Note: This post and the two that follow are adapted from a well-received sermon preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church, Northport, AL on September 7. An elder encouraged me to share it with a wider audience.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” (Romans 13:8a)

You can’t turn on the TV these days without seeing a commercial from some debt and credit counseling service bemoaning how many credit cards Americans have or how much we owe, then promising to help us get out of debt. You’d think that all of us were in deep trouble financially and would be better off cutting up our cards and using cash.

The picture is not as bleak as we hear on the commercials, but the statistics are still disturbing. Consider:

  • today’s average consumer has nine credit cards;
  • total U.S. consumer debt, not including mortgage debt, reached $2.55 trillion at the end of 2007;
  • the average American with a credit file is responsible for $16,635 in debt, again excluding mortgages;
  • the average credit card-indebted young adult household now spends nearly 24 percent of its income on debt payments, with about 13% of young adults spending over 40 percent of their income servicing debt, including mortgages and student loans.

I can’t help but wonder what Paul would think about the situation I’ve just outlined. After all, he insists that we “owe no one anything.”

Our first response might be to say “So what? Who cares what some musty old dead preacher in another country said 2000 years ago?” After all, Paul lived in a day when the banking system as we know it didn’t exist. Certainly, people bought and sold things. Debts were owed and paid, sometimes cancelled. Taxes were levied and grudgingly paid. And we can identify with all that.

But we think of back then as a much simpler time. Life didn’t move quite so fast. There wasn’t as much to have or want. So of course Paul could admonish his readers not to owe anybody anything. And, we have to admit, that sounds great: no car payments, no mortgage, no credit card bills. But who can do that in today’s economy? How would we buy anything off the Internet without a credit card? And it’s so easy to whip out the card instead of carrying cash, especially for large purchases, like a major appliance or your last tank of gas.

We can get around Paul by spiritualizing his advice. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes credit card and other debt is a moral issue, both for individuals and for organizations, like churches. Suppose you and I make good money, but consistently spend more than we make. And what if much of that spending is on impulse purchases and “must-haves”? What if we’re addicted to such habits so much that we don’t keep enough funds available to pay our monthly bills on time or give to the church or some charity?

Or how about the church like the one where I started out as an Associate Pastor? They had a huge mortgage payment, which came right off the top before anything else. Giving never quite measured up, so my youth budget got slashed over and over in favor of the bank note.

What if sleep won’t come night after night because you’re worried about that big balance you’re carrying on each of your cards, and with minimum payments, you’ll never be free of debt? So day after day you’re irritable and distracted at work and with your family.

Suppose what we spend our money on is an index of our true values? “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also,” said Jesus. And I think the reverse is true: “where your heart is, there is where you will invest your treasure.” You and I can always find the money in organizations and personally for what we really think is important, even if to the outside observer it looks trivial. Think of just these two statistics: Americans spend over $100 billion annually on fast food and $97 billion a year on beer. What if only a portion of that were spent on relieving hunger or providing clean water?

Sometimes our debts of money keep us from paying our debt of love.

Next week: Love does no harm.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham