Watch the video or read the lesson text … or both.
Matthew 5:13-16, 22-24
Sometimes we can get into a spot where Scripture collides. A person is unable to fully tithe, pay their debts (love their neighbor), and provide for their family. How do we approach this situation and try to resolve it?
Allow me to share a story to illustrate what I mean. A client came to me a number of years ago professing to be a Christian. The client was retired, living off retirement funds, volunteering in mission work, had around $20,000 or so in credit card debt, and was giving about $400 a month in tithes/offerings.
As I worked with the client, it was clear that stopping or reducing the tithe was perceived to be a sin. A pastor had told the client early in life that not tithing meant losing salvation. This is tragically unfortunate but part of the story.
The client asked me for help but also expressed a desire to file for bankruptcy. The situation was that the client could not keep up with the credit card payments, personal household bills, and the tithe/offering.
Scripture commands us to pay our debts, and I have laid out an argument in earlier lessons that keeping up with our debt payments is key to honoring the commandment to love our neighbor. Scripture instructs us to tithe and give offerings, which we discussed in an earlier lesson. Scripture also commands that we are to provide for our own family, which we also discussed in an earlier lesson.
I conducted a brief Bible study for the client and suggested the client speak with their pastor because they were “in a place where Scripture collides.”
One other key Scriptural command here which we are not going to discuss in this Bible study is that we are to be a witness of Christ in the world (Matthew 5:13). So, the question is which Scriptural command is most important? How do we rank our obedience?
What does insolvency and failing to repay our creditors say about Christ and our Christian witness? Does insolvency fulfill our obligation to love our neighbor?
What would it look like for the client to go into bankruptcy court and have to reveal that instead of paying his creditors he is giving $400 to the church? (Remember Mark 7:11-12, “All that I would have given you is Corban.”)
This is the part of any Bible study on money where we need to bring in a pastor, financial professional, or someone else outside of our circumstances to help us figure out the pathway forward.
God’s word never contradicts itself. If we end up in a bind like this, it is of our own making. God will never call us into a situation where we cannot obey Him because it is impossible to fulfill all of His commands.
If I were going to attempt an answer to this question – which of the three commands (plus a witness for Christ) is most important – I would approach the situation like this.
1. Tithing is a spiritual discipline. Failing to pay my creditors or failing to provide for my family is actual sin. There is a big difference between a spiritual discipline and sin. If we neglect tithing because of greed, the area of tithing is not our first sin – we are condemned by greed first. In this situation, tithing may be actual sin, particularly if we view it as Corban (Mark 7:11-12). Would God have compassion on me for putting the weightier matters of the law first in this situation? We may inadvertently flip the two greatest commandments in a situation like this, such that loving our neighbor comes first because in that moment it is our best expression of love for God. God expects us to deal honestly and fairly with others. Going down this road only leaves trust in God’s providence as the potential sin. What is God saying to me right now? 2. If I am going to be short somewhere, I would rather my own family suffer than short my creditor. There are times when we get into difficult situations like this because of poor choices, and our creditors should never suffer because we made a bad choice or a series of them. This is not neglect of my family’s needs, but a collective, voluntary decision. A family meeting would be useful (if children are involved), so that they understand and are on board with the decision. This also becomes an incredible teaching moment for our children and a major boost to our family’s spiritual vitality. Hint: This is where budgeting, cash flow review, and other habit-changing mechanisms (cash envelope system, etc.) can help us ensure we are fulfilling the command to love God and love our neighbor. 3. If I am in a difficult situation that I cannot control, such as a natural disaster, health crisis or my employer shut down, I would have no problem at all going to my creditors and asking for relief for a short while. 4. I would go to my pastor and ask for prayer that God would strengthen my faith and help me see if there is any sin in my heart. God wants us to come to Him when we are in trouble. He also expects us to ask in faith. Sin will block God's providence. We also block God's providence when we make poor choices with money. There is nothing wrong with waiting on God to provide for our needs, but we do have to first be in a place where we are pleasing Him as best we can. This is a good time to bring in someone outside our circumstances and listen with an open mind even if what they say hurts. 5. There may be times when my family and I need to "tighten our belts," so to speak. Review the family budget and cut out anything that isn't necessary. You do have a budget, right? Have you reviewed your cash flow? Are you categorizing all your spending as closely as possible to know where your money is going? Are you comfortable that your spending habits honor God? These are all questions we cannot answer if we are neither carefully budgeting nor monitoring our cash flow. (You expected the word “budget” a whole lot sooner in this Bible study, didn’t you? We had to get to this point for you to hopefully see the reason that budgeting and monitoring your cash flow is important and God-honoring.) Sell things that we don't need anymore. All of this is part of meeting God half-way in faith. If we expect God to provide in times of need, then we must meet Him half-way. In the story of Elisha and the widow, she had already tried her best to satisfy her creditors. The only thing left was to sell her own children and herself to her creditors. 6. What lesson is God trying to teach me? Before I do anything, I am going to lay out my circumstances before God, ask Him to show me any sin in my heart, and then ask Him to help me trust Him. Give God a chance to work. Before sending off payments, tell God candidly that you only have so much money and need $___ to pay all the bills – your personal household needs (after budgeting), your tithe, and your debt payments. Ask Him to either give you assurance that you can reduce tithing, approach your creditors for a compromise, or that He will provide the needed funds. Keep praying right up until you have to send off a payment. We have to tread carefully here because God may be providing for your needs simply by reducing your tithe or your budget temporarily while you get caught up. However, we cannot miss that God may want to demonstrate who He is by providing for your gaps and enabling a full tithe, full debt payments, and the amount you need in your budget. Hint: What are needs? A careful budget and sound financial planning is going to focus on legitimate needs before anything else. Wants can wait for a season.
Zacchaeus Financial Counseling, Inc. has actually serviced several clients in similar positions. In nearly all of the client matters, it was clear that the client did not have a good handle on their monthly cash flow. We have to honor God with our spending habits before we can expect Him to provide for our gaps, endorse a reduction in tithing, or approve a compromise with our creditors (including bankruptcy).