As I was growing up, from age 6 to age 17 we lived in houses that we rented. Most of them on single year leases. And one of the things I remember distinctly was the telephone code we had for answering the phone. You see my dad had what my grandmother called Cadillac tastes on a Chevrolet budget. Which is to say he often made choices in life that kept our family in debt. So much so that rent and other bills could go unpaid for a time. Hence the phone code. Family and close friends, calling the house were told to ring twice, hang up and call again. It was the safe sign that Mrs. Bradley, the landlord’s agent, or other bill collector was not on the phone.
On the mission trip to Lee County Virginia, one of the state’s poorest counties, we passed a billboard each day on the way to the job site. It was a picture of a father with his young son standing in front of a fancy new pick-up truck. The billboard, advertising a bank, proclaimed, drive today, pay later! It reminded me of the Corvette, the Cadillac and the Porsche we had as kids while we were answering the phone after two rings and a hang-up.
These two vignettes illustrate an epidemic that is crippling people all over our country, debt. U.S. consumer debt is expected to top $4 trillion dollars by the end of this year. We owe more than 26% of our annual income to debt. It 2010 it was 22%. In June of this year, debt rose 3.1%. Auto loans and credit card debt alone, climb by 7% annually. Now that the Federal Reserve has begun to raise interest rates again, consumer debt tied to variable rates will also rise, increasing what we owe. Americans have fallen in love with debt. And that love affair has led to a host of choices that put us in peril. For our choices lead us to debt service, rather than the Lord’s service.
Joshua understood that the most dangerous time for people of faith was not the time of hardship, but the time of affluence, the time of many choices. The people of Israel had come through a harrowing period of their history. After slavery in Egypt, they had wandered the desert wilderness for an entire generation. Then, upon crossing the Jordan River, they had fought and won the land promised to them. Things were going to get easier now. They had arrived in the land flowing with milk and honey. All they needed would be provided, and this is a dangerous time.
The crisis that has arisen is the people are faced with a choice between allegiance to YHWH or to the gods of their ancestors and the land they have conquered. Joshua challenges the community to renounce allegiance to other gods for the one God, YHWH. Joshua could imagine what would happen. Tolerating other gods was tempting in a land of easy choice. Joshua knew how fickle his people could be. Why not put all choices on an equal footing. No one has to take offense and all choices we make, are ok. Perhaps there would be benefits to serving other gods. Instead Joshua urges the people not to give up the fire in their belly, their zeal for the Lord. He not only offers a choice in where to live, he offers them the choice of a god.
The debt we face challenges us with the same choice. When times are good, the credit flowing, we can grasp lots of shiny new things; new cars, vacations, dinning out. All the bells and whistles our children “deserve,” justifying our splurges as “making memories.” Yet when we choose credit to acquire these good times we cripple our ability to give our full allegiance to God. As our debt increases we close our hands ever more tightly around what we see as our assets. We then lose the ability to serve God fully.
The truth of the matter is this, all we have is from God and it belongs to God. We are simply managers, stewards of what God has given us. Dave Ramsey calls it being an “asset manager” for the Lord. Piling up debt then, hinders our ability to be God’s stewards because we have to serve the debt before we can serve God. There is a reason Jesus spoke more on money than he did on love or grace. He knew the lure of trouble we can get into. In fact, 34 times scripture tells us to give our first fruits to God.
The problem of course is that the Mrs. Bradleys of the world, are calling us and sending red-lined envelopes demanding payment. Or as the Lee county billboard suggested, we are infatuated with driving today, and paying later.
The same is true for our church. We have seen great additions over the years from our sanctuary and organ to renovated spaces, yet for 23 years we have carried about $1 million in debt. The service on which costs about 17% of our annual budget.
In the beginning of the covenant with the people, God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. Abraham was told he and the people would be “blessed to be a blessing.” We are the descendants of that covenant. Yet we fail to be a blessing to others when it is not the first fruits we give to the Lord, but what’s left when the “bills” get paid.
Some years back, serving another church, a fellow with a small business shared with me the burden of his debt load. He told me he could hardly make ends meet. In fact a couple rooms in his home were still unfurnished as he had borrowed more than he could really afford. As he was telling me this, I also remembered that he had a habit of buying a new Lexus every couple of years. He was thousands of dollars in debt and yet he felt compelled buy a new car. I asked him about it and he looked at me with wide-eyed astonishment as he explained, “well, God wants me to have the best doesn’t he?”
We had a long talk about that one. And we had a long talk about his attitude toward debt. But his comment revealed to me that much of his debt was based on a “false theology.” He had grown accustomed to believing that worldly possessions are the mark of accomplishment, of God’s blessing of prosperity.
The reality is there are people who go into debt because purchasing new things gives them a feeling of power and control over their lives. It gives them a good feeling because they have chosen the security of possessions. And they have come to believe, as my friend with the new Lexus, that God approves. It is that old bumper sticker come to life: “He who dies with the most toys, wins”
Yet statistics indicate the rising consumer debt in the U.S. has households one emergency such as job loss or unexpected medical emergency a hairs breadth away from financial catastrophe.
This fall, we will once again, under Rusty Hopkins leadership, offer Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. Stories Rusty has shared from the previous presentations make me wide-eyed with wonder at how lives have been transformed. Folks enrolled in the course find beneficial avenues to changing the trajectory of the choices they make in their lives. The process opens them to ways they can change how they choose allegiance in their lives, from debt service to the Lord’s service. If you are struggling with debt, if you are fearful of the Mrs. Bradleys of the world, or simply aware that when it comes to your money, God comes last, because the bills have got to come first, I urge you to attend Financial Peace University.
When Joshua calls the people to choose, he urges YHWH alone, the very God who led them out of bondage into freedom and to the Promised Land. Likewise, to be a Christian means to choose Christ first, and not to worship anything or anyone else. Yes, it means sacrificing options. Christianity cannot be practiced from the edges of our lives, but only at the center. Yes it is a choice, a choice that often means to put other things aside. When you say yes to God, you have to say no to something else. Jesus pressed hard decisions on would-be disciples. He tested the depth of conviction or shallowness of adhesion. When the rich young man was told, “Go, sell all you have, and follow me,” his adherence to Jesus quickly dried up.
Considering the rich young man, William Boyce once wrote this prayer:
Dear Lord, I have been re-reading the record of the rich young ruler and his obviously wrong choice. But it has me thinking. No matter how much wealth he had, he could not:
Ride in a car, have any surgery, turn on a light, buy penicillin, watch TV, wash dishes in running water, type a letter, mow a lawn, fly in an airplane, sleep on an innerspring mattress, or talk on a phone.
If he was rich, then what am I?
If we take stock of the blessings we already have we’ll be less inclined to seek satisfaction by gaining more and more possessions, more and more debt.
Allowing us to respond to Joshua’s challenge to serve the Lord, rather than serving the debt.