James 4:1-4) and dishonors God and the Gospel (Phil. 4:11-13).

How do we address it?
First, don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t rail against something that has a hold on your own life. Live a life of contentment evidenced by a life free from debt (or, at least, increasing debt) and be generous.

Second, assuming no hypocrisy, help your friends, family and representatives understand the unwise and destructive nature of accumulating debt. No individual or government has ever borrowed their way to a healthy, productive and happy life.


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