We live in a time when social activists are seeking to end slavery and human trafficking around the globe, while a more nefarious foe has enslaved the peoples of the earth: debt (Proverbs 22:7b). Perhaps we don’t hear much about this because God’s people are no different than the world.
How big is this problem?
According to The Economist, this problem exceeds $50 trillion worldwide: the average American owes $38,409 as compared that to the average Ethiopian who carries a debt of $245. Lest you feel like moving to Ethiopia, you should know that the average income there is only $1 per day. The problem is pervasive.
So what should we do?
Our global economy has been built on debt. For Americans, the availability of debt has fattened our self-indulgent culture and fueled our discontent. It has also greatly limited our generosity.
But what does the Bible say about debt?
In the Old Testament, God’s people are instructed not to exact interest from one another (Ex 22:25). Rather than make money off their brothers and sisters, God’s people are to share with one another in times of need (Deut 15:7-8). And, should the wealthy choose an alternative plan for their riches, such as getting ahead rather than blessing others, God may intervene and redistribute it for them (Prov 28:8). The prophets proclaim the failure of God’s people linked to these instructions and call them to repentance (Amos 5:4-15).
In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus forgave us a debt we could not repay (speaking of our sin), and calls us to extend the same generosity toward others (Matt 18:23-35). The Apostle Paul adds: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law”(Rom 13:8). No debt except love? How do we get there from where most of us are?
Consider three applications. The first addresses the spiritual problem associated with debt, the second applies to the life of the steward, and the third pertains to steward leadership.
(1) You must be free of the love of money in order to show God’s love
Because most people have debt, leaders have focused on teaching people how to get out of it. This course of action, while it may represent an important tactical step, does not solve the spiritual problem because it only treats a symptom. The root problem is the love of money (cf. 1 Tim 6:9-10), a.k.a. greed, which is idolatry (Col 3:5; Eph 5:5). In antiquity this sin is linked to thinking that money is the answer to all problems (cf. Philo, Special Laws 1.24.3).
Such thinking prevails today. Until people repent of this sin (change directions), they cannot possibly exhibit God’s love, because their behavior, whether they like it or not, exhibits the love of money. Don’t take my word for it. Jesus said, “you cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13). We demonstrate allegiance to one or the other.
To find freedom perhaps start with this prayer: God, forgive me for thinking that I need money to live. Life is not found in having an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:16-21). Abundant life is only found in you (John 10:10)! Help me learn that the secret of contentment is rooted in the realization that all I need is you, Amen (Phil 4:11-13).
Now let us consider what should life look like?
(2) Get to work, live simply, give generously, and ask the Father if you need anything
If you are able to work, get to work (2 Thess 3:10)! If you have debt, pay it off. As God provides income, live simply so you can give generously (1 Tim 6:8; Phil 4:11-13). If you have more than enough, the world says to store up treasures on earth so that they can make more money. Don’t fall into that trap (1 Tim 6:9)! Instead, faithful stewards put the Master’s resources to work (Matt 25:16) and store them up in heaven through giving to God and sharing (Matt 6:19-21; Rom 12:13). And, if you need anything, ask the Father as Jesus instructed (Matt 7:7-11; Phil 4:6-7).
All this requires us, as stewards, to live biblically and counter-culturally. This lifestyle, which Lewis Hyde calls “the gift economy,” positions us for freedom rather than slavery: when a person is in need, the other helps that person, for next time, the helper may in fact be the one in need (2 Cor 8:13-15).
We can trace examples of this in the Early Church (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140-155) writes: “Instead of fields, buy souls that are in trouble according to your ability. Look after widow and orphans. Do not neglect them. Spend your riches on these kinds of fields and houses.” No wonder scholars like Rodney Stark have noted that it was the generosity of the Early Church that contributed to spread of Christianity throughout the ancient world. They showed God’s love.
My favorite example of such loving generosity in more recent history is linked to Handel’s Messiah. On April 13, 1742, Messiah premiered as a chartable event raising £400 and freeing 142 people from debtor’s prison. What if Christian ministries engaged in such efforts today?
(3) Avoid organization debt and trust God to sustain His work
Just because your ministry can borrow money does not mean it should borrow money. Instead of presuming on the future and borrowing money to build buildings or fuel ministry, you should count the cost before starting projects to ensure you will have the funds to finish (Luke 14:28-30).
If you want your ministry to grow, be faithful with what you have and God may expand the work. This path is intended to maintain freedom and dependency on Him (James 4:13-17). When you lead this way, the only One who receives the glory for the flourishing of your ministry is God. Leaders like George Mueller offer wonderful biographical examples of this approach.
Our world desperately needs to know of God’s love, and the instructions in God’s Word actually point leaders to the only economic model able to sustain ministry: God’s abundant provision (cf. Matt 6:9-13; 2 Cor 9:11-13).
Is that your sustainability plan or you relying on debt? Martin Luther says, “Whatever a man trusts in and relies on is his god?” Let us humbly turn from trusting in debt, live within our means modeling simplicity and generosity, and trust God to resource His work for His glory.
Gary Hoag is the Generosity Monk. Visit his website, Generoisty Monk: Encouraging Christian Generosity, where he provides biblical teaching for the Church, spiritual counsel for stewards and professional advise for leaders.