Disabling Debt

May 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Money (May/June/July 2009) issue of Circuit Rider

Consumer debt, credit card debt, disabling medical bills, as well as loss of homes and jobs can create a kind of economic bondage. Many live paycheck to paycheck with no lifelines. Some face even fewer options. Government efforts promise help, but how long will that take? With so much uncertainty we wonder if life will ever be the same.

Statistics tell us that the amount of debt carried by families and individuals in our congregations mounts monthly. The nightly news reports that stock markets look rocky. Long standing, once-stable corporations cry for bailouts. Accusations of greed and corruption continue. Lenders raise interest rates on goods already purchased. Nothing seems stable in our economy or in our world.

When Sunday morning comes, we stand before our congregations, hoping to deliver the good news in a way that blesses and heals the people. Speaking to faces that are searching for answers, to hearts hungry for hope, and to spirits truly in need of the Holy Comforter, we may see a deeper issue. Loss of financial security, lifestyle, or even employment, as tragic as it is, may not constitute their biggest challenge. A far worse scenario includes drowning in despair, fear, and shame. Haunted by inner terrors, people can lose their sense of self worth in such difficult times.

A great tool for ministering to people in debt uses the word DEBT as an acronym to convey some key principles for moving beyond self-doubt, shock, and shame to both spiritual and practical recovery.

D – Depersonalize. I know something about what it is like to have very little. Just six months before I was born, my parents came home one night to a nightmare. A blazing inferno had engulfed their home. They had no insurance and no savings. Helplessly, they watched the flames rob them of everything they owned except the clothes they were wearing. For a while they lived with family and then after my arrival, they moved to a rental house out in the country. With no electricity, no indoor toilet, and only a wood stove for heat, they began again. My dad worked two jobs so we could buy groceries. At night, my mom would pull my crib as close to their bed as possible because she could hear rats scampering around the room.

I guess we were “dirt poor,” but our situation never defined who we were or what we thought of ourselves. I had two dogs. How can you be poor if you have two dogs? I thought I had the whole outdoors for a playground. I felt loved. If only every child could know that blessing. As I played, making mud pies and investigating nature, I never dreamed we were living in “poverty.” Actually, we had more than lots of people. Many folks start out poor. Many families suffer setbacks, fall on hard times, but rebound with new enthusiasm. Others never do. We wonder what makes the difference.

Perhaps one key difference lies in the ability to depersonalize, to separate one's self worth from one's circumstance. There are worse things than being poor. Theologically, we know that we are not the sum of our material goods. Nothing truly belongs to us anyway, it all belongs to God and we leave it all here when we die. Material goods do not make us better than other people, any more than a lack of material goods makes us less valuable than other people. God looks at the heart.

No one wants financial woes, but it is critical to remember that it is only a situation we experience and not a determination of who we are inside.

You can still be a faithful person and be poor financially.

You can still be a person of integrity and joy and be poor financially.

It is not fatal to have less rather than more. It is just not easy. Paul writes, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Phillipians 4:11-13

Depersonalizing means not letting your situation define you.

E - Empty yourself. Empty yourself of stress, shame, guilt, and anger. Most of our stress is wrapped up in the past (guilt, regret, mistakes, loss) or in the future (fear of the unknown, worry about what might happen). God lives in eternity, but God knows we can only handle one moment at a time.

We cannot go back to the past, nor can we live in the future.

Only the present moment can redeem the past or shape the future. The moment remains our safe place. We do better to stay in the moment and to own that moment. In the moment we can take actions that will make our lives better. John Wesley outlined such actions for handling money well. First, “earn all you can.” Work hard and do not be lazy. Use your gifts and talents. Second, “save all you can.” Do not be wasteful. Be a good steward. Shop for a good deal. When so many are struggling, it is probably not appropriate to be extravagant. Look for ways to reduce your costs. Take a deep hard look at your fixed costs and variable costs as opposed to your income. Every financial plan begins with making a budget and prioritizing your expenses.

Through prayer we can empty ourselves of errors in judgment, pain, anger, and any residue surrounding our misdeeds or losses and take the appropriate actions to help the situation. Once empty, God can fill us and lead us to a brand new start.

B- Become a giver. Wesley's third action step implored “give all you can.” Look at your income and begin the practice of being a giver. Why? If you are struggling to pay all your expenses, how can you be a giver? That is the beauty of giving on a percentage basis. God created “sliding scale” giving. How great is that?

Even secular financial experts report that debt reduction requires having a plan and that plan has to include becoming a giver. Why? It transforms a person from victim status to an empowered, confident, hopeful human being. Being a giver changes us inside. We think differently, we act differently, and corporately we create a different world. Slowly, step by step, one change impacts another. In time we find ourselves in a better situation and a better society. In a world where nothing seems certain, where big corporations fold, stock markets crash, and banks falter, who can we depend on? Only God! As we begin to see ourselves as stewards of God's money, our focus changes.

After giving a portion of one's income to God's work, set aside a hopefully equal amount for savings. As credit sources dry up, accruing backup money becomes a needed practice and a confidence builder. Next, take a hard and honest look at income versus costs, prioritizing needs over desires, and creating a plan for debt reduction using the approach that best suits your circumstances. Really research the options and pray about your decisions.

T- in all things Trust God. This final step is to be a constant step, a daily ritual, a spiritual discipline. Adopt stewardship as a lifestyle. God's constant work in the world is to take what the world ruins, even what we ruin, and redeem it for good. Pray for wisdom and guidance, journal, read scriptures, review options. God will guide you. God created you out of great love and with great purpose. God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you more than you love yourself.

The night my parents' house burned to the ground was a transformational moment for them, a stark brush with reality. Suddenly, they knew that life was more than things and faith in God was critical. They would begin their upward climb to financial stability by becoming tithers. Years later, they would look back at that dark moment not as a disastrous end but as a new beginning.


Jenna Heart is Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church in San Marcos, Texas. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.

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