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Debt and Credit Print E-mail

Written by Kerby Anderson

Introduction

We will be discussing the subject of debt from a biblical perspective. But before we begin looking at biblical principles concerning economics and finances, we need to put the problem of debt in perspective.

You cannot overemphasize the impact of debt on our society. It is the leading cause for divorce and also the reason for many more troubled marriages. It is also one of the causes for depression as well as suicide. People in debt didn't start out to ruin their lives and the lives of their families, but the consequences are often devastating.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about money, and a significant part of these financial warnings concern debt. Proverbs 22:7 says, "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a servant to the lender." When you borrow money and put yourself in debt, you put yourself in a situation where the lender has significant influence over you.

Many other verses in Proverbs also warn about the potential danger of debt (Proverbs 1:13-15; 17:18; 22:26-27; 27:13). While this does not mean that we can never be in debt, it does warn us about its dangers.

Romans 13:8 is an often misunderstood verse because it says, "Owe nothing to anyone."

Although some theologians have argued that this verse prohibits debt, the passage needs to be seen in context. This passage is not a specific teaching about debt, but rather a summary of our duty as Christians to governmental authority. We should not owe anything to anyone (honor, taxes, etc.).

The Bible is filled with passages that provide guidelines to lending and borrowing. If debt was always wrong, then these passages would not exist and there would be a clear prohibition against debt. But the implication of Romans 13:8 seems to be that we should pay our debts off a quickly as possible.

At this point, it would be good to make a distinction between debt and credit. Often in our society, the two words are used interchangeably. To put it simply, debt is something that is owed. The Bible does not prohibit borrowing, but it certainly does not recommend it. Credit is the establishment of mutual trust between a lender and borrower.

At the outset, let me acknowledge that some people end up in debt due to no fault of their own. They may have been swindled in a business. They may have made a good faith attempt to start a business but were unsuccessful because their competitions or suppliers cheated them. They may have been unfairly sued in court. The reasons are many.

The Consequences of Debt

What are the consequences of debt? The Bible describes debt as a form of slavery. Proverbs 22:7 says: "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a servant to the lender." The borrower becomes a servant (or slave) to the person who is the lender.

If you look in the Old Testament, you will notice that debt was often connected to slavery. For example, both debts and slavery were cancelled in the years of Jubilee. Sometimes people even put themselves in slavery because of debt (Deut. 15:2, 12).

Today we may not be in actual slavery from debt, but it may feel like it some times. We have all heard the phrase, "I owe, I owe, so it's off to work I go." If you are deep in debt you know that there may be very few days off and perhaps no vacation. Someone in debt can begin to feel like a slave.

How can you know if you are too far in debt? Here are a few questions to ask yourself. Do you have an increasing collection of past-due bills on your desk? Do you drive down the road hoping you will win the lottery? Do you feel stress every time you think about your finances? Do you avoid answering the phone because you think it might be a collection agency? Do you make only minimum payments on credit cards?

One of the consequences of debt is we often deny reality. In order to realistically deal with the debt in our lives we need to get rid of some of the silly ideas running around in our heads.

For example, you are not going to win the lottery. Your debt problem is not going to go away if you just ignore it. And a computer glitch in your lender's computer is not going to accidentally wipe out your financial records so that you don't have to repay your debt.

Another consequence of debt is a loss of integrity. When we cannot pay, we start saying "the check's in the mail" when it isn't. We not only kid ourselves but we try to mislead others about the extent of our problem with debt.

Sometimes debt even leads to dishonesty. Psalm 37:21 says: "The wicked borrows and does not pay back." We should repay our debts.

A third consequence of debt is addiction. Debt is addictive. Once in debt we begin to get comfortable with cars, consumer goods, furniture, etc., all funded through debt. Once we reach that comfort level, we go into further debt.

A final consequence of debt is stress. Stress experts have calculated the impact of various stress factors on our lives.{1} Some of the greatest are death of a spouse and divorce. But it is amazing how many other stress factors are financially related (change in financial state, mortgage over $100,000). When we owe more than we can pay, we worry and feel a heavy load of stress that wouldn't exist if we lived debt free.

Credit Card Debt

To listen to the news reports, you would think that Americans are drowning in debt, but the story is not that simple. The latest economic statistics say that the average U.S. household has more than $9,000 in credit card debt. The average household also spends more than $1,300 a year in interest payments.

While these numbers are true, they are also misleading. The average debt per American household with at least one credit card is $9,000. But nearly one-fourth of Americans don't even own credit cards.

An even more telling fact is that more than thirty percent of American households paid off their most recent credit cards bills in full. So actually a majority of Americans owe nothing to credit card companies. Of the households that do owe money on credit cards, the median balance was $2,200. Only about 1 in 12 American households owe more than $9,000 on credit cards.

The $9,000 figure comes from CardWeb. It takes the outstanding credit card debt in America and divides it by the number of households that have at least one credit card. While the average is accurate, it is misleading.

Liz Pulliam Weston, writing for MSN Money, explains: "The example I usually give to illustrate the fallacy of averages is to imagine that you and 17 of your friends were having dinner with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The average net worth of a person at that table would be about $5 billion. The fact that everybody else's personal net worth was a lot less wouldn't affect the average that much because Bill and Warren are so much wealthier than the rest of us."{2}

Yes, Americans are in debt. And some Americans are really in debt. If you are one of those individuals, you should apply the biblical principles we are discussing to your situation. If you are not in debt, learn a vicarious lesson about what can happen if you don't pay attention to debt.

Here are some principles for dealing with credit card debt. First, realize that the problem is not the credit card in your hand. The problem may be with the person holding the credit card. Proverbs 22:3 says, "The prudent sees the evil and hides himself, but the naïve go on, and are punished for it."

Second, never use credit cards except for budgeted purchases. Impulse shopping with credit cards is one of the major reasons people find themselves in debt.

Third, pay off your credit cards every month. If you cannot pay off your credit card bill, don't use your credit card again until you can pay your bill.

Home Mortgage

Most Christian financial counselors put a home mortgage in a different category than other debt. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, a home loan is secured by the equity in the home. After an initial down payment, a loan schedule (of principle and interest) is applied to the balance of the home expense. If a homeowner faces a financial crisis, he or she can sell the house and use that amount to retire the loan.

Second, a home is often an appreciating asset. In many housing markets, the price of a home increases every year. This makes it an even less risky financial investment. But of course, what goes up can also go down. Some homeowners have seen the value of their home decrease significantly. That affects their ability to repay their home loan if they need to sell their house.

Third, a home mortgage is a tax deduction and thus provides a small financial benefit to homeowners that they would not have if they were renting. At the same time, eager home buyers shouldn't over-estimate the value of this and justify buying a home that is beyond their means.

Fourth, the interest in a home loan is usually within a few percentage points of the prime rate. This means that the interest rate in a typical home loan is about one third the interest rate of a typical credit card.

While a home mortgage may be different from other forms of debt, that doesn't mean there aren't dangers and pitfalls. As we have already mentioned, people buy homes assuming that they will appreciate in value. But many find that the house prices stagnate or even decline. After paying closing costs, they may owe more on their home loan than they received from the sale of their house.

Another concern about a home mortgage is that many homeowners end up buying more house than they can really afford. Just because they qualify for a particular house doesn't mean they should buy a house that will stretch them financially.

Changing financial circumstances may surprise a couple that qualifies for a house mortgage. For example, the wife may get pregnant and no longer be able to work and provide the income necessary to make the monthly mortgage payment. Either partner might get laid off from work and not provide the necessary income. And there are always unexpected expenses for homeowners (new furnace, hot water heater, etc.) that couples may not have budgeted for when they purchased a home.

One formula that is often used in considering a home mortgage is to buy a home that is less than two and a half times a family's annual gross income. Another is to consider what you can currently pay in rent and compare that amount to the home mortgage (plus the additional expenses such as insurance, taxes, etc.). The two amounts should be similar.

Getting Out of Debt

Let's conclude by talking about how to get out of debt. If you are already in debt, you need to break the debt cycle with discipline applied over time.

First, establish the right priorities. God owns it all. Unfortunately, we often believe that we own it all. We need to mentally transfer ownership of all our possessions to God (Psalm 8). This would also include giving the Lord His part and honoring Him with your giving (even if it is a small amount).

Second, stop borrowing. If a pipe broke in your house, the first thing to you would do is shut off the water before you started to mop up the water. Before you do anything else, "shut off" the borrowing. Don't use your credit card. Don't take out a bank loan.

Third, develop a budget. This is something you might do by yourself or with the help of many online ministries and financial services that provides guidelines. Or you may consult with a financial expert who can give you guidelines.

You would begin by making a list of all of your monthly expenses (mortgage or rent, utilities, groceries, car payments, credit card bills, etc.). Then you need to establish a priority for the loans that you have that are outstanding. This should include information about the amount owed and the interest rates. Then you need to set aside a realistic budget that allows you to have enough money to pay off the loans in a systematic way.

Write to each creditor with a repayment plan based upon this realistic budget. It might be good to even include a financial statement and a copy of your budget so they can see that you are serious about getting out of debt.

Fourth, begin to retire your debt. If you can, pay extra on the debts with the highest interest rates. If all of them have comparable interest rates, you might instead pay extra on the smallest balance. By paying that off first, you will have a feeling of accomplishment and then free up some of your income to tackle your next debt.

Fifth, develop new spending habits. For example, if you generate extra income from working overtime or at an extra job, use that to retire your debt faster. Don't assume that because you have some extra discretionary income you can use that to spend it on yourself.

Before you buy anything, question yourself. If an item isn't in your budget, ask yourself if you really need it and how much use you will get out of it. We often spend because we are used to spending. Change your spending habits.

Debt is like a form of slavery. Do what you can to be debt free. If you follow these steps faithfully, that can take place in a few years. Debt freedom will reduce your stress and free you up to accomplish what God intends for you to do.

Notes

1. The Holmes-Rahe Scale, www.geocities.com/beyond_stretched/holmes.htm.
2. Liz Pulliam Weston, "The big lie about credit card debt," MSN Money, 30 July 2007, tinyurl.com/33zrut.

© 2008 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Kerby AndersonKerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet (www.pointofview.net) and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.

 

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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