FIRST-PERSON: What's wrong with borrowing?

EDITORS' NOTE: Baptist Press is carrying a column by Larry Burkett each day this week in honor of his longstanding financial ministry. Burkett, a BP columnist for two years, died July 4. He was the founder of Christian Financial Concepts, now merged with Crown Financial Ministries in Gainesville, Ga.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (BP)--Doesn't the Bible say, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be"? Well, that might be good common sense, but it's not from God's Word; Benjamin Franklin said it in Poor Richard's Almanac.

Nevertheless, many Christians feel that all borrowing is prohibited, according the apostle Paul's encouragement to the church to "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8).

However, Paul was teaching that we are not to allow people to do things for us if we are not willing to do even more for them.

PRINCIPLES AREN’T LAWS

Principles of borrowing appear in God's Word, but it's important to understand that principles differ from laws.

A principle is an instruction from the Lord to help guide our decisions. On the other hand, a law is an absolute. Negative consequences might result from ignoring a principle, but punishment is the likely consequence of ignoring a law of God.

The principle of borrowing given in Scripture is that it's better not to borrow if a loan must be taken with surety. "A man lacking in sense pledges and becomes guarantor in the presence of his neighbor" (Proverbs 17:18).

The law of borrowing given in Scripture is that it is a sin to borrow and not repay. "The wicked borrows and does not pay back, but the righteous is gracious and gives" (Psalm 37:21). This implies that the wicked is able to repay but will not, as opposed to those who want to repay but cannot.

Principles are designed to keep us on God's path so that we can experience His blessings. When we ignore biblical principles it puts us in a state of jeopardy in which Satan can cause us to stumble at any time.

PRINCIPLE: DEBT IS NOT NORMAL

Debt is not normal in any economy and shouldn't be normal for God's people, regardless of how "right" our culture might want it to seem today.

We live in a debt-ridden society that is virtually dependent on a constant expansion of credit to keep the economy going. That is symptomatic of a society no longer willing to follow God's directions. God told His people what He would do if they kept His statutes.

"Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.... The Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow" (Deuteronomy 28:1, 12).

Borrowing is never God's best for His people.

PRINCIPLE: DON’T ACCUMULATE LONG-TERM DEBT

It's hard to believe that a typical American family accepts a 30-year home mortgage as normal today or that it is now possible in some cases to borrow on a home for nearly 70 years.

The need to expand the borrowing base continually forces longer mortgage loans, because expansion through taking on debt causes prices to rise through inflation. As prices rise, mortgages lengthen. Today it requires from 40 to 70 percent of the average American family's total income to buy an average home, even with a 30-year mortgage.

The longest term of debt God's people took on in the Bible was about seven years. During the seventh year of remission, Jews were instructed to release their brothers from any indebtedness (see Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Thus, the only debts that could exceed seven years were those involving non-Jews.

However, only the person who had made the loan was instructed to release the borrower. The borrower could not release himself from the obligation he had made with the lender.

PRINCIPLE: AVOID SURETY

Surety means accepting an obligation to pay without having a guaranteed way to make the payments. The most recognizable form of surety today is cosigning a loan for another person. But surety can be any form of borrowing in which an unconditional guarantee to pay is committed. The only way to avoid surety when borrowing money is to collateralize a loan with property that, if sold, would cover the entire indebtedness, no matter what.

Currently Americans charge in excess of $400 billion annually on their credit cards. At least $50 billion is for annual finance charges, and average monthly balances are carried between $3,000 and $5,800 at interest rates of 12 to 21.5 percent.

These credit card purchases have become the most common form of surety in America today. Christians seldom realize when they enter into a surety relationship (accepting an obligation to pay without having a guaranteed way to make the payments) that what they are doing goes against a biblical principle. In a credit card transaction, one merchant sells a consumer a product and another finances the purchase, unless the credit purchase is with an in-store credit card.

In the event of default on payments, the return of the merchandise to the original merchant does not cancel the debt, because the finance company has no interest in the merchandise that was purchased. Millions of people have discovered the true meaning of surety: when they have no merchandise but they still owe the money for that merchandise.

PRINCIPLE: THE ABSOLUTE COMMITMENT TO REPAY

In this generation, the system of situation ethics, by which acts are judged within their contexts instead of by categorical principles, is widely accepted. So much so that it's easy to rationalize not paying a debt, especially when the product or service is defective or when family financial situations seem to be out of control.

And, unfortunately, many borrowers discover that it's possible for them to accumulate far more debt than they can repay and still maintain the lifestyle they want. As a result, they bail out. In fact, in 2002 a record 1.53 million people chose bankruptcy as a way to postpone or avoid repaying debts, and some estimates say this number could rise 7 percent to 1.65 million in 2003.

Nonetheless, in some cases voluntary bankruptcy is acceptable, but only in the context of trying to protect the creditors, never in the context of trying to avoid payment. A Christian needs to accept the truth that God allows no exceptions to keeping vows. "It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay" (Ecclesiastes 5:5).

GIVE BEN CREDIT (NOT A CREDIT CARD)

Benjamin Franklin's "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" is good common sense. Yet, remember that God's Word prohibits neither borrowing nor lending, but does give firm guidelines. Borrowing is discouraged and every biblical reference to it is a negative one, because "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender's slave" (Proverbs 22:7).

The key scriptural guideline for borrowing is crystal clear. When you borrow, you promise to repay. Literally, borrowing is making a vow and God requires that we keep our vows.


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