Getting Free From Debt

 Here's my sermon from Sunday.  Watch it here or read it below.

Photo Credit: FotoCheska

Photo Credit: FotoCheska

  We’re jumping back into our series on finances called C.R.E.A.M., based on the Woo Tang Clan song, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me." Today, we’re talking about debt and how to get free of it.  Money’s always hard to talk about, but debt may be even harder.  Many of us walked in here today carrying a heavy burden of debt and shame.  Right about now, you’re probably wanting to sink lower in your seat.  You’re afraid I’m going to tell you you’re stupid and made a bunch of bad choices.  That’s not what today is about.  Today is about grace.  Today is about hope and finding a way out.  

John 8: 31-32  
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Proverbs 22: 3 & 7
A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. …
Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.

Hebrews 12:1
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

SKIT:
1: Opens letter. I got in! I can’t believe I got into my dream school!  
2: Sign here please.
1: Sure.  I’m going to major in financial management.
2: Drapes chain loosely around neck.
Short pause

1:  Hi Mom!  I got the job! ... I know, right out of college ... Yes, that’s because you did a great job raising me. ... Yes, Mom, I’m glad you always made me do my homework ...  
Hey Mom, I got a new car.  I had to get something newer with better gas mileage.
2: Sign here, please.   Wraps chain around waist.
Short pause

1: I found this great house.  It’s a little more than I wanted to spend, but the realtor really opened my eyes to better possibilities and the bank approved the loan, so I’m just going to bite the bullet and jump.
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain, tying down one arm.
Short pause

1: I feel out of place at work.  My wardrobe is kind of dated.  
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain.
Short pause

1: 90-days same as cash?  Come to think of it, my couch is a little uncomfortable.
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain, tying down the other arm.
Short pause

1: I really need to relax tonight.  How about a movie?  And maybe some popcorn.  And some overpriced candy.
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain, wrapping upper legs.
Short pause

1: I’m really tired.  I just don’t feel like cooking.
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain, wrapping ankles.
Short pause

1: My life feels so constricted. How can I get more of a sense of freedom?  I know - a Harley!
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain, tying neck down at an odd angle.
Short pause

1: I just feel so tense.  I can feel it right here in my neck.  I need some mental space.  I think Hawaii is calling.
2: Sign here, please. Makes another loop with chain.  
Short pause

1: God, thank you so much for loving me.  I am so grateful.  I really want to serve you.  But I’m kind of tired.  I don’t think I can actually help anyone out.  And, money’s kind of tight, so giving’s probably a no-go for now.  Later, though, later, I promise.  What’s that?  Maybe just invite some friends over to my house once a week?  Yeah, that sounds great.  I’d love that! ... Except, I really need the overtime. You know, lots of bills.  But God, really, I’m all yours. ...  I just don’t really know ... how ... I’m supposed to do ... anything.


    Let’s take a few minutes to consider the alternative.  What would your life be like if you were debt free?  If you had no outstanding debts, how would you feel?  If you didn’t owe anybody anything, what would you do?  Just call out your answers, and I’ll write them on the whiteboard.

  • Change jobs?
  • Work less?
  • Give more?
  • Save for retirement?
  • Spend more time with family?
  • Vacations?
  • Less stress?
  • Freedom?
  • Less arguments with spouse?
  • Less negative stress relievers (drinking, eating, complaining)?
  • Volunteer more?
  • Have more parties?
  • Less guilt?

    This is a beautiful picture of a good life.  This is where we want to go.  This is the life of abundance that God wants for us.  No, I’m not saying that God wants everyone to be rich.  But I am saying that God wants people to live with financial freedom, and this is what financial freedom looks like.  God is calling us into a life of peace and freedom and joy and generosity.
    For most of us, the two biggest barriers to financial peace are debt and spending.  Most of us in this room - like most people in America - are like the guy chained with debt.  We are trying to cure the symptoms of financial stress with more debt, and we just end up more and more trapped.  Until we understand debt and spending in healthy ways, we will never be free.

    Let’s start with debt.  What does the Bible say about debt and spending?  How does God want us to deal with debt or to use our money?
     Dave Ramsey, a popular Christian financial advisor who has a lot of good stuff to say, claims that “debt is dump, stupid, and wrong.”1  He argues that the biblical plan is no debt ever, for any reason – no loaning, no borrowing, no cosigning loans – no debt at all.  This is very clean and easy to understand, but on this point Ramsey is wrong.  
Moses told Israel:
The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you. But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them.  Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. (Deuteronomy 15:6-8)
    This passage tells us a few things about debt.  First, God wants the economic systems of loaning and borrowing to bless us not to hurt us.  Overall, God wants us to be lenders, not borrowers.  We’ll talk more about this next week when we discuss saving and investing.
Second, God wants us to help struggling people meet their needs through meaningful loans.  In today’s world, there are two great examples of helpful, biblical-style debt: micro-financing and college loans.  Micro-financing is loaning a very small amount of money to a poor person so they can start or improve a business to care for their families.  These have revolutionized how we people out of poverty. College loans are one of the greatest economic levelers of all time.  It used to be that only the rich could get a college education. Now, anyone who qualifies academically can get a college degree and pay for it later.  That’s awesome!

    OK, so debt can be good, sometimes.  However, God’s basic desire is that we will not have debt.  Why?  What’s the big deal with debt?
    We can get a picture of dangers of spending too much from something Jesus said: You can only enter God’s Kingdom through the narrow gate.  The road that leads to destruction is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.  But the gateway to life is very narrow, and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
       When Jesus said this, he was talking about all of life.  Going with the flow of our culture is always easier, but that path leads to destruction.  
    When we think about this especially in terms of finances, it makes perfect sense.  Foolish spending and taking on debt is easy at first, and the gate is wide.  Lots of people are doing it.  Just go with the flow.  
       After a while though, this path gets harder.  All of that spending starts to catch up with us.  The bills start coming in the mail.  We start to worry about our finances.  Will we have enough money this month?  What about our future?  Do I have enough money in the bank for this?  Pay day becomes more and more important in our lives, and we begin to live from paycheck to paycheck.  “This path often leads to strained relationships, headaches, stress, and discontentment.”2  In fact, financial problems are the number 1 cause of divorce in my home country.3  That wide, easy path is starting to get confining and difficult. If we don’t get out of this foolish spending and debt cycle, we will find ourselves trapped.
       It’s like an Asian bamboo fish trap - shaped like a cone.  The fisherman puts some bait at the narrow end, and the fish smells it and goes looking for it, but eventually there’s not enough space to turn around and get out.  
    It’s like that with debt.  Using the credit card is nice and easy at the beginning, but if we keep going, the walls start closing in.  Pretty soon, we’re stuck.  Like Proverbs says, a wise person will see the danger and get out early.

    We are living in a culture of consumerism.  Our culture is driving us to spend too much and to borrow too much.  But God gives us a different option. Listen to Romans 12:
Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.  Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead fix your attention on God.  You’ll be changed from the inside out.  Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)
    
       Remember Jesus said that the wide, easy path leads to destruction.  But that’s not the only option.  Jesus invites us onto another path:  But the gateway to life is very narrow, and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. (Matthew 7:14)
    This path starts out hard.  It will probably feel constrictive or uncomfortable at first.  Healthy habits always feel difficult or awkward at first.  Living God’s way will mean saying “No!” or “Wait” to some of your desires.  Most of all, though, this path feels narrow because it is counter-cultural.  Lots of people around us will always be spending freely and stacking up debts.  It will feel hard at first to be different.
       The good news is that it gets easier.  The good habits of wise spending and careful saving become a regular part of our lives, and we don’t even have to spend much energy thinking about it.
       Eventually, we become financially free.  We won’t have the stresses of financial problems.  We won’t have to worry about when payday is.  There’s always money in the bank.  We won’t have to stress out when the pastor starts talking about giving.  We have room to spare.  We aren’t chained to a job we hate just to pay the bills.  We have freedom.  We have peace.  We can follow God without worry.  Working toward this kind of financial freedom really is part of a faithful spiritual life.  
    But how do we get to this state of bliss like this lovely leaping woman?  How do we get to a place of financial peace?  How do we get out of debt?  How do we break free from foolish spending?  
    Let me suggest 5 simple steps to living a debt-free, financially wise life.

1. Get closer to God.  I know, I know, I sound like the TV preachers: All you need to do is pray more.  God is the answer to every problem.  Are your bills late?  Get down on your knees!  Is your kid sick?  Talk to the Father!  Bring it all to Jeeeeeezuuuussss!
    Just hear me out.  Think about the reasons why we spend too much money and get into debt:

  • Envy (“I want what she’s got.”)
  • Impatience (“I want it now!”)
  • Lack of contentment (“This will make me happy.”)
  • Low self-worth (“What will others think of me?”)
  • Selfish ambition (“I want to be important.”)
  • Lack of self-control (“Before I know it, my money is just gone.”)  

I think we can all agree here.  These are the basic reasons why we spend too much.  Here’s the thing - all of these are spiritual issues!
    Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 5:
Let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. …  When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. … But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
    It’s amazing!  When we “let the Holy Spirit guide our lives,” God makes us the kind of people we’ve always wanted to be: loving, joyful, full of internal peace, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.  The Spirit will naturally decrease our desires to spend money foolishly on junk.  The Spirit will naturally increase our ability to use our money wisely.  Getting close to God has a side effect that we begin to use money more wisely.  

2. Stop!  Stop borrowing money.  This is common sense.  If you want to get out of debt, don’t take on more debt.  If you can’t pay off your credit cards, don’t buy another thing on credit until you’ve paid everything off.

3. Spend less!  The single most important thing all of us can do to be more financially faithful and free is to spend less money.  Get a smaller house.  Buy a cheaper car.  Take a cheaper vacation.  Eat at cheaper restaurants.  Spend less.

4. Make a budget!  Zig Ziglar said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time!”  John Maxwell, a leadership wise-guy, says, “Budgeting is simply telling your money where to go instead of asking where it went.”4  Make a plan for how you will spend your money.  If you need help making a budget, check out www.daveramsey.com .

5. Create a “Debt Snowball”!  Make a list of all your debts, everything you owe to anyone.  Then, devote all your extra money to paying off the smallest debt.  When you pay off that first debt, throw a little party, and devote all your spare money to the next smallest debt.  You keep this up, getting little wins first, and celebrating along the way, and you build some emotional momentum.  This helps you when you are at the beginning of the “narrow” path.  

      Here’s the irony, the paradox, the mystery.  
      If we follow our culture on the wide and easy path… if we spend freely and without a care now … if we keep going with those credit cards and bigger houses and nicer cars … we will end up stressed out, worried about money, struggling in our marriages, and trapped in debt.  
      On the other hand, if we live God’s way… if we slow down and wise up … if we stop spending so much… if we make a plan and stick with it …  this new way of life will lead us to stronger character and real freedom.  
      Do you feel chained and trapped by debt?  Do you feel stressed out about money?  The good news for you today is that Jesus can set you free from that.  Jesus can change your heart and change the way you think about hand handle money.  Jesus can set you free from the expectations of our world and set you on a course to financial peace.  Jesus didn’t just die to forgive your sins; he died to set you free from everything that chains you and holds you back from being the person he wants you to be.
      Imagine your life without debt.  Imagine your family and your marriage without the burden of debt.  Imagine what God could do with you if you were free.  You can start on the path to that life today.
    Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.  And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”