THE NATIONAL DEBT AND THOMAS JEFFERSON Today, in the United States, we’ve been told that the recession is officially over. But for a lot of people it really doesn’t feel that way. "Good luck surviving the recovery!" heralded one news magazine cover. And why? Well, for a number of reasons, but here’s one of them: America is facing a huge credit crunch. And not just on a personal level. America’s national debt, which was big, is rapidly growing by the trillions. I was thinking about that as I finished reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson this month. To my surprise I discovered that the national debt was also a concern during his administration. Jefferson came to power in 1801, at a time when federal government had just assumed the debts of the individual states. The result was a national debt of about 119 million dollars—a pittance compared to today. But it drove Jefferson crazy. In fact, he devised a plan to eliminate the national debt in 15 years. The federal government had an income of about 9 million dollars in 1801. Jefferson devised a plan to divert 7 million of those dollars to pay the national debt. He would run the government on what was left over—a scant 2 million. No wonder Jefferson decided America could ill afford to have a navy and took steps to put the ships in dry dock. We hear a story like that and we smile at Jefferson’s fiscal austerity. Jefferson, we say, really knew how to pinch a penny! Well, not really. He knew how to say no to America, he just didn’t know how to say no to himself. He spent money he did not have. In fact, you may know the sad ending to Thomas Jefferson and his estate. After his death, his entire estate was auctioned off in an effort to pay only a small percentage of his debt. You know, sometimes our personal lives tend to imitate national life. "I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go." That’s the motto of millions of people. It’s not just the federal government that is in debt up to its eyeballs. So are many North Americans—and elsewhere. Easy credit has become the modern way of life. Until the latest financial crisis, I was getting a couple credit card offers a day in my mailbox. You probably were to. And there are few things more tempting than that easy money the bank wants to give us. But credit has its downside. Credit card bills have a way of sitting on our desk unopened. Who wants to know what’s inside, how much we really spent? Who could imagine that all those little credit purchases could add up to so much? And who would guess that in a day when the prime rate is so low credit card rates could be so high. Now, I find a lot of people who consider themselves Christians who think that, well their use of credit really isn’t very important. They think their use of credit doesn’t figure into their Christian discipleship. But, I think that’s a mistake. Your use of credit is going to have a major impact on your life. We need to talk about credit today for at least three reasons. CREDIT AND MARRIAGE First of all, we need to talk about credit because your use of credit is going to have a big impact on your family, on your family relationships. You know, when I meet with couples in premarital counseling, I spend a quite a bit of time talking about money. I often ask them to complete a little questionnaire where they can compare their views on money matters—including their attitudes toward credit. I do this, not because I am nosy. I do it because I have a real concern for their future happiness. The truth is, money is the number one issue that people fight about in marriage. In fact, money is the number one reason why marriages end up in divorce court. Unless a couple has a sensible agreed—upon game plan when it comes to money, they are going to face some really big uphill struggles. CREDIT AND OUR LIVING STANDARD There’s a second reason we need to talk about credit. It’s because the use of too much credit can negatively impact our living standard. Now maybe you think that is surprising to say. After all, credit seems to be the way you enter into the promised land of affluent living. Credit promises us a wonderful life. But that’s not really what happens. Because uncontrolled use of credit funds a lifestyle we can’t afford. But the truth is, credit ties up future earnings with past purchases. Extensive use of credit hurts—instead of helps—the quality of your lifestyle. In the end we can afford LESS, not more. CREDIT AND OUR GIVING STANDARD And there is a third reason we need to talk about credit. Easy credit not only impacts our living standard, it impacts our GIVING standard. You know, a lot of folks would be able to be more generous with kingdom causes if they hadn’t leveraged themselves to the max. Credit payments eat up the dollars they would ultimately like to give to their church and the mission of God. Now maybe you say to me today "why are we having such a problem with credit, why didn’t our grandparents struggle with such a thing?" Well, I’ll tell you why: easy credit is something that is pretty new. I talked to a retired banker a few years ago who said that when he began his work as a loans officer, you would have been laughed out of the bank if you had come in and asked for a loan to take a trip to Europe. It just wouldn’t have happened, he said. Loans were given for expanding businesses, for buying a home; maybe you could get a loan for a car or for education—but that was it. No bank would loan you money so that you could eat out this coming weekend at the restaurant of your choice. Money wasn’t loaned that way. The easy credit that has swamped our society is a new thing. It’s a new thing, but is it a good thing? WHAT’S A CHRISTIAN TO DO? If we intend to be faithful disciples of Christ, how are we to handle this remarkable new power that has been placed in our hands, this power to borrow? I am well aware that the Bible doesn’t know anything like a credit card. Jesus never pulled an American Express card from his pocket and said to the man at the fish market—hey, just charge it! But the Bible does offer a perspective on credit that I think is instructive. Where to start? Well, how about with the book of Proverbs. Now, as we go to that book, we need to remember the nature of Proverbs—it’s wisdom literature. What you find there are not so much cast—in—stone commands as wise sayings—sayings that generally hold true. Sayings that make sense in most situations. Proverbs doesn’t offer guarantees on life—but it does offer truths that conform to the principles by which God designed the world and human society. And this is what Proverbs says about debt:
The rich rule over the poor And the borrower is servant to the lender.Now, what does that proverb really say? Well, first note what it does NOT say—it does NOT say—"It’s wrong to borrow money." I know there are some who say that it is sin to borrow in any situation. They turn to Romans 13:8 and read: "Owe no one anything but to love one another." They, they say—all borrowing is wrong. Even borrowing for a house, for a car, for college, for business—it’s all off limits for a Christian. But we must be careful when we talk this way. For there are places in Scripture where borrowing and lending are NOT condemned. In Psalm 37, for example, we read about the nature of righteous people. This is their character, this is what they’re like: "they are always generous and LEND freely." Now, if it’s OK to lend, then in certain cases it must be OK to borrow. And in Matthew 5:42, Jesus himself tells us in the Sermon the Mount, "not to turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." Jesus himself expresses that in some instances it’s OK to take a loan! The Bible does not issue an outright ban on borrowing. This proverb does not label all debt as a matter of disobedience. So what DOES it say? Well, what it says is this: Keep your eyes open when you take out a loan. THINK when you borrow. For understand this: The borrower is servant to the lender. That is, a loan changes the relationship between two people. When you borrow money from a friend, you change your relationship with that person. How many of us haven’t experienced that—perhaps to our deep regret. As soon as money changes hands, our relationship changes too. The borrower, in a real sense, becomes a servant to the lender. Suddenly that good friend is now our loans officer, who has not just a personal interest in our lives, but a financial interest in our lives. Our friend, our neighbor, becomes in a sense our financial master. Nehemiah encountered that dynamic when he returned to Jerusalem. He met Jewish citizens who had no choice but to borrow money to pay their taxes to Persia. Their collateral? Nothing else but their own farms and families. And what happened when they couldn’t pay on the principle? Their fields, their vineyards, even their own children now belonged to others. We of course do not live in a culture where there are debtors’ prisons—we aren’t likely to see our families sold into slavery to pay off our bills. But the fact is debt still makes the debtor a servant to the lender. Your possessions, your future income, something of your very life—is now held in the hands of another person. That means you aren’t as free as you once were. Anyone who still has a mortgage on their house knows that. I’ve talked to people who would dearly like to change careers, change jobs, but they tell me, "I can’t. Not until the mortgage is paid. Then I can make some moves I can’t make now." A FEW QUESTIONS TO ASK So debt, then, isn’t sin. But debt is dangerous. So how do you know when to take out a loan? Ron Blue, who has written extensively on finances from a Christian perspective, has offered some guidelines. He asks us to consider a few questions before we borrow money, and I think they’re excellent ones. First, am I seeking this loan because of a lack of financial discipline? A shocking number of people have no discipline when it comes to money. In fact, one of the reasons our world is in an economic crisis is because of personal financial mismanagement. Many people were spending 110% of their income EVERY YEAR. In effect, every year they sink deeper in debt because they have no discipline over their money. What about you? Is your use of credit really a lack of discipline? Second, is my use of credit because a sign that I lack contentment? In other words, is your use of credit really a cover for a spiritual illness? A lot of people are restless. They have a deep void in their souls that they cannot satisfy. They think another toy will satisfy their spirits. They are wrong. How about you? Are you using credit as a cheap answer to address your unhappiness about life? Third, is my use of credit a way to engage in a misguided search for significance? Everyone wants to stand out. Is the reason I am borrowing for this house or buying that car because of a legitimate need—or am I really doing it to impress my neighbors? When we put our borrowing through that kind of test grid we really learn something about ourselves and our use of money. We’ll really decide whether a loan makes sense. In all likelihood a student loan will pass the test. A loan to take a major vacation will not. Borrowing to buy decent transportation will pass the test. Borrowing to buy that expensive sports car to get you through your midlife crisis—wouldn’t. Borrowing to put a decent roof over our heads will pass the test. But going over our heads in debt to buy a mansion that impresses the rest of the family isn’t going to cut it. Yes, there are times when it makes sense to take out a loan. Even the generations before us borrowed in order to buy a house. The truth is, there are some investments we make through a loan that appreciate in value! Many of us would not be where we are at today in our careers if it weren’t able to borrow some money for college. We couldn’t get to our jobs without reliable transportation. Many of us will declare that the best investment we ever made was our home. CREDIT—WORTHY But credit has moved in society from a blessing to a danger. Right now, the easy credit from the past is causing a whole mess of pain in the present. What are you doing with your credit? Are you in trouble with your credit cards? I know there are some people who have gotten into trouble not because of mismanagement, but because they are struggling because of unemployment or underemployment. These folks don’t need another credit card. They need the help God’s people to provide. And it’s often our pride that keeps us from making our need known. If that is you, then please ask God to give you the grace to allow others to help you. It is one of the privileges that is given to Christians to bear each other burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. But for others of us, credit has become a millstone around our financial necks. We are addicted to a lifestyle we really cannot afford. If that’s you, then let me invite you to journey on a road in which you find your security not in things but in God. If it is too much for you to begin that journey without the help of the Christian community—then find a friend, talk with a fellow believer who can help you get your financial house in order. IN SEARCH OF CONTENTMENT Ask for courage to face the spiritual issues in your financial situation and ask God to give you what you need to get started in making real changes. Ask for the gift of contentment. There is an old story that comes out of the early church of an important dignitary who gave a basket of gold pieces to a desert priest, asking him to disperse it among his fellow brothers. ‘They have no need of it,’ replied the priest. The wealthy man insisted and set the basket of coins at the doorway of the church, asking the priest to tell his fellow clergy, ‘Whoever has need, let him take it.’ No one touched the coins, or even looked at it. Astonished, the wealthy man left with his basket of gold. Compare that story to the sign that at least one public library was compelled to display on every study table: "Please … do not leave your belongings unattended!" "There are two ways to get enough," wrote G.K. Chesterton, "One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less." Good advice for a credit—crazed world like ours.