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Interacting with Debt

Greg E. Gifford, PhD, CBC



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The liberty of having no debt is a privilege that few experience. Debt can be the noose that ends the financial future of some or the well-placed foundation that builds a business for others. In America, debt has created a pandemic of types that has enabled the poor to make unwise purchases that have further contributed to their status. Credit card debt is almost natural and to have an automobile loan seems logical. After all, I need leather seats with DVD players for the kids and four-wheel drive in case of inclement weather, right?til debt do us part_wide_t_nt

Debt is not inherently wrong; in fact, the majority of people will live with some type of debt. Where the misstep takes place is when one has become so infatuated with the idea of “debt-free” living that they are worshipping their debt-free lifestyle. A phenomenon that is just as dangerous as living in pervasive debts.

As I have waded through the murky waters of indebtedness, I found my footing. Through careful trudging and well-guided steps, my wife and I were able to escape those endangered waters (minus our rental property’s mortgage). Now the pendulum has swung so greatly that we have worshipped being debt free over being a good steward, or I have at least. As I have interacted with being debt free and its principles I am convinced that it is a wonderful way to live life. However, it is not the only way. Ahhh! This is not a prospectus to apply for my new credit card; it is a development in my way of thinking. Debt free living should only continue in light of biblical stewardship. So to critique one of my mentors, Dave Ramsey, debt free living is not the goal, biblical stewardship is the goal.

Historicity of Debt

Until recently, debt has been associated with those of lesser privilege. In modern times, debt is often seen as an investment yet in the Jewish customs of borrowing and lending, debt was never viewed as an investment but a necessity (Deut. 15:1-11). In fact, the Jewish law was engineered in a way that every seven years there was the year of release (Deut. 31:10). “This was, as already noted, at the end of seven years, a period not necessarily commencing with the making of the loan but, as v. 9 makes clear, a universally recognized year of release (cf. Exod 23:10–11; Lev 25:2–4).”[1] In light of this year, debts were most likely accrued and loans granted commensurate to the time remaining to the year of release. Some believe that the year of release implies that the debt could not be exacted that year but the debt was still existent.[2] Context suggests, however, that the debt was not existent after the year of release as seen in the lender’s hesitancy to grant a loan with the year of release impending (Deut. 15:9). A year of release would also contribute to a stable economy and allow those who were in debt to prevent its accumulation.[3]

In Jewish law, the debt was not a means of profit for the lender but a means of generosity (Ps. 37:31) and interest was to be charged only in the case of a foreigner (Deut. 23:20). The concept of lending was associated with compassion and generosity as seen in the words, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother” (Deut. 15:7). A begrudging and greedy attitude when lending to the poor is seen as a sin against him and the Lord would surely account for such a spirit (Deut. 15:9).

It follows that usury was seen as unacceptable (Prov. 28:8, Ps. 15:5) and the one who engaged in usury, against foreigner or Jew, was engaging in a mild form of oppression (Prov. 14:31).

Lastly, there is another component to Jewish loans, which was a surety or pledge. The pledge was a guarantee of the borrowers intent to repay the loan and was claimed by the lender in the occasion of defaulting a loan (cf. Deut. 24:6, 10-14; Ex. 22:26). The intent seems to be that the guarantee was not to be debilitating to the borrowers ability to repay the loan, like a millstone. In certain scenarios, others could intervene on behalf of a borrower (Prov. 6:3-5) and children of the borrowers were taken as payment for a debt (2 Kings 4:1-7). These enslavements would have been absolved during the year of release as previously mentioned.

Biblical Stewardship

What the Bible employs in many contexts is the idea of stewardship. “Steward” is “a word used to translate a number of terms and expressions in the Bible common to all of which is the idea of ‘overseeing’ the possessions, business affairs, property, servants, the training of children, etc., of an owner or master.”[4] In the context of money, it can be said that a steward of the monies God does so with with acute awareness of its ultimate Manager (Rom. 11:36). This awareness sees God as owning everything (Ps. 50:10), God giving everything (1 Cor. 4:7) and us using it in ways that demonstrate the two previous truths. The end-state of the exchange of money is not increasing it, although that is wise (Lk. 19:23), but rather managing it faithfully (Matt. 25:23).

Modern Day Application

Perhaps there is some truth in the Dave Ramseyism that the one should run for their life if they are in debt. It must be noted that the principle of indebtedness is never a praise worthy association in the Jewish law and not until the New Testament is the act of making interest on money personified as wise (Matt. 25:27; Lk. 19:23); wise in the context of investing money with a bank, not exacting interest from a brother in need.

It must be articulated also that we are not under the Mosaic Law and that others even in biblical times did not adhere to this method of borrowing and lending, despite its morality. So where does this find the modern reader? Where does this find the reader whose society is built on a scheme of lending and borrowing and their identity is closely related to their credit score? Here are some lines of distinction that can facilitate the modern reader in discerning the wisdom in accruing debts.

First, debt was intended for those who were in a time of need. It was not to be as an investment but a necessity. It would serve the modern reader well to think through the implications of this. It would be wise to only take loans in cases of need not for “seeming” investment opportunities. Although some have made great amounts of money in this manner, others have lost their livelihoods. Wisdom will contextualize itself differently in every circumstance, but as a guiding principle: avoid debt if possible.

Second, debt was accrued in the context of a seven-year repayment, or less, depending on the time remaining to the year of release. If one could not repay there was a collection of their guarantee and on the year of release, the debt was forgiven. There are enormous economical considerations for this methodology (think national debt) but the most apparent would be the time it would take to repay a loan as a major consideration in taking the loan. This will be commensurate to your income and your lifestyle. Some can repay $30,000 faster than others and to take a $30,000 note would be advisable. The principle is, “Can I repay this loan within seven years on my projected income, minus expenses?”

Lastly, a major principle would be to determine what would be detrimental to your livelihood in serving as a down payment for a loan. This will serve as another barometer for whether or not you should borrow this loan. If you must exhaust your emergency savings account, then you most likely should not take the loan. In the Jewish law to take a “livelihood item” as a guarantee was seen as detrimental and debilitating. In modern cases it is not significantly different either. If you put your business, your family, your future at risk to take this loan or accrue this debt then it probably should not be taken.

Ultimately, whether you should accrue debt is a wisdom issue, one that many of us have engaged in unwisely. I regret not having the resources of Dave Ramsey sooner in my life and wish that I had the opportunity to think through this issue much sooner as well. I have taken automobile loans, mortgages, school loans, credit cards and a myriad of other debts that have forced me to think this through, albeit reactionary thinking.

Where most of our thinking needs developed is in the idea of biblical stewardship and how to balance a desire to be debt-free with being a wise steward. Debt is not the problem, the problem is how should we interact with debt not how should we avoid it. I see this article as a catalyst for more research and articulation concerning debt (an area that I have had difficulty finding significant resources). If you were to give me a criterion to evaluate wise debt 7 years ago, I would be indebted to you. Therefore, the principles delineated in this article are meant for wise living, not absolute conformity. I hope that your thinking is shaped by biblical principles and mostly by an earnest desire to live life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.

[1] Eugene H. Merrill, vol. 4, Deuteronomy, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 243.

[2] Peter C. Cragie, The Book of Deuteronomy, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 236-237.

[3] G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[4] Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 993.

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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