Most people understand the concept of indebtedness. In 2003 over 1 and a half million people filed for bankruptcy. In spite of this fact, debt is a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the 1930’s most people couldn’t borrow, even to finance property. These people rented homes or built them from scratch. Nowadays mortgage debt runs into the trillions of dollars. Recent statistics report that personal debt (excluding mortgages) is about $19,000.00 per household. Over 40% of families spend more than they make each year. Consumer debt is rampant.
We all know that the national debt is also out of control. Year after year the government raises the debt ceiling so they can go further and further into debt. The National debt is in the trillions (an inconceivable amount). We are mortgaging the future to indulge the present.
Debt has become a way of life to the majority. You can borrow money to get just about anything. No matter how limited your income most people can get a credit card. The reason for this is that lending institutions today make a lot more money loaning money to people through credit cards than they do through personal loans. Debt is big business.
Paul’s words, “let no debt remain outstanding” sounds like nice sounding words that are impossible to obey. This morning we are going to look at these words. But we’ll see that Paul is not only concerned about our finances, he is also concerned about the debt that we’ll never fully repay.
CHRISTIAN PEOPLE SHOULD PAY THEIR BILLS
The words before our text the Apostle Paul told us to “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Paul follows this instruction with the words, “let no debt remain outstanding.” Paul is not only talking about financial debt, but financial debt is part of his discussion. This raises a question.
Is it always wrong to borrow? If we are to leave no debt outstanding does this mean we should never take out mortgages, car loans or student loans? I don’t think that is what Paul is saying. Throughout the Bible there are several guidelines for the borrower and the lender. Since there are regulations and guidelines for borrowing it would seem it is not forbidden. For most people it would be impossible to get a home of their own without borrowing money. With the cost of education today few people could get their education without student loans. Some borrowing seems to be necessary in life.
What Paul seems to be saying is we should be people who pay our debts. If we borrow money, we should pay it back as we agreed. If we borrow belongings, we should return them. As Jesus said, “let your yes be yes”. When you agree to pay you should pay.
But what does this have to do with the idea of love or submission to the Lord? The answer is: everything! When we care about another person we will pay them what we owe. When we default on payments we are showing a lack of love toward another because they must absorb the loss.
Suppose you borrow $1000.00 from someone. If you don’t pay the money back the lender is stuck with the loss. What happens to your reputation? What happens to your friendship? What happens to your witness for Christ? It goes out the window.
This raises the serious problem that we have in our society regarding debt. Many people are so far in debt that they cannot imagine ever being out of debt. The greatest culprit for debt of course is the credit card. The Bible tells us that the borrower is servant to the lender. (Pr. 22:7) The result of this indebtedness is,
We are unable to save for the future
We no longer have the ability to give generously to the Lord’s work
We experience great (sometimes enormous) stress in the home
We may experience medical problems resulting from the stress
We get to the point where we start thinking “I’m so far in debt now, what is a little more going to hurt?” That kind of thinking is disastrous.
So how do we get out of this credit trap? Most financial counselors suggest several things. First, we must recognize our indebtedness as a spiritual problem. When we are constantly spending more than we have we are in essence saying we don’t think the Lord provides for our needs adequately. Our rampant spending reveals our true belief that significance comes from what you have rather than what you are. It is a spiritual problem. It shows a lack of trust in God.
Second, we must start paying cash for what we purchase. The principle is simple: if you don’t have the money, don’t buy it! We should work to never use a credit card unless we can pay the bill in full at the end of the month. Our goal should be to live within our means. At first this will feel like an impossible burden. In time you will discover that this leads to a wonderful freedom.
Third, pay your debt down every month. Some people pay just the minimum payment on their credit cards. Sometimes this doesn’t even cover the interest that has accrued over the month. Each month the goal should be to see the debt go down further than the month before. You should always start by paying off higher interest cards first.
Finally, make a budget and stick to it. God has provided for us in abundant ways. It is our job to manage our resources in a way that is responsible. In your budget make sure you budget for the Lord’s work. As we honor the Lord with our finances we will be blessed.
THE DEBT WE CAN’T REPAY
Paul is not only concerned about our financial debts. He continues his discussion with these words, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another,” Paul wants to drive home this familiar point. There are three things to notice.
First, this is a debt we will never pay in full. There are times when we might feel that we have “done enough”. We may feel that we have gone above and beyond the call of duty to someone in love. However, even then our debt is not paid. We are to love one another as Jesus loved us. Even on our best days we don’t come close to loving each other that way.
We have an obligation to love every person with whom we come into contact. We must love the poor driver, the cranky sales clerk, and the annoying relative. We are called to love the stranger and the opponent. It is easy for us to excuse indifference to others merely because we have no legal obligation to help someone. We can even justify harming someone if our actions are technically legal. But this is not God’s way! Once we come to Christ we represent Him. We must love as He loves and we must love those whom He loves.
There is a second principle: when we love others, we honor God. Paul tells us, “for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Do you get that? When we love other people we are doing what God wants us to do.
In Matthew 22:37-39 we read this account,
the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus was asked on another occasion: “who is my neighbor?” (by a man looking for a loophole). In response, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. The moral of the story is that your neighbor is anyone who has a need.
Think about what Jesus said, If love is the greatest commandment then it would seem that being selfish, hurtful, hateful and indifferent would be among the worst sins we could commit. Yet, these are things that are often commonplace.
Love fulfills the law because it shows a true love for God. Let me illustrate. If your child comes home with a new boyfriend or girlfriend you may not care for the person at all. However, because you love your child most of us will work to try to see what our child sees in this person. We will work hard to love this person because we love our child. In marriage you work to learn to love your spouse’s family because your spouse loves these people. When we truly love someone we love the people our loved one loves. So, when we truly love the Lord, we will love those whom He has created. We will work hard to see people through the eyes of Jesus.
For this to happen, we need to have God’s love in us. Jesus was right (of course!). We must love God AND love our neighbor. The first commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The first four of the Ten Commandments are about our love for God. When we truly love God we will not put other things before Him, We will not make idols (making Him less than what He really is), We will not treat Him in a flippant manner (take His name in vain), and we will put Him first in our time and calendars (we will remember to keep the Sabbath). When we love God we will begin to see others as God sees them and when we see others through God’s eyes, we will love them also. If we find it difficult to love others, it could be an indication that we don’t really love God.
Loving someone is more extensive than we usually think. Paul says,
The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
We have a tendency to think that love simply means being nice to other people. It includes being nice but it goes well beyond just this. Paul lists some of the Ten Commandments as an illustration of the fact that these things are all summed up in the idea of loving another person. Let’s look at them one at a time.
When you love someone you will not be guilty of adultery. When a person is unfaithful in their marriage they show a lack of love to: the spouse(s) they are hurting, the children who are losing their family, the friends and relatives who must pick up the pieces, and even to the person they are committing adultery with because they are staining their reputation and encouraging them in sin spurning the will of God. Many adulterous relationships are no more than two people using each other for a dangerous pleasure.
When you love someone you will not kill because life is valuable. You will realize that every life touches hundreds of others. To kill one person means to inflict pain on hundreds more. Terrorist bombers can never make the claim that they are serving God because they act with disregard for those whom God has made. Murder, hatred and violence are all the antithesis of love.
We do not love someone when we steal. Stealing takes from another. This is more extensive than you might think. Dr. Boice writes,
We steal from an employer when we do not give him or her the best work of which we are capable. We steal if we overextend our coffee breaks or leave work early. We steal if we waste products with which we are working. We steal if, as businessmen, we charge too much for our product or try to make a killing in a lucrative field. We steal if we sell an inferior product, pretending that it is better than it is. We steal when we mismanage another person’s monies, or if we borrow but do not repay what we borrow. [ROMANS p. 1692]
We could extend this list: When we make copies of copyrighted materials we steal profits from the creator. When we take credit for something we didn’t do we steal the credit from the one who really did the work. When we gossip we steal from someone’s reputation. The list could go on and on. The person who loves wants to honor people rather than rob them.
A person who loves does not covet. This is a little harder to understand. When we covet, we show a lack of love because in our desire for what we don’t have, we become insensitive to the needs of those around us. We are so consumed with getting more we don’t even consider how we can use what we have been given to enrich those around us. When we covet we become unappreciative of that which others have given us (not least of which are the blessings God has given us) and resentful of what is give to others.
The point is that true love is practical. It shows itself in the way that we show regard, respect, and concern for each other. True love is active and it goes well beyond warm feelings toward another. When we truly love we are fulfilling the Law of God.
There are a couple of different lessons today. The first has to do with our finances. Are you enslaved to your spending? Is it time for you to get rid of your credit cards and pay what you owe? Are you buying stuff because you feel that stuff will make you happy? If the answer is yes to these questions this passage reminds us that our happiness is found in the Lord. Our first priority needs to be to pay our debts and to live within our means. This will free us to be able to help others and to love one another in very tangible ways.
Have you borrowed something from someone? If so, make it an effort to return what you have borrowed whether it is money or some tangible item. Let’s make an effort to make sure that these things do not become a barrier to our witness and a stain on our character.
Second, if we were as diligent in pursuing love as we are in buying stuff, or in some cases, finding ways to justify purchases, I wonder what would happen. What kind of impact could the church have on society if we were known as people who truly loved each other and were willing to show love to anyone?
Just this week I read this quote from Erwin McManus, “We have a propensity toward assembling for our own good without being moved to serve the good of others.” (Seizing Your Moment p. 236) In other words, even as churches we have a tendency to be focused on ourselves. Our concern tends to be what we can do to make our church better. Our expenditures tend to be focused on our comforts. Yet God calls us to look for ways that we can show love to others.
In his book Dare to Live Now! Bruce Larson gives a sad commentary:
The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give His Church. It’s an imitation; dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality. But it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable; it is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others, or want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love, and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers ([Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965], p. 110).
It is a sobering (no pun intended) thought, isn’t it? People crave love. If they don’t find that love from God’s people they will look for it some place else. They will turn to false religions, substances, and indulgences of all kinds, and they will miss the life that God has for all who will believe.
On a church level this passage calls us to ask: How can we serve those who are hungry, needy, imprisoned, and spiritually dead? As a church family we need to look for ways to invest in ministry that shows love to those who are outside of our church family.
Now let’s talk about you as an individual. Is there some payment on the debt of love today you can personally make today? Is there someone who needs a friend, a confidant? Is there someone alone who needs to know they are not forgotten? Do you know someone who feels beyond the reach of love? Perhaps there is someone who longs for your forgiveness over a past pain. There are things we can do as individuals as well as things we should do as a church. If we want to honor the Lord, the place to start is here. The time to start is now.