Debt the Halls

Dec 22, 2005 |Heather Koerner

You may not find "credit card" in your concordance, but the Bible has a lot to say on the subject. This time of year, more than ever, we need to listen.

In financial circles, it's known as the "holiday hangover."

No, it's not that icky feeling that follows imbibing too many eggnogs.

Rather, it's that icky feeling when the January credit card bills hit and we realize exactly how much financial damage we did in the name of Christmas.

This year, my hangover came a little early. I guess that's what I get for finally getting my act together and shopping in November.

A few days ago, as I sat on my bedroom floor in the middle of a "wrap fest," happily humming God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, my husband brought me a little gift from MasterCard — our statement.

Ugh.

Fortunately, we had set aside the money and could pay it. But with the average American already owing $8,400 in credit card debt, the addition of Christmas spending can send many — including many Christians — over the financial deep end.

According to the American Bankers Association, a full one in 20 of us (a record high) can't even make our minimum payments.

As Americans, we are in a credit crisis — a definite cause for concern. But, as Christians, should we be even more concerned? What does our spending tell the world about God? Are we even following what God has to say about credit?

While you won't find "credit card" in your concordance, the Bible does talk about borrowing, which is exactly what a credit card is. Every swipe you make means you're letting MasterCard foot the bill for now, with your promise to pay back in the future.

The Bible does not forbid borrowing, but it does warn heavily against it — calling the borrower a slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7).

It is especially negative on a certain type of borrowing, known as "surety."

What is surety?

"Surety means accepting an obligation to pay without having a guaranteed way to make the payments," Crown Financial Ministries' web site explains. "The most recognizable form of surety is cosigning a loan for another person. But surety also can be any form of borrowing in which an unconditional guarantee to pay is committed.... Credit card purchases have become the most common form of surety in America today."

If you pay off your credit card balance monthly, there's not a problem. If hard times were to fall, you'd simply stop using it.

But when you don't pay off the balance — when you spend more than you earn — then the trap begins. Whatever you bought loses value rapidly while the price you are paying for it (because of interest) continues to increase. If hard times fall, you're in a monumental pickle.

The book of Proverbs is all over surety — calling those who do it "lacking in judgment" (Proverbs 17:18), saying they will "surely suffer" (Proverbs 11:15).

Why is surety such a problem? Because, as Crown Ministries explains, you're making a promise to pay in the future, without knowing what your future holds or what God's plan for your future is.

If you are caught up in surety, Proverbs 6 gives a strict warning (the King James Version actually uses the term "surety", but this paraphrase from The Message puts it, for me, in clearer terms): "If you've impulsively promised the shirt off your back and now find yourself shivering out in the cold, Friend, don't waste a minute, get yourself out of that mess.... Run like a deer from the hunter.... So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing? How long before you get out of bed? A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there, sit back, take it easy — do you know what comes next? Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life, poverty your permanent houseguest!"

Nothing like a little straight shooting from God, huh?

But they're not idle warnings. Everyday, we see more and more "payday loan" shops, read more ads for quick and fast money, and receive more recorded phone solicitations to "consolidate" debt.

Credit card debt is swallowing people whole, and God's Word tells us we should be careful — extremely careful — about allowing it into our lives.

But it's not just the financial stress and strain that should keep us from carrying credit card balances. According to Caleb McAfee, author of Money and the Christian, it can also affect our witness.

In an article titled "The Consequences of Borrowing," McAfee points out that our borrowing can denigrate the Lord's reputation:

"It says to the world: God is not supplying all my needs; therefore, I have to make up the slack by borrowing.... God has promised to meet the needs of His children. He wants you to put your trust and faith in Him, rather than in a line of credit."

And with that trust, comes the acceptance of God's "no."

"God may be protecting you from harmful things by not providing the money," McAfee writes. "If you borrow to get them anyway, you are circumventing the Lord's wisdom."

So if you can't pay your Christmas bills in full, it's time to take action.

It may be too late to salvage this Christmas' spending, but you can start the new year fresh with a couple of sound financial principles.

First, carry one or the other. Either carry your credit card or carry a balance on your card, but don't do both.

If you have a zero balance on your card, feel free to carry it in your wallet. You've shown that you have the financial discipline to do so.

However, if you do have a balance, then the credit card should go in a safe, very inconvenient spot while you work hard (like the deer to get away from the hunter, remember?) to pay it off. This could be at home in a drawer, in a safe deposit box, or even, as some advise, frozen in a block of ice in your freezer.

I'm not of the pro-ice club, but whatever you do, make it so that you have to take some trouble and, hopefully, give some thought before using your credit card.

As Proverbs 21:5 says, "haste leads to poverty."

Second, spend less.

Now, before you tune this one out, I promise I will not be telling you to make homemade coupon books for Christmas gifts or to bake twenty banana nut bread loaves to give out at the office.

These are both fine ideas to save money, but, personally, I get a shiver down my spine every Christmas when some financial guru tells me how fun it will be to make my own wrapping paper. I don't have the craft gene and never will, so there's no "make your own ornament for Grandma" going on in my household.

No, I'm simply talking about spending less. Buy less expensive gifts. Buy fewer gifts. Take the pressure off yourself to provide the "ultimate Christmas experience" for your family and friends.

As much as you may want to dazzle them with your generosity, remember that no one would be happy if they knew you went into debt to give them a present.

The three wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts for the Christ child. The little drummer boy didn't have their resources, so "rum pum pum pum" it was.

There's a good lesson there. Wherever you are on the income spectrum, keep your spending in line. Be wary of borrowing and be vigilant to make sure that your finances don't hinder your witness. That way, you can have an even merrier Christmas and you can leave that holiday hangover for somebody else.

Copyright 2005 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.  

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