America is the freest, most prosperous nation in the world. Of necessity, this means that its citizenry are financially healthy and prosperous, right?
Not so fast.
“To put that number in perspective: It costs approximately $35,000 to start either an H&R Block or a 7-Eleven franchise; $40,000 can buy a three-bedroom house in some parts of Orlando, Fla., (and home prices are similar in hard-hit neighborhoods across the country); and one year at a private high school will run about $50,000.”
In other words, looking at it from a secular perspective, if every American were debt-free, our economy would be more profitable, people would have more expendable income, and our children would be better educated.
The main culprits behind debt are well known: mortgages, student loans, and credit cards. Average household debt in the last category more than doubled over a ten-year period, and there appears to be no evidence that the debt of professing Christians is little different from the general populace.
As such the debt crisis has even found its way into the church, where studies have shown that only one in twenty Christians regularly tithe.
The Bible declares that we are “His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9), “the salt of the earth (Mt. 5:13), that we are called to “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1).
Granted, these verses can be applied in a number of different ways. But surely, they do entail at least some financial obligations on our parts. To wit: as “His own special people,” we are called to “be imitators of God”, which implies tremendous graciousness on our parts, some of which might be seen in our financial contributions and giving. Being “submissive to rulers and authorities” would certainly include paying our taxes without muttering under our breath. And so forth.
So then, what is the way out of the “debt mess” for Christians? What does the Bible have to say about it?
The Blessing of Work
The first thing we need to know is that God’s Word provides the means for us to not only get out (and stay out) of debt, but to provide for ourselves and our families as well. This is seen in our call to work, and be industrious. As early as the pre-fall world, God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to work it and keep it”. This shows us something right away: work, the means whereby a man provides for himself and his family, predates the fall, which means that is is inherently good.
Adam’s children, Cain and Abel, were also taught the value of labor in various fields. And even though they rejected God, Cain’s descendants contributed much to humanity through their creativity.
Additionally, we are called to labor diligently. Let us not forget that the Fourth Commandment is not merely about our rest on the Lord’s Day; prior to the command to refrain from work, God declared, “Six days you shall labor, and do all of your work” (Exodus 20:9).
All of this to say, work is inherently a good thing. It’s where a man finds his dignity, and it’s worth noting that the reason we often get frustrated in our labors is directly attributable to the fall.
At this point, you might be wondering, “What does this have to do with overcoming debt?” The answer is that work is how we earn our wages, and so provide food, clothing, and shelter for those under our care. Given the biblical admonitions against debt (i.e., Proverbs 22:7 warns that “the borrower becomes the lender’s slave”; cf Proverbs 22:26-27, Romans 13:8), this entails that we strive to live within our means–in short, that we do not spend more money than we have.
Granted, sometimes it is unavoidable. For instance, if a loved one needs emergency surgery, then of course you should pay the medical bill. People also need houses, and most of us are not able to pay for it in one feel swoop; they have to do mortgage payments.
That said, the general rule is that we stay out of debt; and if we are in debt, we are to be diligent about getting out of it. So, how is that to happen?
The first thing to do is to determine how much you are in debt. This can be painful, infuriating, and even embarrassing, so you might need to have a good cry once you have tallied up the numbers. But it is necessary.
Then, draft a monthly budget whereby you take in more money than you spend. Include all of the details: rent or mortgage, utility bills, eating out money (which will be more than you think), gas money, grocery money, fun money, and so forth.
Included in your budget should be how you plan to get out of debt after speaking directly to your creditors. On this, I highly recommend consulting with a certified financial advisor.
You might also want to see if a “Financial Peace University” class is offered in your area. Taught by Dave Ramsey, this nine-week course provides a great deal of practical information on how to get out of debt. As a bonus, Ramsey is not dry; he brings a lot of humor, common sense, and creativity to what would otherwise be a boring topic.
From personal experience, there is short term pain and long term gain in conquering one’s debt. In the short term, you will realize how much money you have blown on things you really don’t need–and if you’re like most people, the highest tally will come from the “eating out” category. Depending on how much debt you have, it may take a few years to get out of it.
But in the long term, getting to the point where you are debt free is incredibly liberating. You are then able to save for your retirement, provide a living for your family, and even give generously to your local church and other favorite causes.
But no matter what your income and debt status might be, you ought to tithe. This is very controversial in many quarters, but it is biblical. In fact, God called His people to set aside a tithe, or ten percent of their income, from the earliest of times:
Leviticus 27:30: “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.”
Numbers 18:28-29: “So you shall also present a contribution to the LORD from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the LORD’s contribution to Aaron the priest. Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the LORD; from each its best part is to be dedicated.”
Those are strong words, to be sure. But then the objection arises: “Isn’t tithing for the Old Testament? After all, we’re never commanded to do it in the New Testament.”
While that is true as far as that goes, it oversimplifies the issue. We need to remember that there one people of God, and one covenant of grace. Therefore, OT principles remain intact unless they have been done away with in the NT either explicitly, or by good and necessary inference.
With that in mind, what does the NT say about tithing? In Luke 11:42, Christ says, “Woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Christ is here rebuking the Pharisees with regards to their manner of tithing. But notice it is not because they were tithing. Rather, it’s because they were making God’s Law far more burdensome than it was intended to be, and for neglecting what was really important to God; namely love and justice. Notice also that Christ did not say the tithe was no longer in effect. It would have been the perfect opportunity for Him to do so; and yet, He did not do it.
Now, let us turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 16:1-2: “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”
Note two things here: first, Paul didn’t just tell the Corinthian church to take up an offering; he said in verse 1, “as I directed the churches of Galatia.” So this was not an isolated incident; rather, it was a universal practice in the early Church.
Second, the people were commanded to take up an offering on the first day of the week, which is when we in the new covenant are called to worship God. So we see that the early church received an apostolic command to set aside a portion of there income as a practice of worship.
A final important passage here is 2 Corinthians 8:1-9. Here, Paul speaks of some little churches in Macedonia that gave generously to support the work of the Church, even though they were very poor. It seems that they gave so much, that Paul actually had to tell them to stop!
Why did they do so? Paul tells us in verse 9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
In other words, when Christ became incarnate in human flesh and then offered Himself up as a sacrifice, He gave of Himself completely and generously. Paul says that this is precisely what the churches of Macedonia did; they modeled their giving off of Christ’s life and ministry.
Through these verses, we see an important principle rise to the surface: while the command to tithe, or set apart 10% of our income has not been abolished, the emphasis of the NT is that we are to give generously to support His kingdom on Earth, first and foremost by supporting the local church, with Jesus Christ as our model. In short, the right question is not, “Should I still give 10% to the church?” Rather, the correct question is, “If I’m able to give more, then why stop at 10%?”
So we should begin setting aside 10% of our income, remembering that since He bought us with a price, it is His and we are merely stewards of it.
Does this sound daunting? While it may be for many people, it need not be, given our Lord’s graciousness and generosity. In one of the most important passages on tithing, Malachi 3:10, God says, “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”
Before I go further, let me just state that I am not a proponent of the health-and-wealth gospel. I believe it is wrong when certain preachers manipulate their congregants and viewers to give all that they have to them, including their life savings–especially when those on the receiving end use this money to live in luxury.
Even still, God does issue a direct challenge here with regard to tithes: “Put me to the test,” He is saying. To my knowledge, this is the only place in the Bible where God issues this specific kind of challenge, bearing in mind that the time and manner in which God rewards faithful tithing is His prerogative, not ours.
A Question of Priorities
Given that finances is such a broad topic, there is much more that could be said about it. My goal here has merely been to set out what the Bible has to say about it, especially with regard to debt.
But at the end of the day, how you spend your money will tell you a lot about where your priorities truly are. The late Baptist preacher, Adrian Rogers, has been quoted as saying, “Show me a person’s datebook and checkbook, and I can tell you whether or not he is a Christian.”
While I do not fully endorse that statement, it nonetheless points to another important principle: how a Christian spends his money offers a fairly good indication of where his heart is.
So in conclusion, it is always good to take personal stock with regard to finances by asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I working an honest day for an honest wage?
- Do I enjoy rest from my labors on the Lord’s Day?
- What specific steps am I taking to alleviate my financial debt?
- Am I tithing?
- Recognizing that while my purchasing decisions are free from the judgments of others (1 Cor. 10:29), I should always ask myself whether and how they bring glory to God.
How Christians handle their finances is not the only way they bring glory to God before a watching world, and demonstrate their sanctification. But it is an important aspect of both. Therefore, the body of Christ needs to be diligent in pursuing excellence in this area. As Christ told His followers, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21).