It’s no secret that millennials are in debt—some even claim it as a defining characteristic of our generation (move over, sriracha).
A recent National Financial Capability study shows that two-thirds of all millennials have at least one source of long-term debt, and for those of us who went to college or beyond, the statistic rises to 81 percent.
As debt becomes widely accepted as commonplace, I’m increasingly aware of conversations among Christians where “debt” and “sin” seem to be synonymous. This has dangerous implications, and we need to put it to rest before it can spread any further.
Christian Debt Myths
If you’ve spent any amount of time immersed in church culture, you probably have some level of familiarity with the many Christian-based debt-relief studies. You may even know people who claim, quote and practice their financial ideals as if they were gospel truth.
Although some of the practical tips from these studies can be helpful, they can also have the added side-effect of causing people to equate debt with sin. For example, one of Dave Ramsey’s blog posts entitled “The Seven Deadly Debt Sins” reads, “Going into debt is the symptom of a larger problem. You don’t spend excessive money on ‘stuff’ unless you have a void somewhere in your life that you are trying to fill.”
Now, on one hand, this could very well be true. Sometimes our sin can lead to indebtedness that we should never have taken on. But on the other hand, this kind of discussion makes it very easy to jump from a truth of potential, like “sin can get you into debt,” to the myth that getting into debt is always sinful.
Sometimes, people cite verses like Proverbs 22:7 to justify this belief: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”
But none of the verses about debt in the Bible say that being in debt is a sin.
Debt in Itself Is Not Evil
Debt, in itself, is not an evil thing. In fact, debt can allow us access and opportunities that we might not have had otherwise. Whether student loans helped make it possible for someone to go to college, or microloans helped make it possible for a family in a developing nation to earn an income, the concept of lending and owing is not inherently sinful.
Sometimes, getting a loan may be exactly what we feel led to do. Being approved for a loan might actually be one method of God’s provision in our lives.
That being said, as followers of Christ, we are called to examine our hearts and minds for what’s really going on, asking the Holy Spirit to show us if our desires come from God’s will or from our sin. When considering whether or not to go into debt (or, in many cases for millennials, more debt), it is vital that we check ourselves first and then follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
For example, I once took out a loan to buy a house that I’d been praying about. Then I took out another loan to buy furniture because the stuff I had didn’t “look right” in my new house. Both of these decisions involved loans and taking on debt, but I am convinced that the home loan was not sin while the furniture loan absolutely was.
Having Debt Isn’t Sin
Even if sin led you into debt, having debt doesn’t make you sinful. Think about it: gluttony can make people obese, and gluttony is a sin. But if obese people start eating with moderation, they are no longer gluttons—even though it may take years to lose weight. The gluttony—not the obesity—is the sin.
In the same way, perhaps some of our choices to get into debt were sinful—we gave into greed or selfishness for a moment and spent money we didn’t have to get what we didn’t need. But that doesn’t mean the debt we still have from that poor decision is constant sin hanging over our heads.
The second we choose to let the Lord of our lives also be the Lord of our finances, we’ve broken the power of financial sin—even if we still have tons of debt, or even if we’re about to amass more. The sin of it all doesn’t come from the debt—it comes from making choices based on what we want instead of making choices based on God’s guidance in our lives.
Getting Out of Debt Can Be an Idol
One of the unexpected consequences of equating debt with sin is that—for those of us who are trying to live faithfully—we can become obsessed with getting out of debt.
Some financial experts advocate doing everything you can to get out of debt as quickly as possible—examples include selling whatever you can, taking on a second job and foregoing any of life’s unnecessary pleasures until you’re free. Basically, retool your entire life so your top priority—the thing you cater everything else to—is debt freedom.
I think that can cross over into idolatry. It assumes that nothing in a person’s life is more important than getting out of debt, which isn’t always true. We shouldn’t allow a single-minded focus on getting out of debt as quickly as possible to deter us from being generous, spending quality time with community or serving in the Kingdom of God.
Similarly, sticking so strictly to a budget could mean you start to look to it for your (financial) salvation. If money isn’t adding up, you adjust to make it work, or you get another job to pay it down faster, or you forego date night with your spouse this month. Instead of trusting God’s provision, instead of seeking His way of solving this problem or looking to Him for wisdom or intervention, we can start taking it all on ourselves and our budget.
We should strive to be financially wise and responsible, but when we become our own saviors, we miss out on letting God show us what He can do.
Glorify God in Your Debt
I am not advocating for undisciplined spending or irresponsibility in paying back loans. If we take Scripture’s word seriously that we’re supposed to glorify God in everything we have and do, that means rethinking some of our rash spending and being trustworthy to repay that which was loaned to us.
What I am suggesting is that we live our lives as Christ-followers—people who seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in everything, including financial decisions, and trust God’s provision more than we trust our own. If we do that, then everything else—debt included—will be exactly where it needs to be: submitted to God for the sake of His glory.