What do the Scriptures say about people who find themselves owing a lot of money? Like most of our friends, my husband and I are carrying a certain amount of debt. Does this place us completely outside the will of God?
There are many popular misconceptions about the scriptural teaching on debt. People often assume that the Bible takes certain positions which in fact it does not. The following list is not all-inclusive, but it's a good starting point, since most misunderstandings are rooted in one of these faulty assumptions.
- It doesn't say … it's a sin to borrow. While the Bible offers many warnings about the dangers of debt, it never says that you are out of God's will or violating one of God's commandments when you borrow. We can debate the wisdom of incurring debt under certain circumstances, but it's never a black-and-white issue. And there are cases where debt is simply unavoidable –medical emergencies, job layoffs, or bankruptcy, for instance. Romans 13:8 is often used to "prove" that borrowing is sinful, but this verse is primarily concerned with relationships, not money issues.
- It doesn't say … it's wise to borrow. Nowadays you can find many financial pundits who will tell you that leverage – the use of borrowed money to buy assets for appreciation – is the "way to prosperity." It goes without saying that this is not a biblical perspective. Absolutely nowhere in the Scriptures are we advised or commanded to use debt to accomplish God-given economic goals. On the contrary, the Bible contains many warnings against the use of debt.
- It doesn't say …God will bail you out of debt. Some Christians who are heavily indebted seem to have the impression that God has promised to get them out of their problems. The verse most often cited is Philippians 4:19: "And my God will supply all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus." That promise is true, of course, and God will meet our needs. But He hasn't pledged Himself to cancel the consequences of our unwise behavior.
- It doesn't say … debt is an exercise in faith. To say that we're exercising faith by borrowing money is the same as saying that God needs to use a lender to meet our needs. In fact, in many cases we put the lender in the place of God and allow him to fulfill the desires of our hearts as opposed to our true needs. In some ways, this can be interpreted as a denial of faith.
- It doesn't say …it's a sin to loan money. Just as the Bible doesn't say that it's a sin to borrow money, it also doesn't say that it's a sin to loan money. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that when you loan someone money, you inevitably change your relationship with that person, even if he or she is your own child. And the change usually isn't for the better.
What, then, does the Bible have to say about debt? This is an extremely important question, since there are circumstances under which certain key biblical principles seem almost to compel us to borrow money. For instance: in 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul writes, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." What does this mean for parents who don't have ready cash on hand to pay for a child's emergency surgery, arrange nursing care for an aging loved one? Clearly, it's possible to find ourselves in situations where the implied command to care for family members may outweigh all other financial considerations. Sometimes we must in order to adequately care for our own.
If and when we are obliged to incur debt, there are three important biblical concepts that should govern our borrowing decisions:
- It's wrong not to repay debts. Psalm 37:21 states, "The wicked borrow and do not repay." The conclusion is obvious: if you don't repay your debts, you're what the Bible calls "wicked." Does this mean that it is always wrong for a Christian to declare bankruptcy? Not necessarily. Our legal system allows individuals and businesses in distress to regroup and re-establish themselves under the protection of bankruptcy laws. Ultimately, however, a believer has a moral obligation to repay his or her creditors to the best of their ability.
- It's foolish to put yourself in a surety situation. In case a definition is required, surety is a formal commitment to guarantee another person's loan (for example, by cosigning). Proverbs 11:15 says, "He who puts up security for another will surely suffer, but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe." If you're in a surety situation, the Bible advises you to waste no time in getting out of it. If you feel you have no choice – for example, if you're helping an adult child who is financially strapped – we'd recommend that you set aside the money in a separate account and absolutely expect to repay that debt. If you don't, you may find yourself in violation of Psalm 37:21 (see #1 above).
- Debt may violate two biblical principles that directly affect our relationship with God. First, while the Bible does not say that it's wrong to borrow money, it does warn us against presuming upon the future: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit;' whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that" James 4:13-15). Second, by borrowing you may be denying God an opportunity to provide. The Lord has promised to supply all our needs (Philippians 4:19). Sometimes borrowing is just an easy way out of a situation that would otherwise force us to grow in our faith.
For additional help and information on this topic, we'd encourage you to consult the resources and referrals highlighted below. Or if you have relationship concerns and challenges associated with this situation, please don't hesitate to give our Counseling department a call.
The Hidden Costs of Borrowing: Ron Blue discusses the implications of borrowing money.
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Complete Guide to Faith-Based Family Finances
Crown Financial Ministries
Breaking Free from Debt