One of my biggest desires (until fairly recently) has been to be debt free. I have amassed a good portion of student loan debt, and having spent a summer unemployed after graduating from my Master’s program, quite a bit of credit card debt as well. Having been raised in the church, I’ve been told how important it is to be debt free. It shows good financial stewardship and gives me more money to donate to the church or some needy organization. Having your finances in order is one of the best ways to please God.
But my recent struggle has been to realize that this desire is idolatry in my life. Let me explain by first using an example.
Here is an excerpt from a devotional on a biblical view of money:
Debt can cause so many problems both financially and spiritually. When too much debt is attained it is as if we become trapped, drowning in our finances. Our worries over our debt quickly consume our lives and our thoughts. We become servants to debt, and debt becomes our master. Debt can cause us to have tunnel vision, living life consumed by our financial worries instead putting God first in our lives. We can quickly forget about God and those around us who we care and love.
They even use a verse to support their claim: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
This is just good biblical sense right? I can surely identify. My wife and I (and kids by extension) are currently in a position where our monthly income does not meet our monthly expense. We are able to stay in the position we are in because of generous financial support from some loving family and friends. Without their help it wouldn’t be possible for us to be where we are. Combine that with extensive debt and I have the tunnel vision this devotional talks about.
So my dilemma? Quite simply, it is that if I were debt free and had enough monthly income to make ends meet, I would have a hard time identifying with our neighborhood. Many of our good friends are under-employed, living well below the poverty line, and struggle with being homeless or at risk of becoming so. By having a job that “pays me what I’m worth” (if that isn’t egotistical and arrogant) I lose touch with those that I have been called to be with. If I know every month that bills will be paid, my savings will grow, and my 401k is on target, I lose a shared sense of community where people pull together to help each other out.
If we had enough money, my family and I would quickly become ‘above’ those around in some very unfortunate ways. Instead, we have learned where to cut back and that living simply matters. But more importantly we have learned what it is like to need others to survive; not just our family and friends, but those in the community as well. We need others to survive, our community of friends has become closer. We have learned to share with those around where we have an abundance, and they will do so in areas where they have an abundance. An example is that we need babysitting to help with church events or functions (which gets provided to us free of charge) and our garden has grown well this summer so we are able to give away food.
So when I would explain to my wife that, “Becoming debt free is what we need to do to be good stewards of our money.” what I was really masking was that I wanted to be comfortable and secure. If we had enough money I wouldn’t have to worry anymore like the devotional says. If I could provide for all my needs, my dependence on the community lessens and it would be easier to either become isolated (I don’t need anyone) or superior (come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden) instead of relying on God and others.
But for me, becoming debt free became an idol. Instead of having a clear mindset on it, I used it as an excuse to be able to having more and possess more. I replaced ‘honor God with your money’ with ‘be sure you are debt so you can do the things you want.’ We all struggle with money in different ways, and for me the struggle has been to learn to trust God no matter the financial situation. I have learned to trust in God and my community. It creates a deeper sense of fellowship when everyone brings something to the table. It forces me to say, “God, I’m not sure where this will come from” but truth be told, whatever we have needed has always been provided. My recent lesson in discipleship has been that belonging to a community is more important than anything else. It also shows me that whenever I become debt free (because I am well behind my well organized ten year plan) it will be just when I need to. But until then, having debt and struggling to get by is the most godly thing I can do.