Debt is a sin.
It’s not just a bad financial decision. It is a manifestation of greed and wastefulness, and crushing debt is God’s way of punishing you.
This is the kind of financial advice handed out by Bill Gothard’s organization since the 70s (my own personal “Fellowship”), but it wasn’t unique to him. [Of course it wasn’t. I’m not sure he taught anything actually unique; he just scavenged ideas from other people and repackaged it to look like his own. But I digress.]
This emphasis on debt-is-sin makes sense if you equate “wealth” with “God’s blessing.” If you’re really living up to God’s standards, he’ll make sure you have an abundance of money and you won’t ever have to go into debt for anything.
We heard stories of people who had unexpected windfalls that let them replace their vehicles in cash. About people who refused to go into debt for necessities, and God provided the funds. Even people who saved up enough money to pay for a house without taking out a mortgage. At the same time, we learned that to go into debt meant we put ourselves into slavery, that we weren’t living in enough faith, or that we were simply too greedy and too impatient to wait for God to provide for us.
These teachings have long-reaching consequences. I had a friend whose husband, through the fault of his genetics, piled up a massive medical debt. An already stressful situation was compounded with interest (heh heh) because they both felt that they were being punished since they didn’t have the means to pay off these debts immediately. Never mind that they showed incredible resilience, faith, and loyalty to one another and to God underneath so much pressure. They felt only the judgement of that debt.
And even in my own life, years and years away from this kind of thinking, I realized it still crops up. Recently, DJ and I got a nice chunk of money that we didn’t actually need. His job during the pandemic is relatively secure, and we’re accustomed to living on one income. We agreed that we’d use some of it to pay for termite treatment around the house, but the rest we’d give back to the community.
It was surprisingly hard to write that check. Aside from the pull of greed, I felt wasteful, as if I were “a bad steward” of what God had given us. What if an appliance broke, or even worse, one of our old vehicles died? We’d have to buy a new appliance or pay for the repairs on a credit card. Maybe God let us receive that money in anticipation for this need! But we gave it all away, opening ourselves to the danger of debt.
At this point in my life, I could dismiss this reasoning with a little thought. I mean, these days we carry a good amount of debt as a matter of course. But it was jarring to realize it was there. This kind of thinking turns us into fearful misers who can’t afford to be generous. Instead of fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and help the poor, we find ourselves bound in service to the god of money.
And all those stories I heard as a teenager, of people who lived debt-free? They usually left out some details. It’s easier to live debt-free if you’ve got followers who send you money. Or if, while saving up for years to pay for a house with cash, you and your family lived in near-poverty conditions.
And then there’s the fact that some people just flat-out lied about their circumstances. They didn’t live debt-free, but saying they did sold more books and videos.
American Christianity is fixated on wealth and power, to the point that we assume that someone in dire financial straits must be under God’s judgement. And since we don’t want to be in that situation, we have to hoard our money. We ignore others’ real, present needs in order to guard against our hypothetical future needs.
Debt is a sin is a philosophy that kills the soul for the sake of money. It seems as if Jesus would have warned against this kind of thing.
P.S. Gothard’s organization sold tens of thousands of dollars of curriculum, books, videos, and seminars… and accepted credit cards to pay for them.