Debt is a ubiquitous problem in western society that can start in many ways. Sometimes, reckless spending or addictive behavior drives people into debt. Other times, emergencies beyond a person’s control unexpectedly throw a person into debt.
Whatever the cause, if you’re buried under a mountain of debt, you probably want to get out. Perhaps this even prompts you to ask, “Can God help me get out of debt?”
God can help any financial situation. Usually, His help comes in forms that equip us to reshape our attitudes and priorities, and not through a quick fix.
Dealing with Debt
Whether you’re faced with medical bills, student loans, or credit card balances, the first step is to pay what you owe according to your capacity to pay:
- The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously; Psalm 37:21
- Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Romans 13:7
Both the Old and New Testaments affirm the duty to repay what has been borrowed. To receive goods or money in exchange for a pledge and then fail to repay is tantamount to theft.
In fairness, not all debt is incurred because of recklessness or dishonesty. In the case of a medical emergency, for example, the debtor may have little control over the ultimate cost of treatment and may incur a greater-than-expected financial burden.
In such situations, negotiation is often appropriate (and there are organizations that are willing to assist with this endeavor). But as Christians, we cannot consider defaulting a valid or God-honoring option.
What about Jubilee?
On the year of jubilee, all land was returned to its rightful owner, and all people who worked as indentured servants (for the purpose of repaying debt) were released from servitude:
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.Leviticus 25:10
Jubilee didn’t cancel debt, it celebrated the complete repayment of debt at the end of a lease term.
In agrarian Israel, when an individual borrowed money from a lender, that person leased their land to the lender at a price based on the number of years until jubilee:
You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops.Leviticus 25:15-16
Repayment then came from the land itself as the lender assumed rights over the harvest during the lease term.
So the jubilee was instituted not to erase debt, but to ensure that the community could care for their financially strained members—through regulated leases—without a handful of greedy lenders seizing the land of the vulnerable.
Does God Ever Erase Debt?
Jesus told several parables about debt forgiveness to illustrate spiritual truths. Here is one example:
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”Luke 7:41-42
The context of the parable is that Jesus had just been anointed by a sinful woman, and his host—a Pharisee—criticized his acceptance of her gesture.
Jesus responded by using degrees of debt to illustrate the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. His illustration was not in any way advocating for people to ignore their financial debts.
Even the forgiveness that we receive for our sin debt (Romans 6:23) we receive not because God ignores our debt, but because it has been paid in full on our behalf by Jesus.
The same is true when God intervenes in financial matters. He doesn’t dismiss the lender’s claim to repayment of valid debts. But sometimes, He provides other solutions.
Biblical Examples of God’s Intervention
Elisha and the Widow
Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?”
“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.”
Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars… Pour oil into all the jars…
When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.”
But he replied, “There is not a jar left.” Then the oil stopped flowing.
She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.”2 Kings 4:2-7
The widow in this story was burdened with debt beyond her capacity to repay. But instead of compelling the lender to erase her debt, God provided her a means to repay the debt.
Onesimus and Philemon
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.Philemon 1:19-20
Paul wrote his brief letter to Philemon to address the matter of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and fled to Rome, where he met Paul and became a believer.
Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon as the law required, but instead of pleading with Philemon to cancel Onesimus’ debt, he pledged to cover the debt himself.
In both these examples, the lender is ultimately repaid, though through different means.
How Will God Help Me?
Not all of us will be blessed with a benefactor such as Paul or a miracle like the one the widow experienced. So if you’ve read our pieces on gambling and playing the lottery, then it should come as no surprise that praying for a quick fix—or trying to force one through gambling—is a terrible strategy.
Instead, we advocate embracing Biblical principles that will guide you in paying your current debt and avoiding unnecessary future debt.
Biblical Strategies for Managing Money
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 1:5
Each situation is unique. But in all circumstances, it is right that we turn to God and seek His wisdom. Here are some Biblical tips:
- Ask for Advice: Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise. (Proverbs 19:20). If you need help negotiating relief, establishing a budget, or avoiding bankruptcy, then seek help. Non-profits, financial coaches, and faith-based seminars are available to help your specific situation. It is wise to listen to those who have beneficial knowledge and experience.
- Stay disciplined: Whoever disregards discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored. (Proverbs 13:18). If budgeting and money management are a challenge, seek out tools—such as books or mobile apps—that can help you, as well as people that will hold you accountable to your budget.
- Make a plan: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? (Luke 14:28). For any purchase—especially the major ones—carefully consider the total cost before you buy. If you have to borrow more money to make a purchase, then it probably isn’t the right time to buy.
Prioritize Your Spending
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:21
Ultimately, our money will follow our hearts. If our hearts are set on our own desires instead of God’s desires for us, our plans will ultimately lead to destruction.
Jesus warned us that “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money,” (Matthew 6:24). The indebted are just as susceptible to being mastered by money as are the wealthy.
Finally, as we seek God’s help, let us not forget to seek Him. God alone is the source of our peace and contentment:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.1 Timothy 6:6-8