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Counseling Those in Debt

Truth In Love 385

Is being in debt a sin? How can a Christian rightly think about debt?

Oct 17, 2022

Dale Johnson: Today, I’m delighted to have with me, Dr. Jim Newheiser. He’s the Director of Christian Counseling Program and Associate Professor of Christian Counseling and Pastoral Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. For 25 years, Dr. Newheiser served as a preaching pastor at Grace Bible Church in Escondido, California. He’s also the Executive Director of one of our training centers, The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship, and he’s an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University. He also serves as a board member at the Biblical Counseling Coalition and also here at ACBC. I love Dr. Newheiser, he brings great wisdom to the discussions that we have at the board level. He’s been a good friend to me, I’ve appreciated his work consistently throughout the years, he’s one of the men who we feel like we stand on the shoulders of as biblical counseling continues to move forward. So grateful for him, and his work. He’s written a book on this issue of debt and how to think about money and steward money well, and I just wanted to have him here to be able to talk to us about this.

Dr. Newheiser, one of the most incredible things to me is to look at statistics in our Western World, particularly in America, and to see the levels of debt in so many areas, not just student loans, housing, but so many areas where we are overspending money that we don’t have. I think this is a very appropriate topic. Many of our people will counsel those who find themselves in debt. It may be a complicated problem to a primary issue, but it is something that is worth us knowing a little bit about and how to help people through this. So, I just want to start with this question for you. Why do people get into debt?

Jim Newheiser: Well, there are practical reasons, Dale, and there are heart issues and we act because of what’s in our hearts. Often people get into debt in terms of unwise and harmful debt because they want what money can buy and they haven’t worked and saved sufficiently to obtain it. They often have undue optimism about the future where I’ll have more money in the future. Really, the problem in our culture that I think is really been highlighted lately by the rise of inflation is we have a government that wants to spend trillions and trillions of dollars more than they take in in taxes because spending is popular and taxes are unpopular, and so, they spend way beyond their means and in the case on a national level, it means that they benefit from inflation because then when they pay it back it’s less valuable so-called dollars. But I think they set a terrible example for the rest of us.

It’s also an example, the Proverb says, “Do you say a man was in his own eyes? There’s more hope for a fool than for him.” Is that even though God’s Word from the Old Testament and New Testament, you know, would warn us against debt, we think we can be smarter than the Bible. We think, somehow there can be new modern theories of money that you can circumvent, and temporarily you might get a buzz like with a lot of other foolishness. But in the end, it’s going to cost you, and so, we have this horrible example of a government spending trillions, and then with men, you know, everybody has more money and there are fewer goods and services to go around, there’s inflation. But just as taxes are unpopular, spending is popular, hard work and savings are not fun. And yet, owning things right now, or even having experiences right now is pleasurable and often the consequences can be pushed down the road is people don’t think about the future. So, it’s kind of parallel between the national level, the individual level, and to some degree, the corporate level.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, so true. Just a minuscule experience, we have teenagers in our home, some of them are working their first real job and they’re starting to see the value of money. And honestly, today, an entry-level job to look at things that maybe they want to spend money on, they can’t afford and they’re starting to add up, man. I got to work this many hours to pay for that certain thing that I want and they start to recognize all the things that they enjoy doing they don’t have enough money at the end of the day and then they may find themselves in a choice. What do I do? Do I work harder, more, longer or am I disciplined? And it really begins, as you mentioned, just to reveal the heart of a person into what we want and what we pursue, and what we’re willing to do to get it.

Now, having said that, when we talk about debt we’re certainly talking about issues being motivated in our heart to do the things that we do, to make the choices that we make. But a lot of people may ask the question, “Is debt always sinful?” You think about purchasing a home, and again we really pay cash or something like that or even a car in our day and time with how much they cost. So, is debt, always sinful? And if not, I want to follow up with that how might Christians wisely use debt.

Jim Newheiser: I loved your example about the teenagers and actually what you’re teaching them, or when you’re trying to teach them is, if you see the new phone you want, you work hard, you save money and then you take the money you’ve saved with so many hours at Chick-fil-A and you buy the phone. But the phone company says, for thirty dollars a month you can have the phone now and not have to wait till you’ve saved the money. You don’t care about the price of the phone because well I’ve got $30 a month but then a couple of years later, it’s going to be a car, and then it’s going to be whatever else. So that’s where the temptation comes in.

In terms of, whether is it wrong always to have debt. The Bible often gives principles of wisdom, like the borrower becomes the lender’s slave. That’s a statement of wisdom. The debt is enslaving. It’s dangerous. There are even verses in Proverbs about if you co-signed your bed could be taken from underneath you. It’s vivid, but it doesn’t say you’re sinning. You’re not going to put somebody to church discipline because they borrowed money for an iPhone or a house or a car or education. I think it’s something we’re free to do. Most of us can’t pay cash for a house. Many of us could spend the money we were spending on rent for a house payment and then it’ll build equity. So, debt can be wisely used but I think a couple of crucial principles would be, don’t use debt to give yourself a lifestyle that your income really can’t afford. You know, if you’re bringing in three hundred dollars a month, maybe spending 20% or let’s say 30% of your income on the phone may not be the wisest thing to do in light of the need for a car, education, the future. So, you can use debt to overextend yourself, you’re on a lower middle-class income, but now you’re driving a new Tesla or BMW, and you could barely make the payments, that’s just unwise to live beyond your means.

Another issue would be the Psalm says that the wicked borrow and don’t pay back. You have these pictures in Proverbs of not being able to repay debt and bad things happening to you, and so you don’t want to take on debt that you can’t reasonably repay, and the world would say buy now pay later, buy the most expensive house you can possibly qualify for, no down payment, but then, if the housing market drops you need to sell the house. You lose some of your income, you’re immediately in a situation of desperation. So, you don’t want to put yourself like well, now if you buy a car increases in value because of inflation, but in the past, you spent 30 thousand for a car, you drive off the lot, you couldn’t get 23 for it a week later, if you wrote 29 on it, you’re upside down. So, I think you want to be in a situation if you owe money, you could always liquidate the asset quickly and pay back all you owe, and that there’s a payment for the debt that fits in reasonably with the lifestyle you’re trying to live rather than overextending yourself.

Another principle would be you think of education, quite frankly and you and I both teach at a seminary. I studied business for my undergraduate degree. Well, then I went to seminary, and by the time I got done with seminary that degree made me worth 1/4 of what the business degree had been worth in terms of my earning potential. But borrowing a great deal of money hundred thousand dollars to get a seminary degree. The first question they ask you when you get out is how little can you survive on?. On the other hand, if you’re going to medical school and you borrow a couple hundred thousand dollars and you’re going to be making six figures right out of school that’s different, and so, is this debt necessary maybe for a house it is, for some education it is. Is it a debt I can pay back safely instead of overextending? Am I ever going to be ever in a position where I owe money I can’t repay? Well, that would be ungodly. Now we can’t stop providence in terms of economic depressions, disability etcetera, but at least to be prudent. And then, the heart issue would be am I grabbing after something prematurely instead of waiting for the Lord to provide it legitimately through hard work and savings, as opposed to I want it now even if it’s in the long-term unwise?

Dale Johnson: I think that’s brilliant. You just gave several really good sort of markers, that we can measure the wisdom of incurring some sort of debt, it’s a difference between maybe the terms that you used between prudence and I might add presumption because that is some sort of presumption of what the future looks like, but its prudence in moving forward is this something that’s useful, and can we be wise about it, and knowing the things that the Bible warns when we find ourselves in a position of debt, there are certain demands on us, we are a slave as the Scripture says there, and I think the way that you’re parsing that out is very, very helpful and wise. I want to maybe finish with a question like this.

How do we in the counseling room, how do we help people think about reducing debt? That can just be so overwhelming, especially with some of the amounts of debt that people have today versus the income that they make, how do we even approach and help them to be decisive and resolved to overcome this mountain of debt that they have?

Jim Newheiser: I think that rather than treating the symptoms you want to try to initially try to treat the cause which would be, how did I act unwisely to get into all of this debt? Did I want to live a lifestyle far beyond the means that the Lord has given me? Have I been discontent? you know, Paul talks about contentment in First Timothy 6 and in Philippians 4. Was I caught up in the world thinking that things would make me happy? These experiences make me happy. I had to keep, I had envy and my friends and colleagues were living this lifestyle and if those heart issues aren’t dealt with, probably the debt will continue to mount and so there may need to be repentance over the sin that got me into this situation, you know, taking on a huge amount of debt without really considering how I could fulfill my obligation to repay the debt.

You would begin with repentance. And then, there are certainly practical steps you can take depending on the specific situation to increase income, reduce lifestyle, and reorganize your debts. There are many practical steps. Some of those, I talk about in the book to say, if your heart isn’t right, and I would also add that if you’re married, husband and wife need to be on the same page, a lot of debt problems are also marriage problems. And so, if a couple is not getting along, they’re not going to be able to work a budget. So, we want to help deal with the heart issues, and then we can go into the practical steps.

 Dale Johnson: I think that’s great. I mean, so many good things you just mentioned. I want maybe just one last question. I can’t help myself. I’m going to mention the book but I want you to give me a primary takeaway. That may be the thing that in writing the book that you learn the most that you want to pass on to the counselors. The book is Money, Debt, and Finances by Dr. Jim Newheiser. I think we’ll find some really good information for us as counselors as we help people work through this issue that’s a very common issue in our culture.

So, Dr. Newheiser, I want to maybe finish with one thought, as you think about the book and one of the ways that it can be helpful for people just very practically give me some of that insight that you learned, as you wrote this book.

Jim Newheiser: So, I think the way the book can be most useful to many people, is it’s arranged in a question-and-answer format. So, you don’t have to read the whole book to get to the section on debt, multi-level marketing, or whatever. I think in terms of a principle is just, the Bible has timeless wisdom to speak to every situation, and even though you have complex economics, and cryptocurrencies and federal reserve and banking and all this other stuff, it can seem confusing that the principles that were true 3,000 years ago in the book of Proverbs are completely true today. And if you follow the wisdom, the Word of God, you will receive blessing, and if you ignore it, you will pay the price. And when people think they’re smarter than God and they’ve learned beyond the Word of God sooner or later, it’s going to come back and cost them. Some of that we can’t avoid because we’re in a culture where other people are making decisions we can’t control. But ultimately, as we strive to be faithful, we can trust in the wisdom of the Word of God and then, share that with others. 

Dale Johnson: Well said, brother. Productive work here, not just on the podcast, but definitely in the book. And I would commend it to you again, Dr. Newheiser’s book, Money, Debt, and Finances. And this touches all of us in one way or another, so I encourage you to get a book, read it, and be encouraged. Learn how to steward well from biblical wisdom.

You can find ACBC’s Biblical Solutions booklet series here