Our economy is built on debt. For many New Zealanders, when they exit tertiary study, they are saddled with student loan repayments. After a few years of working, some or even most of that debt will be repaid, but it’s not long until a mortgage is added to the debt.
Throw in credit cards, interest-free purchases, multi-year financed goods and personal loans to this mix, debt becomes yokes around our necks for decades. Is this a life of freedom?
In Tearfund’s study The Good Lives Project, it was reported that over the last decade, credit card debt increased by 400% and in 2012, the average debt per cardholder was $4757. Another interesting fact is that the average household debt to income ratio was 43% in 1986. But by 2006 this had grown to 152% despite rapid increase of disposable income. Isn’t borrowed money costing too much – of our time, energy, health, mind, soul … and spirit?
Our society actively encourages to borrow money and to have at least as much ‘stuff’ as the next person, even if it hurts financially. Moreover, financial stress is one of the primary sources of both personal and relational breakdowns.
Non-satiation vs. contentment
In microeconomics, students are taught to make the non-satiation assumption, which is basically a ‘more-is-always-better’ mindset. But how much more is really better? Interestingly, once people can afford to feed, clothe and house themselves, each extra dollar makes less and less difference to our contentment.
Economists call this diminishing margin of utility, meaning the more of something you get, the less incrementally happy it makes you above a certain threshold. In the past 40 years, average income has increased substantially in most developed countries, yet levels of reported happiness peaked in the 1970s and have been in gradual decline ever since.
Isn’t it because most of us merely want more instead of being content with what we already have? Responding counter-culturally to our society’s pressure to have more and letting go of fear or pride are certainly easier said than done.
Non-satiation is actually a form of discontentment. The remedy to this is to develop gratitude for what we have, desire less beyond life necessities, and practice generous giving beyond regular plans once in a while.
Apostle Paul proclaimed that true godliness is not a means of material or financial gain. Rather, godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and neither can we take anything out of it (1 Timothy verses 6 and 7). Paul challenges us to be content if we have food and clothing. If this were our vantage point, anything beyond that would be a source of gratitude.
What? Debt is a metaphor of sin?
Debt is an unavoidable reality for most of us. At its best, it is a way of spreading the burden of large purchases over time to make life easier point in time. At its worst, it can ruin mental health and relationships, twisting our values and making us close off our generosity to protect ourselves.
When thinking about debt, it is important not to be constrained by unrealistic ideals or unhealthy compromises, but to try to discern the role of debt in our lives. What is its true cost? What can we do to be freer than now?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about debt: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). In the version of the Lord’s Prayer that many of us say in church, we pray ‘forgive us our sins’ (Luke 11:4). It is interesting to note that sin is expressed through the image of debt as a metaphor.
This mixing of the two concepts is not because debt itself is a sin, but because debt and sin are similar states of being – something to be repaid in full and there is a penalty if not paid in time. In Hebrew mind, both are the state of captivity. In fact, in Aramaic, they are the same word (ḥōb). They are both a reality of life in which we are not fully set free. But they are both something God will one day release us from.
Some practical suggestions
The below are some practical ideas for change, courtesy of The Good Lives Project.
If you have surplus money to save or invest, give thanks to God. Not everyone has this. Pray for wisdom in what to do with the money to honour God.
- If your financial situation doesn’t allow for as much giving as you would like, think of creative ways that you can give of your time or skills.
- Explore pooling your giving with others to fund some innovative work in your local area or within your faith community.
- Limit yourself to one credit card (and its limit) or change it to a debit card.
- If you have multiple debts, look into consolidating into a single debt that reduces your interest burden and repayment stress.
In addition, let’s also consider the following:
- Sin costs money, and often lots of money. Let’s replace sinful habits with good habits.
Here are two concluding thoughts to ponder upon:
Money makes a good servant, but a bad master - Francis Bacon.
Money often costs too much – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Daniel Jang is a senior advisor with Ministry of Health New Zealand. He is an experienced writer, speaker and mentor to Press Service International (PSI) community. Daniel holds an MA in Applied Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and GradDip in Theology from Laidlaw College.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html