Typically, when we consider the possible downsides of having debt, our minds focus on the lurking financial consequences, like the amount of interest we’re going to be paying over the length of the loan or how the monthly payment is going to affect our quality of life. Most people rarely ponder the equally as real, and often more painful, side effects of debt.
In the previous article, Does God Forbid Debt?, we concluded that God doesn’t categorically forbid us from taking on debt. That being said, we do need to consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:23 where he says, “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.” While Christians have freedom in Christ, that freedom to make decisions doesn’t always mean our decisions are wise or even in our best interest. We have the freedom to use debt, but we need to walk with caution, always evaluating whether it’s a wise decision.
There are times when debt can have useful applications in our lives and be used for good purposes. For example, debt can help provide urgent medical treatment at the time it is needed and would be otherwise unaffordable. Debt can allow us to make large purchases, such as a house, when we don’t have enough money saved up to buy such an expensive item. We can borrow money to start a business that will provide income for our families and allow us to provide jobs for others as well. We can also see the benefits of micro-lending, where small loans are provided to the poor to help them work and provide for their families. So, it’s probably a bit harsh to say that all debt is evil because that’s not always true.
The one thing that is always true about debt is the relationship that is established when you borrow money. As we see in Proverbs 22:7, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender”. Servanthood is not a negotiable part of debt. It doesn’t matter if you borrow from a ruthless loan shark or your best friend, you are instantly a servant to that lender when the money changes hands. Debt will continue to alter that relationship until it is paid off and in most cases, the relationship won’t be the same even after it’s paid back.
Debt’s relational effects don’t stop with the lender either. It can have a tremendous influence on our family lives. Here is a small sampling of the many possible illustrations to show how debt can impact our families:
• We may hesitate to get married to someone if our spouse-to-be has a large amount of debt that we’re going to inherit on our wedding day.
• We may choose to delay having children in order to spend more time focusing on our careers and earning additional money to pay off our debts first.
• A new mother may deny the strong desire to quit her job and stay home to raise her child because she feels their debt load doesn’t provide her the freedom to act on that conviction.
• There is a high likelihood it will have a negative impact on our marriage. Debt and financial stress continues to be the number one cause of divorce in this country.
While that abbreviated list of consequences should be more than enough to give us pause before taking on debt, the pitfalls don’t stop there.
Here are a few of the ways debt negatively affects our relationship with God:
• Debt binds us. When we have financial obligations that need to be paid, we suddenly lack the freedom and flexibility to respond to God’s promptings. For example, it’s not easy to move to a new city or take a lower paying job when our budget is already stretched to the limits. I’ve seen new missionaries told they’re not ready to enter the field because of debt and their mission work is put on hold until they can fix the problem.
• The burden of debt keeps us from listening to God. Most of us would agree that quiet time is an important part of our spiritual lives. However, financial stress is an amazing noise maker. Even if we don’t have collectors calling us up making physical noise in our lives, our minds are burdened by the strain of financial struggles. It can be hard to turn off the noise that debt is creating in order to have effective quiet time with God.
• Debt stifles our generosity. Debt has a profound way of making us feel like we can’t respond to God’s leading to give even when He provides us with opportunities. If you look at historical statistics, giving by North American churchgoers was actually higher in the struggles of the Great Depression than it is in the affluence of today. There is no doubt a connection between the burden of debt felt by the typical household and the decrease in giving over the last 80 years. When we’re committing so much of our income to paying off purchases of the past, it’s difficult to feel like we have additional money for anything else, regardless of what our heart is telling us. God will still get money where it needs to be, but we’ll unfortunately miss out on the opportunity to be faithful and the blessing of participating in the process.
Debt is all around us and is certainly not hard to acquire, but at the same time it isn’t something we should enter into lightly. We always need to remember that it’s not our ultimate provider. Debt is simply a tool we have at our disposal to use if, and when, a situation calls for it, but it is a tool that comes with strings attached. We no longer need to worry about debtor’s prison or slavery like we see in Matthew 18:23-25, but that doesn’t mean that debt no longer ruins relationships or destroys families.
In the modern era, debt has found a more alluring way to bring us under its ruling authority. It slowly seduces us into slavery with the promise of our material desires until eventually we no longer have the ability to remove the shackles. At that point, the hooks are set in deep and someone else is directing our life. So, the next time you consider taking out a loan, don’t just count the financial costs of the transaction, evaluate the relational and spiritual costs that will be paid on top of the interest each month.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.