Freedom in Christ: Freedom from Debt
As we begin our pilgrimage through the season of Lent this year, I thought I’d preach a series of sermons on “Freedom in Christ,” taking as the main text for the whole series Paul’s great admonition to the Galatians: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Now, there’s all different kinds of things that can enslave us, and not all of them are what you normally think of as “spiritual” problems. And one of the worst – because it afflicts even those who are devoted to Christ and otherwise very “spiritual” – is debt. I may not be the best counselor in dealing with financial matters – I’m hardly the green-eyeshade kinda guy -- nevertheless, debt is a problem. A worldly problem, you might think, but no problem is “just” a worldly problem. For there is no doubt that debt can be a soul-killer.
I’ve met more than one family in my career that meets this description: married, mid-to-late 30s, one or more kids; they have a nice house, one or more cars, perhaps a truck or a boat; everybody in the family has the latest toys and cell phone contracts, they belong to various community organizations, the kids are in lots of high-ticket extra-curriculars at school, they take a big family vacation to someplace like Disney World about every year. (You can start to tot up how many payments they’re making, can’t you?) AND, to top it all off, they’re carrying (some of them) 30-60 THOUSAND dollars in credit card debt.
They’re nice folks, and they have a nice life, but they are being pursued by a debt monster. Or perhaps “held prisoner” is nearer the mark, for debt is a monster that enslaves its captives. You don’t own your stuff; your stuff owns you. And it can grind all the joy out of life. The people I see are chained to the oar as securely as any galley slave, for no matter how much money they make, they’re only 1-2 paychecks from disaster, and the burden of debt they’re carrying steals a lot of joy from their lives. Still, you wouldn’t call them poor – or would you?
Well, I know a thing or two about poverty, and what I know is that being POOR is not the same thing as being BROKE. I've been broke. Lots of folks in my parents’ generation were BROKE at one time or another – and if you lived through the Great Depression, maybe you were, too. But POOR? Not really.
You see, poverty is not really a financial condition. It’s a spiritual condition. Poverty results when one internalizes the disorder around one while growing up. In poor families, there is no schedule, no routine; caretakers come and go; you change residences frequently; meals are haphazard, mental stimulation is low, and nobody shows much pride in you. Poor people dream of “making it” economically, but they find their internalized chaos means they don’t know how to get a job, keep a job, or use the money they earn. So no matter how hard they try, they can’t escape their poverty.
By the same token, prosperity is not really a financial condition,either. It, too, is really a spiritual condition. And what we see so often in middle-class families that are drowning in debt is a spiritual state of being unable to control one’s appetites and resources; in effect, you see a bunch of rich poor people. Their poverty may have a different source from that of the underprivileged kid growing up in the inner city. Spending money, like other binge-ish behaviors, can be a kind of self-medication for psychological, emotional, or spiritual needs.
Now, I can’t promise you that Christ will make you rich; in fact, if you remain poor inside, no amount of money or lucky breaks or inheritances – from Christ or anybody else – can keep you from digging your hole deeper. But I believe that God promises sufficiency to his children – abundance, even – though he doesn’t promise us a set amount of money or stuff. And I can promise you that Christ can set you free from whatever holds you down, and that includes debt.
So, how does he do that? Well, by healing the disordered state within us, so that we manifest a different set of economic behaviors. John Wesley preached a famous sermon on the Use of Money. Remember, the early Methodists started out as a notoriously poor and rowdy lot, given to drink and smuggling and whatnot, who were miraculously saved by the grace of God; their spiritual re-orientation led not only to inner peace but outer wealth, so Wesley tried to teach them how to use the money they were beginning to earn, lest they wind up in worse condition than when they started.
As the old monks used to put it, “Discipline begets abundance – but abundance, if it be not checked, destroys discipline.” Now, discipline IMPOSED FROM WITHOUT cannot set you free; only discipline that is internalized as part of one’s spiritual formation, can keep you from digging another hole after being rescued from one. And you can sum up Wesley's advice on the Use of Money this way: Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.
Lots of us can understand that “earn all you can.” Back when we were all young up-and-comers, a friend of mine – a lawyer in inner city Indy, John Brooks -- was in a group with me discussing tax shelters. His response was, “I don’t need a tax shelter, I need an income augmentation.” Well, income follows work, and the first rung on the economic ladder is always learning how to work hard and please bosses and customers. Most of us can do that.
It gets harder when you start talking about saving all you can. We look at our bills and our paycheck, and we say, No way; there’s nothing left over – zip -- nada. But you know, “saving” isn’t just about putting money aside: it’s about a lifestyle that reduces WASTE.
Most of you have heard the Scout Law before. "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent." Out of those 12 things, there are always two points that new Scouts stumble over. The first is REVERENT – for which they have no content, and most of you probably aren’t surprised at that. But the other, I have found, is THRIFTY.
"What does it mean to be THRIFTY, Scout?
To be nice to other people!
"No, how does a thrifty person act?"
He treats everyone with respect!
"No, it means he lives a FRUGAL lifestyle."
I find that in order to teach them what thrifty means, I have to relate it to something they already understand, like limiting their impact on the environment (reduce, reuse, recycle) and this is just the same thing. Thrift is as much about stuff as it is money. Last month, my ’97 Plymouth Breeze clicked over 350,000 miles. And to all those who ask, How long you gonna keep her, Art, I say, Half a million miles sounds like a good round number. For that matter, we have THREE paid-off cars between the 2 of us. We just got tired of making payments.
My hiking boots are just the 4th pair I’ve ever owned. I buy the best, and then I take care of them, because it’s so hard (and expensive) to find a good, new pair. While we're on the subject of footwear, I always buy leather-soled dress shoes, because I can re-sole them twice before the uppers wear out. We have pay-as-you-go cell phones, which flabbergasts all the kids I work with – and some of their parents.
Now, we’re not Scrooges. We splurge on lots of things. But we don’t like making payments if we can help it. And what we have found – and it took us way too long to learn it – is, if you take care of your stuff, your stuff will take care of you, and it’ll cost you a heckuva lot less money.
In terms of saving MONEY, the financial gurus say 1st, save $1000; then, save 3-6 mos. expenses. But what it comes down to is, don’t overextend yourself; don’t get all spread out. It’s like fighting a battle: if your troops are too spread out, so you can’t guide them or communicate with them – or if you’ve committed every unit you’ve got, so there’s no reserve -- then all you can do is stand and fight where you are. You can’t adapt to anything the enemy might throw at you, and you can’t seize an opportunity. By making your formation more compact, you make it more nimble. By having a reserve, you can swing the battle at the critical point.
By reducing your wants, you pull your forces in where you can get control of them again – and guess what? Changing your lifestyle to live in the abundance that God gives you without clawing and grabbing for more all the time – that’s freedom.
Ah, but freedom to do what? My Dad was a child of the Depression. For him and for other members of his generation, there was never enough. He was haunted by the fear that it could all disappear tomorrow. So he saved, and he saved, and he saved. But when he fell ill, it did him little good. No matter how much money he had, it wasn’t going to make any difference to the progress of his disease.
Meanwhile, I took over paying his bills, and for the first time in my life came to see what my Dad gave to charity. Now, he had a reputation as a generous man – and he could have bought and sold me three times over – but you know what? I gave 5-6 times what he did to charity, young & struggling as I was. He was so afraid that he might lose it all, he held onto it, even when he could have used some to increase his happiness in his last years.
We so often forget the third leg of JW’s money stool: Earn all you can, save all you can, GIVE all you can. So, let me ask you this: Do you like to spend money? Most of us do. It’s fun to go shopping. Some folks don't like to go out and shop, but they've discovered that you can buy stuff on the internet, and they just love to hit that button.
It’s especially fun to shop for OTHERS – those of you with grandchildren know this -- & it’s no coincidence, I think, that every congregation I’ve ever pastored that had an angel tree at Christmas saw people lining up to grab those tags off the tree as soon as they got put up. We like to shop. We like to shop for others – to make them happy, to feel a little more godlike in our ability to bless those we love and to make a difference in the world. Now, imagine that you’ve got the money to make lots of cool things happen that you care about. It’s FUN! And you feel GREAT, powerful and humble at the same time – like GOD.
In addition to our regular giving (Deanne & I are tithers), we have several missions causes we give to every year. And whenever we come into some unexpected money, we'll usually set aside 10% to give to missions. It's really wonderful, writing checks to Missionary friends who're strapped for cash and paying for projects that need doing but nobody's found the money for. Just dreaming about what we could do with what we had dedicated to God is exciting. Giving to God, making people happy, changing the world, HAVING THE RIGHT KIND OF FUN – that’s what a rightly ordered spirit can get you. That’s the payoff for earning all you can and saving all you can.
And yeah, there’ll be some other benefits, too. You’ll sleep easier with the wolf that much farther from your door, and there’ll be more money for other things you’d like to have. But the most fun I know is to make happen the thing that you have longed for – for those you love. So – earn all you can, save all you can, GIVE all you can. That is the sign of a rightly-ordered soul, and the result of asking Christ to lead you out of the debt dungeon to live according to the Spirit.
As Paul said in the Letter we began this sermon with, and which perhaps you will hear with a little different emphasis now: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.