Forgive us our debts…and teach us to stop creating them.

If it weren’t so tragic it would be funny.  The news has been filled lately, whether on Fox, or CNN, or in the New York Times, with average Americans enraged at the inability of our elected officials to manage our collective money.  Enraged!   Hahahahaha!

The average American has three credit cards and is carrying, on average, $15,799 in credit card debt. We spend too much in our personal lives and reflect that problem when we vote for officials, some of whom promise cradle to grave security while others promise no new taxes, or even tax reductions.  Then you lock these wildly different views in a room and tell them to solve our national crisis, tell them to behave differently than the majority of Americans who put them there,  tell them to show some fiscal discipline.  When they don’t we’re angry?  We should be grateful.  They’re holding a mirror up to our face to show us our collective national identity: undisciplined, and addicted to spending.

You know we’re trolling near the bottom of a new low when all the politicians involved celebrate the recent legislation as a victory for democracy and an example of bi-partisanship.  Victory?  In 15 years we’ll be about 26 trillion in debt instead of 28 trillion.  Somehow I can’t bring myself to throw a party just yet.

Here are the things that keep me from celebrating:

1. Since it’s a government of the people, we’re getting what we deserve. We spend too much as private citizens, laying down our plastic on the altar of credit card machines so that we live beyond our means.  Why should we be surprised that those who rule do the same?  Until there’s a profound culture shift, exposing the god of consumerism for the slavish taskmaster that he is, this sham will continue.

2. Shopping our way out isn’t a good answer. I say this because every time I read something about the economy, I hear that the problem is people don’t shop enough, and this is why manufacturers aren’t making more stuff.  Just this morning, someone gave the “alarming” report that savings rates jumped last month.  While I understand that savings rates rooted in fear aren’t ultimately healthy, the implication was clear:  if more people would shop, we would be in this mess.  “Really?” I ask.  “What about the nearly 3 trillion dollars of existing consumer debt being carried by the public?  Do you think that increasing consumer debt is a long term solution?”  If so, you should run for office.

The shopping solution is also unsustainable.  We already consume way more than our fair share of the planets resources, and the options of either increasing our share, or turning the developing world into consumers are both unpalatable and unsustainable.  There are other ways, but nobody’s listening.

3. Real people get out of debt by addressing both sides of the equation.  Maybe they take out a 2nd job, at the same time that they cancel cable and stop eating out.  They buy their jeans at Costco instead of Nordstroms.  They don’t buy a big new car with big new monthly payments.  Soon, they’ve paid it down, and much quicker because they addressed the spending and income sides at the same time.  But Washington protects entitlements and a small minority of officials think that addressing the income side by taxing people who send their children to camp in private jets, and Exxon, will somehow destroy the country so new taxes are also off the bargaining table.  With entitlements and taxes both off the table I promise you the problems will only get worse.

You and I can’t solve this, but the recent months have had the uplifting effect of confirming what I already suspected: only the ethic of God’s reign will offer any kind of decent alternative to the madness that’s gripped our money loving world. Sure we’ll vote later.  If you think entitlements are the biggest problem, you’ll vote Republican.  If you think we need more taxes you’ll vote Democrat.  And unless there’s a gigantic paradigm shift due to some cataclysm, all the nonsense in the other Washington will continue unchanged, no matter how you vote.

Right in the midst of this culture, though, we can purpose to align our lives with God’s kingdom ethics.  What does that mean?

1. We’ll live within our means. God promises that we’ll always have enough resources to live the life to which we’re called, and if that’s true then I’ll live within my means.  I’m called to a Yaris, not a Lexus – called to bike more than I drive – called to cook great food in my backyard more often than I drop $80 at a fine dining establishment.

2. We’ll save enough to give some away. God’s people have always been called to a life of generosity, freely giving of the resources entrusted to us so that we can be a blessing.  Sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s money – but whatever it is, we say this:  “freely we’ve received – freely we give.”  That’s a lot harder to do when credit card debt is whispering “you owe me” in my ear.

3. We’ll think about how our purchases affect the world. I’ve pretty much given up on hormone and antibiotic laced meat, and am increasingly trying to buy local food.  I know I buy stuff that’s manufactured in unjust conditions, but I’m trying to pay attention and do less of that.  I know that the endless growth paradigm of shopping our way to global prosperity isn’t the answer.  I know there are people offering alternatives.  I’m participating in those conversations.

4. We’ll be humble enough to receive. There are times when we can’t work, or can’t save, or can’t provide for ourselves.  The early church offers endless examples of people shedding their wealth so that others might have their basic needs met.  We must become those kind of people eventually, as the debt insanity continues.  We might as well start now.

6. We’ll learn contentment. Sunsets are still free.  So are bonfires, and nights on the beach with friends, and hikes.  The library has books and movies for your mind, for free.  Meditation.  Exercise.  Sleep.  Food.  Basic clothes.  Shelter.  - what do we really need to be content?  For most of us, it’s already staring us in the face.  We just need to stop believing that lie that we’ll shop our way out of anything: neither our national crisis, nor our personal ones will be saved by bowing down to the god of consumerism.  And the sooner we realize this, the richer we’ll be.

Need Help – check this out. Next class this fall.

My goal is to make an e-version of my first book available for free this fall, and the chapter on generosity addresses this more thoroughly.  Coming Soon

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Adrienne

    Thanks for this! My husband and I have been doing financial peace university for the last few months and it is totally changing our lives. Its an amazing feeling to pursue a life debt free. We paid off our credit card debt and now are working on getting him through college. I’ve been angry at the way that government is handling its debt so irresponsibly. It’s so true that the government will reflect decisions we as people make in our own lives. The government will start acting like we do if we decide to live our lives responsibly and debt free!

  • Jeff

    Here is an article that truly highlights our nation’s pervasive attachment to debt http://abcnews.go.com/Business/credit-card-debt-good-economy/story?id=13862785. It is really worth reading if you are committed to living debt free as I am. I hope that we may someday break our consumerist lifestyles and find a more simple way of living – one rooted in Christ. Great post Richard!

  • Jim Underhill

    Many observors see the U.S. as the world’s consumer. Make it overseas, ship it to our shores and then compel us to buy things that we simply don’t need. We must acquire the skills to push back on this savy, well-planned effort that leads us into debt and accompanying despair. It’s frugal living, saving more, and being generous. Most all financial advisors are in agreement on these points and are ringing the bell to warn us that dramatic change is needed to survive and win! Now’s the time to get going as waiting just makes it all the harder.


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