Josh Fischer knew that Dave Ramsey’s voice, booming through the airways, reached millions of listeners. But it felt like Ramsey was right there beside him. Ramsey was extolling the virtues of saving and budgeting while denouncing debt. “We live in one of the richest countries in the world, yet the average family does not have $1,000 in the bank,” Ramsey might have said. Or maybe he noted that 70 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, or that 55 percent frequently worry about money. Whatever Ramsey said that day, it led Josh Fischer to ask: “How have I been so stupid?”
Josh and Christina Fischer, members of Christ Community Church (PCA) in Gainesville, Fla., were not extraordinary in their debt. They were typical Americans, with a car loan, credit card debt, and school loans, plus a home equity line of credit. “We just went out to eat and did what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it,” explains Josh. That’s the attitude that keeps the average credit card holder owing more than $14,000. While the recession led many to keep their credit cards in their wallets over the past three years, any newfound frugality appears short-lived. Credit cards reemerged in 2011, with Americans swiping their way to 2.5 percent more consumer debt in May alone.
Jeff Chinery, a certified financial planner and PCA member, oversees Everyday Steward, a division of Ronald Blue and Company, a Christian organization that counsels individuals on financial planning and investment management. “At the heart of it, we are not satisfied,” says Chinery. “In our culture, which is very affluent if you look at it from a global perspective, much of our lifestyle is driven by those around us. For some, it’s difficult to forgo the things they desire, to separate needs from wants. With easy access to debt and credit, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ can lead us into decisions that we might not otherwise make.”
The Fischers realized that lifestyle choices rather than good stewardship fueled their spending. As they embarked on Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover” program, the Fischers set a goal to be debt-free before they had children. “The concept of spending less than you make really hit us for the first time. We had been really naïve, thinking that somehow our debt would just go away,” says Josh. “We got radical—we sold stuff on eBay, we babysat, cleaned boats, cut down trees, painted for other people,” Josh recounts. “We sold the brand-new car we had [had for] only four months,” adds Christina. Following Dave Ramsey’s “debt snowball” method, the Fischers set aside $1,000 for emergencies and applied all their extra money to debt reduction.
“We had to say no to a lot of people,” remembers Josh. “And what we were doing seemed weird to a lot of people.” But from the beginning, Josh and Christina shared the goal of sloughing the debt burden off their shoulders. Christina says eliminating their debt was an exercise in trusting God in a new way. “You are getting rid of the gunk,” she says. “You realize areas where you’re selfish and feel entitled to certain things. It’s like taking off a layer so that you can see things more clearly.”
Revealing the Roots of Debt
For the Fischers, peeling off the layers of debt revealed the real issues in their lives, issues that can be buried under consumption. And that’s the real problem with debt, says Chinery—it probably reflects something deeper about our relationship with God. “We go back to the reality that God owns it all,” he says. “To the degree He does, I realize that I’m just a steward. And to the degree that I pursue excess, I am saying to God: ‘You haven’t given me what I need.’”
Scripture does not say that debt in itself is sinful. Mary Hunt, founder of Debt-Proof Living, suggests that the ability to lend is a result of God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 28:12). “If lending is permissible, borrowing must be as well,” she says. “However, debt, if any, should be paid off as soon as possible because, ‘the wicked borrow and do not repay’” (Psalm 37:21). In modern times, credit can be used for good purposes. Microfinance loans to people in developing countries are a road out of poverty. Without education loans, many Americans would be forced to forgo a college degree. However, the Bible admonishes: “The borrower is a slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). So, while it’s not prohibited, the Bible’s wisdom is to avoid debt.
One reason, Chinery says, referencing James 4:13-15, is that by accumulating debt we presume on the future. “We clearly saw this in the financial meltdown. People overextended themselves, confident they would have income to service their debts,” he explains. “We have no way of knowing that with certainty.” Not only do we presume on God for the future by taking on debt, debt can constrain our ability to follow Him in the future. Chinery says he’s worked with clients who are called to ministry, but must postpone or abandon their plans because of debt.
Ron Blue, president of Kingdom Advisors and author of 15 books on personal finance, suggests another danger of debt. “Using credit card debt may deny God an opportunity to provide. Isaiah 55:8-9 says God’s ways are not our ways; His plans are higher than ours. When we use credit card debt as a quick solution, we effectively deny ourselves the opportunity to let God meet our needs.” While Blue emphasizes that the Bible never says that borrowing money violates God’s commandments, he says it may be unwise. “The bottom line is that we should avoid putting lenders in the place of God by depending on them to meet our needs, and we should not play God … by deciding that the only way to meet our needs is to borrow.”
What Debt Costs
Not only is debt unwise because of its effect on our hearts, it may also be unwise for its effect on our wallets. Credit card debt, for example, is expensive. Unpaid balances on credit cards can carry rates of as much as 25 percent. If you buy a $2,000 computer with credit and pay only the monthly minimum, it will take you 32 years to pay off that $2,000. By that time, the antiquated computer would cost you $10,000—hardly a bargain. Yet, saving $2,000 for the computer initially requires something rare in our instant-gratification culture: patience and discipline.
A seemingly small choice to buy a computer that we can’t afford may cost us more than we can even calculate. Chinery uncovers the hidden costs of debt: “Debt costs us in three ways: We have to pay back the debt, we have to pay back the interest on the debt, and we will have a reduced lifestyle in the future to service debt,” he says. “Lifestyle adjustment is difficult initially, but instead of choosing to hold back our lifestyle today, we take on debt, and we’re going to have to adjust even more to our future lifestyle to service the debt.”
Our personal failure to live within our means is magnified on a national level. This summer’s political upheaval over raising the debt ceiling is only the latest crisis surrounding a national debt spinning out of control. In order to repay the $14 trillion national debt, the federal government could pay $10 million dollars a day, and it would still be paying 3,800 years later. Many Christian leaders emphasize the moral dimension of this crisis. Rev. Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute says, “Of course, debt per se is not immoral. But to the extent that all growing debt decreases the economic opportunity of the next generation, yes, it’s immoral to keep piling it on.”
Long before the current debt crisis, the founder of Christian Financial Concepts, Larry Burkett, suggested that the state of the American economy reflected the nation’s spiritual state. “Financial and economic principles for individuals hold true for nations as well,” he said in 1997. “The way people handle their money is an indicator of the way they handle other things, including spiritual things. The American economy is nothing more than the reflection of our society in general, so just as we overspend in our society, we overspend in our government, and it is in debt. If you look around, you see a direct parallel to the way we are handling moral and social things in our society today.”
A Way Out
Despite the seriousness of our nation’s financial woes or our personal ones, Christians can live without fear because we know our sovereign God is ultimately in control. Ron Blue writes in Master Your Money, “Do you think God is worried? Is He wringing His hands in despair, wondering how it is all going to turn out? Of course not!”
Even as Congress tries to solve our national debt crisis, Christian families like Josh and Christina Fischer are glorifying God by getting out of debt and transforming their attitude toward money. “I have to say it’s not always easy,” says Josh. “It takes a lot of sacrifice and discipline.”
Josh and Christina achieved their goal of paying off debt, and the same month, Christina got pregnant. This gift from God and affirmation of their efforts also added a challenge for completing the next steps in their plan to stay out of debt. “It is a huge weight off my chest not being in the red,” says Josh. “We are working toward our goal of an emergency fund of one year’s living expenses. [For] all the things life entails, we want to be prepared.”
Eliminating debt before having children enabled Christina to stay at home when their son was born, as the Fischers hoped. But they also made another leap of faith—Josh began a new career as a financial planner. “God had His hand in it because I felt drawn in that direction, but doors opened in ways that we never expected,” remembers Josh. “We would not have been able to make the leap [had we been] in debt. The whole process has been a big blessing.”
Now, with the irregular income of a financial planner, a 4-year-old son, and another on the way, Josh and Christina are more committed than ever to save and plan for the future. But their goals include more than just financial security for themselves.
Financial Fitness with a Purpose
Ultimately, Josh and Christina grasped a higher goal of eliminating debt and learning better stewardship of their money: giving it away. As they have experienced the freedom of living without debt, Christina says, “We feel more compelled to give. We feel called to step up in certain situations and help others.” This is the movement to a heart full of grace that no debt-reduction program or financial management class can elicit.
In 2 Corinthians 8:8-9, Paul writes, “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Tim Keller writes about these verses in his online article Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Your Money: “Paul demands the love that cannot be demanded. He requires the giving that cannot be simply the response to a demand. Christians are those who accept salvation by grace, not works (Ephesians 2:8-10). We know we were saved by Jesus’ radical generosity on the cross. If you have been given everything freely, then you will be freed to give everything freely. Christians who are in touch with this spiritual reality do not need a command.”
If we eliminate our debt but fail to be generous, perhaps we have not grasped the full extent of our indebtedness. Chinery says he encourages clients to revisit their level of giving. “The right amount to give is more than we can afford. Giving isn’t a safe exercise—we are so far above the level of need, almost all of us could give more.”
Chuck Bentley, CEO of Crown Ministries, speaks of this in his forthcoming book The Root of Riches: What if Everything You Think About Money is Wrong: “I’m particularly concerned that people take biblical principles and try to strip them out and say, ‘Here’s the practical thing I should do.’” For example, he says, “The Bible warns against debt. Take the principle and say, ‘I’m going to use that to focus on getting out of debt.’ That’s a behavior and it’s a good behavior. But if that’s all you learn and all you focus on you’ve missed some essentials—like what God says about our heart and about our mind.” Instead, says Bentley, “It’s more about allowing Christ to transform me into His image. That’s the source of true riches.”
Susan Fikse is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta, Ga., with her husband and three children.