Sunday, February 27, 2005

My Journey With Debt

Today we are beginning a two week message series called "Escape the Debt Trap," utilizing the book by Dr. Kregg Hood. I thought it would be helpful for me to share my journey with debt as we begin. And let me say that I come to any discussion of money and faith with the following presupposition, with which you may or may not agree: Money is a very powerful influence in our life (as American Christians) and in many ways is a "leading indicator" of where we are spiritually. In other words, I take Jesus' words that "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also" (Matthew 6:21) literally in that how I regard my treasure shapes my heart. When I look at the way I manage my money, and my attitude towards money, I see both positive and negative dynamics that reflect quite accurately where I am spiritually.

I first got into debt a few years after college. I simply spent over a period of time more than I could afford which resulted in credit card debt that I knew would take a couple of years to pay off, absent a financial windfall. The dynamics of this situation were that I was in a 100% commission sales job and I felt I had to maintain a certain "psychology," namely, that if I lived as if I were making a certain amount of money in sales then I would be more likely to make it. That sounds crazy, but it's part of the "positive thinking" that is stressed in many sales environments. When I left my sales job in anticipation of going back to school, I used the intervening six months to work about 60 hours per week in a service job, live like a monk, and pay off most of it. Lesson learned? Nah. That would be too easy.

After Angela and I were married and living in Connecticut working with our first church, we allowed ourselves to get in debt again by purchasing things on credit. By today's standards, (the average family in America has $8,000 in credit card debt), it wasn't egregious, but it bothered us. In essence, we were purchasing a lifestyle we couldn't afford in anticipation of being able to afford it later. And we knew that was somewhat immature and also problematic spiritually. After all, aren't we told to be "content" and "patient"?

This continued through the 1990's, with us always carrying more credit card debt than we were comfortable with because we were too impatient to save for what we wanted. We were in the firm grip of "buy now, pay later." This is the American way, after all. Again, it wasn't a crisis situation, and it never affected our tithes and offerings, which we were careful not to compromise, but it was increasingly an unsatisfactory way for us to live. I began a ministry at our congregation called Financial Peace University (created by Dave Ramsey in Nashville), which is very similar to the Crown Financial Ministries we launched here at West Houston recently, and we were part of the first "graduating class." We paid off our credit cards and have not had unsecured debt since (except for our Building Up, Reaching Out commitment, which we made joyfully!).

It is a great feeling of freedom not to be in the bondage of credit card debt. Are we still tempted to live above our means? Of course. But we resist. And I wouldn't trade this new freedom for the old "buy now pay later" life for all the frequent flier miles in the world. - Matt Soper


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