I had lunch with a new friend one recent weekend. We talked about a lot of different things, but one of those things was debt. Is debt a sin against God? I know where that idea comes from. It’s something we struggled through together a bit. Here’s why I push back against that argument.
The Bible talks about money a lot, but not nearly as much about debt specifically. The Bible speaks more about the sin of pride than it talks about debt, and I see lots of pride on both sides of the debt argument.
Where the idea of debt as sin comes from
The idea of debt as sin comes from Romans 13:8, which says to owe no man anything except love. That’s good advice. It’s a verse frequently cited by debt-free advocates like Dave Ramsey. But is it a command?
I have problems with that idea because the New Testament is supposed to make things simpler than they were in the Old Testament, not harder. And debt was certainly permitted in the Old Testament. Leviticus 25-26 talks about the year of jubilee, and one of the things that seventh year did was cancel debt.
So it’s reaching a bit to say the Bible doesn’t permit borrowing or lending money. It discourages it, and it puts a limit on the terms. Seven years is pretty short, considering most of us mortgage our houses for 30.
I’ve certainly struggled with this idea in the past, and I’ve even repeated that on this site. I no longer think that it’s healthy or productive to tell people that debt is sin. Debt can lead to sin. But that’s a difference. Subtle maybe, but a difference.
My debt journey
I am not a follower of Dave Ramsey. I didn’t use his plan to get out of debt. Instead, I followed John Cumuta, who has similar advice. I heard Cumuta speak way back in 2003 or 2004. I took his plan, followed it, and paid off my mortgage in less than seven years. It changed my career and it changed my life. I recommend living mortgage free, if possible.
But I also don’t say one debt plan is significantly better than another. The question is whether you can stick to one. I remember years ago, someone asking Richard Simmons about a competing diet plan. He said it was great, and rattled off the names of several other competitors and said they’re great too. He said if you can stick with their plan and not his, to use theirs.
I also don’t think it’s productive to tell you that having a mortgage is sinful. That doesn’t motivate you. This story might not either, but I think it’s more likely to.
My debt story
In 2017, I was working in sales. I was dealing with a very crooked and dishonest customer. His term was up and it was time to renew. So he trotted his boss into his office and they told me they wanted to step up in their business with my then-employer. Way up. They were all smiles and laughs and handshakes and the boss left the room. When it was just the two of us, his demeanor changed. He looked at me like he wanted to kill me, and said, “We’re not renewing. I’m not getting what I need out of this business relationship and it’s time to end it.”
So, in the span of a minute we went from me making my year’s quota with a single deal to instead making it mathematically impossible for me to reach my sales quota for the year. This man thought he could ruin me, and for whatever reason, he decided 2017 was the year to do it.
All those years ago, John Cumuta said that if his career ever fell apart, he’d get in his car, drive to his house, sit down on his couch, and figure out what he was going to do. In 2017, that was what I did. In 2017 I owned all those things outright.
When I got home and looked over my finances, I realized he had no power over me. I wasn’t going to get fired if I lost his deal. I’d get yelled at a lot, but not fired. Even if I did, I could sell computers at retail like I did when I was 19 and support my family indefinitely doing that, in the worst-case scenario.
I decided I wanted to take my career in a bit different direction, but in the meantime, my manipulative customer needed me more than I needed him, even though he thought the opposite. And I used that confidence to go and get a different job, one without the sales pressure. And I didn’t go in as a reclamation project.
Debt as a calculated risk
I have no mortgage on my house, no car payment, and I pay my credit card balance in full every month. But I can’t say I have no debt. I have mortgages on some of my rental properties. Property was cheap between 2008 and 2016. If we’d paid cash, we could have only bought one property. I don’t think we could have bought two. We bought more than two. For that matter, at a couple of different points, we even took equity out of one property to buy another one. Risky? Of course it is. But we always had at least 30% equity in all of it, at all times. That’s even better than the 20% you have to maintain in the house you live in.
What I did was less risky than what every homeowner with a mortgage does. Sure, it’s a risk. But it’s an acceptable level of risk. We could sell off properties until we had enough to pay off all we owe on them, and we’d have more property left after that than we’d have had if we did it Dave Ramsey’s way and paid cash.
We take acceptable risks all the time. More Americans die from falling out of bed every year, on average, than they do at the hands of terrorists. Yes, you’re more likely to die from falling out of bed than from being killed by a terrorist. But the health benefits of sleeping on a bed with a good mattress outweigh the safety of sleeping on a floor. So we accept the risk and we sleep in a bed.
I see debt the same way.
A healthier approach to debt than just calling it sin
When I had my bad day and got in my car and came home to my house, after I got done sitting on my couch, I sat down in my chair in front of my computer and ran some numbers. I looked at exactly how much debt I had, and how long it would take to pay off in various scenarios.
I’ve always had a plan in the back of my head for getting out of debt before I retire. But I was fuzzy on what that meant. Age 64? Age 50? Running some numbers helped me firm up my plan.
I don’t find it productive to tell people debt is sinful, and they need to quit sinning. It’s much more productive to ask if they have a plan for dealing with that debt, and if they’re having trouble sticking to it. It doesn’t make for good radio. Yelling at people and calling them stupid makes for good radio. That’s why I call Dave Ramsey “Jerry Springer for evangelicals.”
How debt can lead to sin
Is Romans 13:8 about debt, or is it about love? Evangelicals drive me up the wall by taking verses and pieces of verses out of context. Because after saying to owe no man anything, Paul doesn’t go on to rant against debt like Dave Ramsey. No, instead he says, “for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Debt can absolutely lead to pride. I had people look down on me for driving a 10-year-old Honda Civic to church and not wearing designer clothes. Is there something wrong with that statement? Because I think there ought to be. The difference between us was the people looking down on me made the decision to go into debt to have those things, while I made the decision to not go into debt to have those things.
But the ironic thing is, lack of debt can also lead to that same sin of pride. When Dave Ramsey yells at a caller, telling them that they’re too stupid to figure out a way out of debt on their own, is that tough love? I don’t think so. I think it’s pride.
It’s ironic how focusing on sin leads to more sin. How about if, instead, we agree that every human being has infinite worth, and start helping our fellow human beings (who have infinite worth) to solve a problem that is probably holding them back more than they know?