That phrase became a catalyst for change.
It came up in a conversation with a friend of mine from a house church I attend, Summit Fellowships. Sarah, Patricia’s roommate, and I had just had dinner together, and we somehow found ourselves on the topic of debt. I know Sarah to be as transparent as they come; in fact, over dinner I had commented on how much I admire her ability to vulnerably share every aspect of her life. She referred back to that comment as we lingered on the topic of debt, offering that debt was the one area of her life that shame caused her to hide. She acknowledged that she was in debt, but said she would not be willing to disclose to anyone why. She noted she had some “acceptable debt” – a mortgage, student loans – but it was the “unacceptable debt” – credit cards – that she could not share.
I began to feel a weight over our conversation, and we talked about the oppression of debt – how we are tied to a certain job for certain hours and a certain lifestyle because we are slaves to the debt. Beyond just the need to work that debt creates, we talked about the spiritual/emotional oppression it causes. We probably all have experienced the feeling of a weight being lifted off of our lives as we make the last payment on a loan; it is more than just a sense of relief that the bill is paid off, there is also a feeling of freedom, like chains being removed from your life.
One of the women in our home church (Jody) recently shared a story she heard of an American who was in German at the moment the Berlin wall came down. As he walked into East Germany, the oppression he sensed as he went from a place of freedom to one that had spent years in captivity was almost suffocating. Then, within 10 minutes, his awareness of that weight vanished. Acclimation to oppression of that magnitude took approximately 10 minutes.
Debt has become the lifestyle of our nation and the individuals within it, and I imagine there is a spiritual/emotional impact that we no longer are even aware of. Sarah and I wondered together how this debt impacted our freedom to serve the Lord. If we had no debt, would we choose to work less? Would we give more? What would it be like to be available to go wherever we were sent? Would being free from the demands of debt free us to more clearly hear God and do whatever was on His agenda?
Then Sarah, speaking of Patricia, described her situation of “crippling debt.” At that point, what had seemed like a burden over this topic turned to intense grief. Patricia is a part of our home church. We as a group experience an intimacy with one another that is unique, even in the church. We have transparently shared our lives with one another – our struggles, our questions, our pain, and our joy and revelations. We have offered our gifts to one another – encouragement, insights, and prayers. Yet I was completely unaware that Patricia was under this burden. Sarah experienced shame over debt, and I had not known. In fact, other than occasional reports of unexpected need or blessing, I did not know how finances impacted anyone in the group, and I rarely shared transparently on the subject. We who on every other level experience transparency, never speak of debt, a condition that impacts our lives on a daily basis. Debt is one of the most common means of slavery within the church, having the potential to hinder our walk with God, and yet we never speak of it; we face it alone, and I wondered how we could be free if we allowed this enemy to remain in darkness. I felt grief and conviction that I had lived this way and been a part of creating a culture of financial anonymity within the church. Our calling as the body of Christ is to live in light and transparency before God and one another, and I knew the sense of conviction and grief I was experiencing would not subside until we found a way to walk in that calling in regard to finances.
This issue is significant to me because in the past few years, I personally have experienced a transformation in the financial realm. I am part of a bible study called “Sonship”, which for the past three years has been exploring the economy of the Kingdom of God. This study, developed and facilitated by Jody Mayhew, is too vast to completely describe and encompasses much more than just finances, but for this story, I want to share how the financial aspect has impacted my life.
Prior to this study, I viewed my finances as a separate entity from my spiritual life. I knew there were spiritual rules that I should apply to my finances (tithe, don’t go into debt, be wise in your purchases, be generous), but I still viewed finances as a separate category from faith. I felt I could have great faith and a flourishing spiritual life (though perhaps not great financial blessing) whether or not I chose to apply these rules. And that is all they were to me – rules.
There are 2 things I know to be true about rules in my Christian walk, 1) they have no ability to produce life, and 2) I will eventually fail at keeping them. This was the case in regard to my finances three years ago. For most of my Christian life I had been able to follow the rules, but when this Sonship study started, I was struggling. I had a sizeable parent loan debt from putting two children through college. My third son was getting ready to transition from community college to an expensive private university, and I had no resources available for that. I had some credit card debt, and I struggled to tithe every month, too often justifying not giving by the fact that I was living a fairly frugal lifestyle, working hard, but just not making enough to tithe. I could not figure out how not to go into debt when my needs exceeded my resources or how to continue to tithe when my monthly bills consistently consumed most of my income. Even the generosity that used to seem natural to me was waning. I remember a very close friend going through an incredibly tough financial season, and not even offering her any help because I had grown callous to the needs of others; the thought of helping her barely crossed my mind, but when it did, I dismissed the thought; how could I help her when I hardly had enough for myself? I will never forget her asking me one day as she was leaving my house if she could take a banana home with her so she would have something to eat in the morning. How many times I have thought back on that with shame and wondered how I could have grown so self-protective in my finances that until she asked, I had not found a way to give. I was at the place where the rules seemed impossible to keep, and my self-centered heart proved that no life had been produced from years of following rules.
That is when the Sonship study stepped in and took finances out of the realm of following rules and to the heart of our calling as believers – to entrust every aspect of our lives to God, hearing and following the leading of the Spirit, so that we partner with Him in the extension of God’s kingdom. God was not after me applying a set of rules to follow regarding my finances, but He was after my heart…would I rest in Him as my Provider? Would I trust Him with all my needs? Would I ask Him for wisdom and counsel and provision and then learn to wait for Him when my faith was tested instead of relying on the world’s solutions to financial provision – all based in self-provision – debt, overtime, robbing God of the tithe, and would I deny the self-serving attitudes of abundance? I deserve this, I earned this, I can afford this, I want this? Would I allow God the opportunity to provide for me what I needed and, often, what I desired, instead of independently working for the means of purchase?
I enthusiastically responded to this invitation to trust, determined to give to God freely and joyously all that He led me to give, starting with a tithe and then asking Him what and how to give beyond that, and I began to experience the beauty of encountering God in the midst of finances, both in need and in abundance.
I remember well the first test of this resolve to trust in God. That month, giving had left me with an empty bank account, and enough gas in my car to get to and from work on the last day of my work week. There were 2 more days before pay day, and I had places I had to go in those 2 days. I had been asking God to show me His provision for that need, and as my work day came to a close, I sensed Him telling me that I had the provision. I thought there must be an unexpected check in the mail! I excitedly stopped at the mailbox on my way home, but there was nothing. A bit confused, as I got back into the car, I asked God what He meant. Where was the provision? My attention was drawn to my employee ID badge. My bus pass! I had never used it, but as a benefit at my place of employment, I had been given a bus pass that was kept on my ID badge. That was not an easy, comfortable provision and certainly was not what I had been expecting, but I was honestly overjoyed to have heard God and to have received His provision. It brought a sense of partnership and fellowship with Him, an anticipation of what adventures awaited as I took the bus, and gratitude that I could trust even the method of provision He supplied. I experienced a deep contentment in God’s provision that day that could never have been accomplished through purchasing a tank of gas on a credit card.
This is one of many examples of how over the past few years my relationship with God has become the most engaged aspect of my provision, rather than my relationship with the economy of the world (my job, my bank, my credit card). I see this practice of God-led stewardship of finances as a type of sowing to the Spirit that is referred to in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” I have reaped so much more than financial provision, although that has been a part of the journey. The things of true value I have reaped are a deeper intimacy with God and faith that has impacted not only my finances but all aspects of my life. I also recognize a transformation occurring in my heart as I experience a growing concern for the poor, the oppressed, the needy, with a longing and a willingness to give. My affection is being turned to expanding God’s kingdom rather than protecting my own. Rules had never impacted my affections, but God’s Spirit was accomplishing was rules could not.
Although I was beginning to experience this freedom in my life, I realized as Sarah and I talked that my freedom was not complete without her freedom and Patricia’s freedom and the freedom of all that were a part of our fellowship. We are bound to one another, and if one is burdened then all are under the weight. At that moment it seemed like too small a thing that I was moving toward freedom, and I longed for freedom for our church as a whole because if sowing to the Spirit produced life through one, what would happen when a community of people sowed to the Spirit in a realm that is, even in the church, typically ruled by the powers of this world? How would the kingdom of darkness be shaken by all of us, together, standing against the slavery of debt in any of us? Could faith that is produced through that kind of united warfare impact the rule of darkness over other areas of oppression in our families and communities – addictions, breaches in relationships, deceptions. My desire to bring the topic of debt out into the open was overwhelming, and the thought that we could overcome it together, imagining the impact that could have for the Kingdom of God, was exhilarating.
That week I shared with Jody my idea of having an open discussion about finances and finding a way to help one another out of debt, but a few months went by before I had an opportunity to share with the whole group. The thing that stands out most to me about sharing is how difficult it seemed. I could barely think of what it was I had been waiting these two months to say, and it seemed impossible to form a cohesive framework for what I was trying to communicate. The group seemed confused about what I was getting at, but Jody added clarity. While I had focused broadly on the idea of being open with one another about finances, Jody spoke clearly about the slavery of debt and the alternative of living by faith. Dan kept us moving forward in the conversation, people asked questions, and faith was stirred. To me, that was the evidence we were on the right track – I saw faith being stirred up. We had some seemingly significant “by faith” moments: By faith, Tim shared with the group a financial decision he was considering and asked for input, by faith Sarah shared her feeling of shame over the “unacceptable debt” with everyone, and by faith Kristy openly shared her debt situation and the feeling that this could impede her in her desire to go on missions trips in the future. We were taking steps toward transparency.
We decided to come back the next week with each of us anonymously sharing the total amount of debt we carried, as well as the amount of tithes and offerings we gave each month. When we did this, we found that in our group of 16, we were a little over $500,000.00 in debt, which included 4 mortgages, and we gave approximately $2000.00 a month in tithes and offerings. The conversation that second night was a little freer, and the third week even more so. We shared our reactions to the idea of somehow working together to pay off our collective debt and being committed to learning the ways of the kingdom of God. We were all excited by the idea of joining together in this endeavor, but we also talked about our need to prepare for times we were, or felt, taken advantage of, mistreated. We talked about experiencing a measure of anxiety over this level of transparency with one another, but we were more drawn than afraid. By the third week, Sarah shared that as we were about $500,000.00 in debt, if the average interest rate was 10%, we were spending 50,000.00 a year in interest alone – money that could be invested into the kingdom of God and was instead given over to the institutions of this world. She started to dream about how we could build the kingdom with those kind of resources. We were seeing the point! It is not for our comfort, but for the expansion of the kingdom of God.
A few months have gone by now, and we have begun as a community to contribute to paying off the debt of the whole group, to save for one another’s needs, and to look at opportunities we have to provide for others in need outside of our gathering. We are committed to walking this journey not by rules but by faith, being led by the Spirit. I will leave it to other members of the group to share some of the specifics of how we are giving and the impact it has had because this is only the first chapter of our story. There are already testimonies being written in the lives of individuals among us as well as a testimony of what happens when a community of people follow God into uncharted territory.
I end with an invitation to others on the journey to write and pick up the story where I am leaving off.