Money 4: Be Careful with Debt

Watch the video or read the lesson text … or both.

Lesson Text

Scripture reading:

Romans 13:8
Exodus 15:22-27
Proverbs 22:7
2 Kings 4:1-7
James 4:13-15

Discussion:

Romans 13:8 calls us not to owe debt. We’ll deal with some of the consequences of debt in this lesson.

Debt can be a sign that we don’t really believe or trust in the promises of God. Let’s unpack an example from Exodus 15:22-27. It has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with understanding the mind and heart of God and His desire for us. The people of Israel were just led out of bondage in Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. On the other side of the sea, they were free and were being led by God to safety. The story is one of the greatest miracles in all of the Bible and is one of the most referenced accounts in all of the Bible.

In Exodus 15, the people sing God’s praises for this great miracle and begin their journey toward the land God promised to give them. By verse 22, we see them getting tired of walking and running out of water. Instead of looking to God, they begin to grumble.

They expected God to give them water, so they could keep going. But that’s not how God handled this situation and many others. We read that God designed this as a test.

If we consider this scene carefully in today’s terms, I can just see the people whipping out their platinum Visa cards and buying hundreds of cases of bottled water from Costco. Never mind that God was testing them, they needed water … and needed it now!

How many times has God tested you with circumstances bigger than your resources? Did you pass God’s tests, or have there been times that you relied on the credit card (or other forms of debt) when you faced a crisis?

Now, let’s look again at Romans 13:8. Hopefully you have a better understanding of why God does not want us to be in debt. Debt can be a sign that we really don’t trust in God’s Word or His promises. It is basically running ahead of God and choosing for ourselves what we would do without God’s input.

It is at this point many self-proclaimed financial “experts” will point you to Proverbs 22:7, “The borrower is slave to the lender.” Remember 1 Timothy 5:8? We said in that lesson that, if you allow anything to have mastery over you, you are no longer free in your service to God. This is truth, and debt is a form of bondage.

However, Proverbs 22:7 is only one verse in the Bible. Has God ever instructed someone to borrow or used borrowing in a miracle?

It turns out that in 2 Kings 4:1-7 Elisha specifically instructed someone – at God’s direction – to borrow. For that moment in time, she was slave to the lender, right?

No, she wasn’t. This is why we need to unpack Proverbs 22:7 before we can apply it to all debt at all times. If we applied it how many “experts” do, then we contradict God, Elisha, and the plain reading of 2 Kings 4.

There is a difference between borrowing and falling behind in your debt. As long as the widow returned the vessels, she was not a slave to the lender. If she broke a vessel, then she would be slave to the lender, because she would have to do whatever the lender required to make it right. Matthew Henry in his commentary on these verses suggests that the widow had already sold her own vessels in an effort to get out of debt, and it just wasn’t enough. In other words, he thinks she met God half way before we see her coming to Elisha. This will be important in a moment.

In a legal sense, the lender cannot foreclose on a debt if the borrower is current. The court would throw the matter out or sanction the lender. The borrower’s only obligation is to stay current. Only when the borrower fails to pay can the lender correctly bring an action against the borrower. At that point, the borrower becomes a slave. The borrower is slave to the demands of the lender and cannot choose for himself what the outcome will be.

God is not going to contradict Himself, so both 2 Kings 4 and Proverbs 22 cannot be true. God would never encourage someone to borrow against His own word.

Let me suggest that there is a difference between borrowing and not being able to pay our debts. The overview provided here is consistent with Matthew Henry’s commentary on Proverbs 22:7. He interprets this verse as those who are “behindhand” being servant to those who prepared ahead of time. In this interpretation, he notes that the subject of the verse (the borrower) is behind, hence, a slave.

There is also a difference between borrowing to support a lifestyle and legitimately getting into a rock and a hard place despite even the most careful planning. The widow had no choice about her situation. She had only impossible choices, including selling her son or selling herself. God came to her rescue, but notice the faith she had to bring to the table. She had to do two things.

Did you see them? She had to (1) borrow vessels and (2) pour. Both actions required a certain trust in both the prophet and God. The number of vessels and the act of pouring were a measurement of her faith. She also requested help. This is a big one. She did not sit there and try to figure it out on her own. She got help.

What we see here is compassionate lending.

A modern day example of compassionate lending is micro-lending. Across the world, micro-lending is a helping hand out of poverty. A successful example is Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Its founder (who lives like a Christian but is not) saw that institutional banks were unwilling to lend small amounts of money to people in great need. He also saw that with a small loan many people could start micro businesses. In starting Grameen Bank, he issued small loans, perhaps $100 or $200, to a person – let’s say a single mother. She knows how to sew, make baskets or weave. She needs to buy materials to develop inventory, or she needs a small piece of equipment. The micro-loan provides the funds she needs, and she turns the loan into a profit-making enterprise.

It is a hand-up because she gets to develop a long-lasting income that is self-sustaining, and she has the dignity of being able to repay the loan from her future income. Surely, this kind of debt cannot be illegal in God’s eyes. This is much how I see 2 Kings 4.

God is obviously not against borrowing. If He was, He would not have instructed the widow to borrow anything.

But wait. That’s not all! Why was the widow in debt in the first place? 2 Kings 4 makes it clear that her husband, who had passed away (probably unexpectedly), left her with debt. We must also carefully notice that her husband was one among the prophets. He was numbered among those in service to God.

How can that be if God wholly condemns debt?

If we look carefully at Romans 13:8 and Proverbs 22:7, we should notice something important. Borrowing is in the routine and normal course of business. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 15:6.

The differences we see are two-fold.

1.  We are not to make a pledge for repayment. How can we, if we do not own anything? Hopefully you were paying attention in the stewardship lessons! 

We are mere borrowers ourselves because God has created everything. We cannot pledge something which does not belong to us. More than this, a pledge is a form of bondage. If I fail to repay what I promised, I am bound to give to the lender the property pledged. If I take someone's pledge, they are bound to give me the property pledged. But God has put restrictions on pledges. Exodus 22:26, Deuteronomy 24:6 The reason for the restrictions is that we must never take advantage of someone. As Deuteronomy says, taking a millstone is taking a life because that is how the person survives.

A modern day example may be pledging your car title to get a short-term loan from a title loan or pawn shop. If you cannot pay, your car is gone, and now you are worse off because you cannot get back and forth to work to make the money needed to pay the debt.

2.  We are to be current on all of our payments. This is much more the thrust of Proverbs 22:7 and Romans 13:8. When we earn income, we are automatically in debt to the government to pay income taxes. At some point, we have to pay our fair share of income tax. Romans 13:8 speaks much more to a person who is current than to someone who has borrowed. God recognizes that there are times when borrowing may be the only option. 

Before we borrow, we must ask God in faith to provide for the need. We must ask God’s guidance. This is the lesson of Exodus 15 at Marah. The people could not borrow anything, but if we put ourselves in a situation like that, we could very easily put cases of bottled water on a credit card to solve the problem without batting an eye.

God said He was testing them, and God will test us too. Do we get a passing grade?

The wise use of debt requires that we seek counsel from God, seek counsel from people of God, and earnestly do our part to pay back what we borrow just as quickly as possible. If we get behind or make pledges, we are in bondage, and God will require that we get out of that bondage before He will use us somewhere else. Once we get into a mess like this, God is going to hold our feet to the fire. We will discuss this more in another lesson.

A pastor or missionary, for example, must be very careful with debt because their first calling is to God. If they cannot pay their debt, then they must make the debt right before God can effectively use them in the field or call them to another work. This is another key reason for Romans 13:8. The more we owe the less able we are to respond to God’s call or be useful in the kingdom of heaven. Failing to pay what we owe can become a sin, and God does not call sinful people to take His gospel into the world.

This is a call to a wise use of debt, but if debt cannot be avoided, this is a call to seek wise counsel. Borrowing presumes that everything is going to work out right, so that we can repay the debt. James 4:13-15

It is not ours to know the future. If we are going into debt for something, let us first take time to invite God into the situation. How do we know if this is the right thing to do? Maybe God has a plan that is different from ours, and He is calling us to submit to His plan. That may mean we don’t buy the thing we’re looking at or we wait for His hand to provide something else.

There are times in my younger years that I wish I had avoided certain debts, which would have meant I did not buy what I wanted. Looking back, had I spent more time listening to God, I would have avoided a difficult situation. God has a certain plan in mind, and we should take care to seek His will before just running off and doing something.

It is never our place to presume against God, and debt makes certain presumptions about the future.