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Mind Your Own Business: What does the Bible say about savings and debt?

Eliminate debt, live on less than you earn, and save.

From the editor

If the prognosticators are right, the current economic crisis will probably stretch on into 2010. With that in mind, now might be a good time to talk about financial issues with your congregation. Marshall Shelley's sermon will provide a few ideas on how to handle two tricky topics that seem to have played a big role in getting us into the mess we're in as a country: savings and debt. For other sermon ideas concerning the current crisis, see Mike Woodruff's What Would Jesus Say When the Dow Drops 700 Points? and Daniel D. Meyer's Rebuilding the Walls.


The Bible is clear about generosity: "God loves a cheerful giver." Now cheerfulness isn't my favorite word. In college I had a roommate who was cheerful. He was literally singing before his head was off the pillow in the mornings—he was a "Good morning, Lord!" kind of guy. I was definitely more "Good Lord, it's morning."

So the cheerful part of being a cheerful giver may be a challenge for some of us. But the Bible is clear: God wants you and me to be cheerfully generous, whether we live with our parents, or own a house, or sleep in our car or in a shelter, or rent an apartment. Even if we don't have any cash, there are ways we can be generous, and God wants us to be generous, cheerfully.

But some of us, if we're honest, have to admit that being cheerful doesn't come naturally, especially about money.

Who controls who?

Thinking about money can be nightmarish, can't it? It can make us frantic. Desperate. Overwhelmed by our finances, bills, and inflation. Trying to get ahead and stay ahead financially tends to make us fearful, not cheerful.

The big question is: Who controls who? Do you control your money, or do you feel like your bills control you?

What creates this nightmare? There are several factors that we don't often talk about, but we're going to today. They're the things that influence your ability to be generous, or prevent you from being generous.

Living in a recession, like we are, forces us back to the fundamentals. In times of prosperity, it's easier to get by without paying attention to the important principles of managing your money. In difficult times, we need to make sure we're focusing on these fundamentals. Let's look at them.

Several years ago, one of the world's richest men, John D. Rockefeller, was asked, "How much money is enough?" His famous answer: "Just a little bit more."

Our culture and certainly our economy have been built on that principle: you need more than you've got. You need to buy more. You need to earn more. You need to accumulate more and better stuff. Our leaders are telling us we need to spend more.

There are a couple deeper issues here. Some are spiritual, some financial. Let's look at the financial issue first: The experts these days are attributing the current economic crisis to a number of things: bad mortgage lending practices, lack of regulatory oversight, and globalized market structures. But some of the more plainspoken pundits sum up the mess in a single word: Debt.

I'm no expert on finances, but let's start there and take a look at what the Bible says about two factors that influence our ability to be or not to be generous.

What do we believe about debt and savings? The Bible is clear: be generous. What the Bible teaches about debt and savings is a little more complex. Buckle your seatbelt, because this sermon may experience a little turbulence.

Debt is a problem, not a solution.

The concept of debt was familiar in the Bible. Jacob went into debt for 14 years to marry the woman he loved. In the Lord's prayer, we're taught to pray: "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." That refers to more than mortgages and car loans, of course, but the message is clear: debt is something you want to get out of.

The Book of Proverbs puts it very plainly: "The borrower is the slave of the lender" (Proverbs 22:7, ESV). That's a strong statement, isn't it? But when you think about it, it's true. When you borrow money, you wind up obligated to work for someone else, giving them your earnings, until the debt is paid off. If you want freedom, you've got to get out of debt. 

My grandfather, John Shelley, 13 generations back, was a young man about 20 years old when he came to a fairly new colony named Jamestown in the year 1623. He came over on a boat, the Bona Nova. How'd he pay for his ticket? Debt. He came as an indentured servant, essentially a slave who could earn his freedom after seven years of work. He was indentured to a landowner named Edward Blaney. John had to work in Edward Blaney's tobacco fields for seven years and survive malaria, starvation, and occasional Indian attacks. After seven years, however, he gained his freedom and a few acres of land in Virginia.

I know, some of you are thinking, I've been working for my parents and the school system for 10 or 12 years. John Shelley's seven years doesn't sound so bad. Well, I obviously never knew John Shelley, but I can guarantee you that he was looking forward to the day when he worked off his debt, got out of Edward Blaney's tobacco fields, and was able to plant his own crops.

Debt is something you've got to get out of, even if it takes years, or financially you're a slave. In recent days here in the United States, we've been putting ourselves into financial slavery with our casual attitude toward debt, and some of us have no plans for freedom.

Let me show you a verse from the Bible that is incredibly un-American, that seems unimaginably naïve and impossible:

Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelite, whether you loan money, or food, or anything else. You may charge interest to foreigners, but you may not charge interest to Israelites, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you do. (Deuteronomy 23:19–20)

God ties his blessing to the nation of Israel to not sticking it to those in your community through interest rates. He knew that debt leads to all sorts of things, and not many of them are good. Debt is the quickest path to bondage, and it's a sure recipe for a system in which the rich get richer and poor get poorer.

What's the essence of what the Bible says about debt? Debt is a problem. It's not a solution. In America, we've been tempted to believe that debt is a tool, or even that credit (another word for debt) is the foundation of our economy. We treat debt as a way of life. But it's not. It's a problem. It's a temptation. It's not the answer to your problems or to anyone else's.

The financial crisis we're in right now was precipitated by the meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage market. Millions of Americans took out mortgages they could not afford, to buy houses that in some cases they really didn't need. But it's not just the sub-prime mess. Everything from the war in Iraq to the Katrina recovery was funded by borrowing. Both political parties are quick to promise specific "goodies," whether new military equipment or tax cuts or new roads or bailouts of struggling industries, but they never say how they are going to pay for them. The answer, of course, is that they don't have any idea, other than to borrow from banks around the world and then hope that some generation, somewhere, someday, will take care of the bill.

But we can't just point the finger at government. The personal debt of Americans is at record levels. Historian David Tucker notes that throughout much of American history families saved approximately 15 percent of their income. Thrift was an American virtue. Since the 1990's, however, as credit got easy and borrowing became a way of life, there was a dramatic change. The average American now owes more credit card debt than at any time in history. I saw on the news this week a story about a man here in Chicago who kept all the credit card offers that he received in one year—420 of them. And 20 of them were sent to his 11-year-old daughter, and 11 to his 8-year-old son. The use and abuse of credit cards is out of control.

Easy access to credit cards has led countless people into debt. And while debt is oh-so-easy to get into, it's oh-so-hard to get out of. Debt has become like a prescription pain reliever. It can serve a good purpose for a limited time, but if you become a long-term user, the consequences are bad. You can find yourself hooked. Debt makes a lousy lifestyle, and too many of us are long-term debtors without any plans for emancipation.

But the debt addiction can be broken. Let's look at what else the Bible says: "Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it" (Proverbs 13:11, ESV).

When we borrow and get a wad of spending power, we feel wealthy. But as this verse says, "easy come, easy go." Wealth gained hastily dwindles. "If I've got it, I'll spend it." But the truth of the matter is that small daily decisions are what determine the direction of your life, especially with finances. The addiction to debt can be overcome by small daily decisions. Look at this verse from the Book of Proverbs: "In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has" (Proverbs 21:20). Another translation puts it this way: "Fools spend whatever they get."

Simply put, for too long people have been spending more than they make. We have been purchasing homes we cannot afford, signing up for bigger cable and cell phone plans than we need, and racking up debt at an unprecedented rate. The average American currently has a negative savings rate and over $8,000 in credit card debt.

As Dave Ramsey says, we are not "acting our wage." We've made the foundation of our economy consumer spending rather than manufacturing, saving, or production. So we borrow, borrow, borrow. All that debt simply cannot hold the weight of the economy over time, and now we're starting to see the system crumble.

But this isn't something we can just blame on the government. This is something that is made up of the individual decisions each of us make every day.

What's the lesson here?

Live on less than you make.

This isn't exactly rocket science, but it is a hard truth. David Batstone, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is now an editor of Sojourners, a Christian magazine. He writes:

Want some free financial consultation? It won't take more than a few seconds, I promise. I won't need to review your bank statements, or even glance at a balance sheet. Yet for at least 90 percent of you, my remedy will be the single most critical step you could take on the road to financial health. Reduce—and then eliminate—your personal debt.

I'll be even more to the point: If you have credit card debts, use every bit of your savings to pay down your principle. Unless you have investments that are earning you over 18 percent return and doing that on a consistent basis (which is just shy of winning the lottery), then you're better off draining your bank account to pay off your loans. As Benjamin Franklin advised, "Rather to go to bed supperless than rise in debt."

Take up that challenge as a spiritual discipline. Few forces in this world limit your choices more than debt does. How can you give generously, if you're simply getting deeper and deeper into debt?

I recognize that not all loans exact the same cost. A mortgage is clearly a form of debt, but generally of the most innocuous kind. At least you build equity over time, you have a tangible possession, you win a meaningful tax deduction, and save on paying rent.

On the other end of the scale, the most insidious form of debt is a consumer loan. Though credit card companies speak words of freedom, borrower beware. Like clever drug lords, they offer us free trials and low rates until we're hooked. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it doesn't take long for compound interest to kick in.

"One of my close friends," Batstone writes, "noted that the interest rates on her consumer loans were rising steadily—18 percent rates inched up to 21 percent, then 27 percent. Frustrated by her inability to keep up, she called the credit company to complain. The comforting reply: 'We know you're never going to pay the loan back anyway, so we're trying to cash in now before you go bankrupt.'"

That is a rotten system. Do whatever you can to avoid that kind of slavery. Live on less than you make. And reduce your debt each month.

Savings is good, if it doesn't become a god.

Now what about savings? Let's see what the Bible says. Again it's not as clean and clear as "be generous." But let's take a quick look at the benefits and dangers of savings.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. (Proverbs 22:3)

In the Bible, the most famous example of a good saver was Joseph, who saved seven years of surplus crops for the seven years of famine, and saved the lives of many, the Bible says. He foresaw danger and saved for it.

Go to the ant, you sluggard: consider its ways and be wise …
It labors hard all summer, gathering food for the winter.
(Proverbs 6:6–8, NLT)

I love that word sluggard: a lazy person who refuses to work, refuses to prepare for what's coming.

The polar opposite of sluggard is my father-in-law, Henry Janzen, a Kansas farmer. The difference between city people and farmers is that city people expect each year to be better than the last. Farmers know there will be good years and bad years, and you can't predict which one the next year will be.

People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell. (Proverbs 11:26)

Is saving always a good thing? Not always. Saving is a good thing, according to the Bible, but not just collecting stuff for its own sake. The purpose of saving is to have something to offer when others have need.

While the Old Testament is generally positive about savings, the New Testament is more direct about warning of the dangers of savings:

Now listen, you rich people … your wealth has rotted … your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. (James 5:1–3)

We've certainly seen wealth rot in the last 12 months, haven't we? Retirement funds, home values, IRAs, and mutual funds have corroded and lost value.

In addition, some savings is pretty much an exercise in watching value disappear. A few years ago, our family was running around collecting Beanie Babies. We told ourselves, "These will be valuable someday." Well, it hasn't exactly turned out that way. Our Princess Di Beanie Baby isn't worth what we paid for it, I assure you. Likewise with Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh cards and classic comic books.

At different times in my life, I've collected LPs, cassettes, compact discs, VHS tapes. Now it's DVDs, or collecting a playlist for an iPod or recordings on Tivo. I don't think there's anything wrong with these collections (they can be fun hobbies), but if you think accumulating those kinds of things are going to have lasting value—read this verse again: that value will corrode, and if you think those things are going to last, their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.

Jesus tells about a man who was into savings in a big way (Luke 12). He even bought bigger barns to store his wealth. (I recall reading that almost 1 in 11 Americans owns or rents a storage unit to save stuff they don't have room for in their house or apartment.) The man in Jesus' story said to himself, "I have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, and be merry." Sounds like some people's idea of retirement.

Did Jesus say, "What a wise man to save up so you can eat, drink, and be merry"? No, Jesus said, "You fool. This night your soul will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it is with anyone who stores things for himself but is not rich toward God."

Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf. (Proverbs 11:28)

Savings is a good idea, but trusting in your savings is a really bad idea. The Bible says we're to be like a green leaf, continually drawing our nourishment, our confidence, from our ongoing relationship with the Lord, just as a leaf draws nourishment from roots and the sun.

Saving for a rainy day is godly wisdom. The Bible tells us to save. But even savings can become an idol and lead us into the John C. Rockefeller trap. How much savings is enough? "Just a little more." That's when savings becomes a trap, and its corrosion, the Bible says, will eat your flesh like fire.

I've learned a lot about the proper place of savings—not neglecting it, not letting it become an idol—from the leaders here at our church who are both godly and financially wise. Our church has debt (a $2.8 million mortgage on this building, which allows us to touch people here and around the world in the name of Jesus), but we're reducing that amount each year. This church has savings (approximately three months income) to pay for unexpected emergencies. This winter we ran into some significant snow removal costs, so it was good we had the means to get that taken care of. But this church isn't just continuing to increase its savings. Everything beyond that is used for ministry here, in the community, or globally. I consider that a good example of having savings, but not making it a god.

Trust in God during times of adversity.

So, where does that leave us? I've tried to present what the Bible says about debt and savings as clearly as I can. But what does this mean specifically for those of us in 21st-century America, with a different economy, health care, life expectancy, and social security system? I understand that each person here faces some different circumstances.

  1. Reduce or eliminate your debt. As painful as it is in the short term, freedom comes from getting rid of your debts.

  2. Live on less than you make. (10 percent to God, as a starting point)

  3. Have something in savings for emergencies. (10–15 percent in savings, as a starting point)

These are the fundamentals that allow you to give generously, as a lifestyle.

I also recognize that many in this room today have been impacted in a serious way by the economic downturn. Some of you have lost your jobs, or been forced to close your businesses, or been forced to lay people off. Some have found it hard to find jobs. Some of you are saying right now, "Marshall, I can't live on less than I make, because right now I'm making nothing." I understand that.

You may even be fearful. I understand. I have experienced those apprehensions myself.

But we need to remember that fear is always the enemy of faith. The financial markets are God's. The world is his. God is on his throne. Maybe the "eat, drink, and be merry" attitude of Americans needed a major adjustment; we can't be spiritually casual when the times are tough.

Here is something else to remember: God often uses adversity for his greatest blessings. Christians are called to do their best work through the worst of times. Times of financial crisis are good times to be reminded of what's valuable, to sink your roots deep, to live with a deep and abiding trust in God, and watch and wait and work to find the unexpected ways in which he will prove himself faithful and we can generously serve others cheerfully and in Jesus' name.


John Wesley famously said that Christians should "make all you can, save all you can, give all you can," with the emphasis decidedly on the third part of that statement. His early followers dressed simply and lived simply. They founded societies for thrift, not in order to hoard but in order to give. Generosity depends on having something to give—and that may not be money. It may be time; it may be a skill. But it has to be gained before it can be given or invested in others. So make all you can, save what you must, live on less than the rest, and give all you can.

To see an outline of Shelley's sermon, click here.

Author Bio:

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".

Marshall Shelley is editor of Leadership Journal and an editorial vice-president of Christianity Today International.

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Sermon Outline:


God loves a generous giver.

I. Who controls who?

II. Debt is a problem, not a solution.

III. Live on less than you make.

IV. Savings is good, if it doesn't become a god.

V. Trust in God during times of adversity.


Make all you can, save what you must, live on less than the rest, and give all you can.