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Should I Be Giving Money To The Church When I Have Student Loan Debt?

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After last week’s sermon from Luke 12 and the rich fool — the one about stewarding our possessions, laying up treasures in heaven, and our inheritance in Christ — one of the young men in our church sent this question to me.

It’s an excellent question, and very logical in light of the message last week to ask this! It’s a question I’ve pondered myself a great deal ever since I graduated. I figure that if he has it, and I’ve had it, then most likely there’s others that wonder this too. So, let’s use the methods of technology at our disposal to answer it publicly here and see if it helps others as well.

The Question: On Debt And Giving

Since I’ve been a believer I’ve always given 10% or more of what I make. I budget and am pretty frugal about what I spend my money on (although not perfect). I’ve just been pondering whether or not tithing and paying off my students loans would be being a better steward with my money, as interest is a real thing. Plus, the longer I have debt the more I’m tied down and unable to do things God could potentially be calling me to in the future. I would appreciate any thoughts.

Thoughts In Response: Generosity In Light Of Debt

This is such a great question to be asking! Unfortunately debt is a major burden to a huge amount of young adults coming out of college. Even if you’re not in student-loan debt though, most adults in our country spend their entire lives paying off debts. This is a sad fact.

This question assumes we agree on two things that I will also assume for the sake of the answer: (1) Financial indebtedness is not a best-method way to live. (2) Giving to support the local church body is a best-method for living.

If you’re not sure you agree with either of those statements then the rest of this could be a tough chew for you. I’d be happy to prove to you that both of those are as true of beliefs as true beliefs can get, though it just won’t be in this answer. For the sake of this answer, we’re assuming we both believe those fully and rightly.

It is good to want to pay off your student loans as fast as possible. You’re totally correct that these are going to strap you down in terms of how God has called you to live and what he might want to ask of you. Like stated in Proverbs 22:7b, “the borrower is slave to the lender”, and you’ll know this until you can pay those off. Jesus also said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matt 6:24)

Dave Ramsey has often said, “You know what a person with no debt can do? Anything he wants!” It’s true (obviously within Biblical wisdom), and it’s good to know that if your transmission falls out of your car or you drop your phone in the toilet, you’re not going to regret paying for a friend’s lunch last week. You know what you’re working with and you can live accordingly and live generously when opportunities arise.

You Have A Dog In An Apartment

I have friends who were living in a tiny little apartment, and, for whatever reason, bought a dog. Not one of those phony little mouse-dogs, but a big, let’s-go-on-a-run and let’s-chew-down-the-walls dog.

In their defense, I think they were innocently ignorant as to what this would mean for their future. They just didn’t know what it meant to own a big dog, and didn’t think through the fact that they’re committed to this tiny space even if the dog doesn’t help maintain it. They are responsible for the apartment, and this dog was going to make much more work in regards to that responsibility.

In fact, some months they would feel more like they were owned by a dog than that they owned the dog. Some months weren’t just hard work, they were a poop-ton of harder, frustrating, rebuild-the-walls work.

It doesn’t change that they love their dog, of course. They even feel they receive great return on investment and pleasure from their dog on the good days, but I know for a fact they’ve questioned and even regretted the decision a few times. No matter how much they receive benefit from the dog, it doesn’t change that it affects their commitments in quite difficult ways at times.

You get it. This is sadly the reality of debt, and, specifically and especially, student-loan debt.

Unfortunately we grew up in a society and system that lead most of us to believe that student loans were “normal” and “just fine”, and that $50k+ debt would just sorta take care of itself one day later. We’ll even call it innocent ignorance to say we just didn’t know any better.

Nobody bothered mentioning to us that universities are actually businesses that exist to make a profit as much as educate you. It doesn’t matter what their slogan says, that’s how, and thus why, they exist. I can at least say I tried hard to learn something from my degree and choose a less expensive school that most, and have since tried hard to use that degree. Yet, having now finally dug myself out of the financial hole my education created, I can tell you, I’m not sure it’s worth it for most people.

All super-flawed education systems and communication aside though, here we are; you have a dog in your apartment now. Dang.

We Need The Church; We Chose The Debt

However, it is your responsibility to care for this thing and see it through. To be clear, with this analogy, your apartment is the church. You need it way, way worse than you needed the dog debt. It also needs you.

If we can leave the analogy behind now, the important thing is this: The church is God’s chosen way of reaching the world with the love of Christ. You and I also need the church as badly as the world does for so many reasons, but I assume you know that.

Scripture tells us that we are to think of it as us being a part of a literal body. I cannot choose to say “Hey mouth, please care for my body simply because I’m only an elbow and I just got rather distracted with getting buff and now I’m hurting. Besides you’re honestly quite better positioned to care for this body anyway.” Nope, it takes the whole body working together in every way for us to sustain ourselves. If you’re part of the body, you’re committed to the body.

Unlike the necessity of the church, you and I chose our student loan debt. Though we’re now shackled to it, we didn’t have to choose it. God never commanded us to be educated. He has commanded us to build up and expand his church though.

Likewise, I have since chosen to purchase a nice car. I could no more say to God that I have the right to not be generous and support my church because I’m paying off a nice car than I can say it because I’m paying off an expensive education I chose.

The Complexities Of The Bruised Elbow And The Caring Church Body

Now, since you’re a smart fella, you may wonder as I have, “But yes, I’m in a bad spot because I simply didn’t know. Yes, I was duped by the marketing gimmicks of universities and American society, but ignorance doesn’t make me evil and I’m now simply needing this money — right or wrong.”

A similar situation can happen if someone comes out of a self-centered lifestyle, comes to know Jesus, and now wants to live like him and be his disciple but then says, “Ah dang, I’m in a bad place financially.” Shouldn’t the church care for this person? Yes. Absolutely.

I dream of a church that actively communicates and educates it’s people on financial management, student education and loans, and is filled with people who feel like they can openly talk about where and how they are financially.

I’ve told my wife before that if it’s ever up to me, I want a church in which the more financially stable pokes, prods, and digs into the lives of the less financially stable, especially grads, and helps those in debt or with poor skills to stand up strong and get out of it. We see this happening in Acts with the early church, but it’s somehow become a stigma in our society to openly discuss our finances, much more ask for, give, or receive help. It shouldn’t be though.

If you’re a bruised elbow that needs healing, even if you caused it, we should, as your body, protect and serve you to get you healthy. Then as whole we can do even more and better when you’re working in your strength again. If we can’t take care of ourselves, why would the world expect us to take care of them? How could we?

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. – Galatians 6:10

To use our analogy again: If you need someone to pay for your apartment or feed your dog, make it known. If you’re a part of a good church like Rock Hill here in Lawrence, with loving people, someone will gladly help you out!

Don’t Take The Easy Way Out

Like said in last week’s teaching, there is no across-the-board prescription for financial management. It really comes down to the principals of the new covenant of Christ, not any law that we’re under. Those principals are summed up in Paul’s instructions to the early church:

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” – 2 Corinthians 9:7

So if you need help, ask. If you need to cut back, do it with wisdom (which I’ll explain in a second). However, I can challenge you with this from experience and assure you of it’s importance:

DON’T TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT!

Only you and the Holy Spirit can truly know if you’re needing help but do have a generous heart that really will give out of a place of strength if you get a bit of help to get there. Too often though, we tell ourselves this to justify taking the easy way out.

In reality we never ever get to the so-called “place of strength” because as you’ll see in a second, “strength” doesn’t have to be debt free. As said in the sermon last week, a steward can do well with little or much! You will work at giving and being generous no matter how much that entails.

Otherwise, we are always actually operating out of weakness, for self-indulgent purposes, which just leads to greater weakness no matter how much money you have.

The vital, life-changing, faith-growing importance of this is explained in the context of the previous verse on being a “cheerful giver”. Paul says,

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” (Quoting Ps 112)

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.
– 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

God’s “Surpassing Grace” Doesn’t Need You To Be Debt Free

The good news is that God is in the business of redeeming difficult (even impossible) situations, and paying fiercely shackling debts. He actually wrote the book on this.

I mean, we’re talking about a God who left the richest that rich can be to become poor as poor can be to be only to be completely rejected by us, who were in debt to him. Then still he generously paid off our debts that were so unfathomably, infinitely large that we couldn’t have paid them off even with an eternity of paying.

So, there is none better at handling a bit of debt and turning it into something amazingly good for everyone. 

I can honestly tell you from experience that if you say to God, “Alright God I’m going to need you to come through on this because I’m just trying to be like Jesus here and give more” that I believe he grins and says, “about time you ask me to do what I do”.

Paul wraps up this passage above by explaining that God makes his grace abound and be sufficient for you in every way so that others see it and “will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others.” (vs 13)

The Practical Wrap-Up For A Generous Person Who Isn’t Taking The Easy Way Out

While it’d be fun to end on the big pep-rally cry, it’s important to wrap up this long thought on a few practical matters that might be all you were looking for in the first place. Ha!

So here’s what my own opinion on what I would be looking for to recognize someone who is genuinely generous and working to a place of more generosity, pursuing God’s calling on their life (even, or especially, if they’re getting help to get there by not giving much to the church or the church giving to them).

1. You fully understand, profess, and can accurately explain the gospel.
I’m not saying you (or we as a church) shouldn’t help someone who doesn’t profess the gospel; I’m saying nobody will ever grow to be generous apart from self-serving motives without internalizing the gospel of Christ. It’s impossible.

So it’s important to discern if you’re giving handouts hoping they grasp the gospel or if you’re helping someone already in the body work to be more healthy so they can advance the gospel in greater ways. It’s as different as seeing if you can bring a twig on the ground to life versus watering and pruning a branch already attached to a healthy tree.

2. You are okay with being fully transparent and open to critiques with your finances.
This is the real kicker for most. I must ask myself, “Would I be okay with showing my accounts and records to pastor Jim, our elders, or, most importantly, the Holy Spirit over a cup of coffee?” If not, you can safely assume you’re not in this to get to a place of strength and greater generosity once free from your debt bondage.

A person with correct motives has nothing to hide, even if the reality isn’t pretty. They repent and change course willingly if needed and are happy to do so.

3. You have a known and detailed budget you carefully stick to.
For real; if you’re wanting out of debt and you’re not being mindful of a strict budget then you’re not wanting out of debt. You’re just wanting an easy and more self indulgent life. We don’t wake up different one day as a person, no matter how circumstance might change. If you’re already spending on stuff in irresponsible or ignorant ways, you’ll do it even more with more money. You’ll never get to a place of strength then.

Last month there were so many babies born in our church that my wife and I went over our budget for the meal train for the new mommas. My wife wanted to do this though, so we lowered our monthly giving to the church to compensate a bit. However, I could easily demonstrate, thanks to our budget and transparency, that we give generously and weren’t spending it on other junk for ourselves at all.

I love the amount of quality tools and apps at our disposal like Level Money and Mint for tracking dough and use them weekly! Do the work it takes to get on top of it, or you don’t really want to be.

4. You consistently model commitment to the church (and thus Christ) in multiple ways.
Generosity is not limited to finances. People who are low on funds can also give to the purpose of the church in time, energy, skills, and other resources. Sometimes, because of them doing this, it’s why they are low on funds!

I’ve been this person for most of my adult life. My wife and I, in four years of marriage, have yet to both work a full time job at the same time. I’m not sure it will ever happen. Part of this reason is because we’re constantly enthralled in the work of our church in many ways. It sucks up a lot of time and talents that could go to other things, and, I’d hope, make other money. This in turn allows others to do other things though, including earn and give money. I believe God blesses this generosity too and can attest to it personally.

Also, I know that if the authority over me said, “Riley, you’d serve this church better by getting a different job and giving a percent of that to the church so we could hire others”, then I’d happily do it. The motive is to serve the church and advance the gospel either way, not make excuses, hoard my money, or be lazy.

The nuances of the circumstances might look different for different people, but your life will show undeniable evidence of a commitment to the church and it’s work. If you’re truly trying to care for people like Jesus in better and stronger ways, it will show. No doubt.

5. Your generosity increases as it’s able and as you become more mature in Christ.
This is one I know some would argue, but then I’d quote them Jesus’s words from Luke 12:48: “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.” I’d return them to the first point and ask if they know the gospel. Forget ten percent Old Testament law; if we love our neighbor as ourselves as we’re told to, we should be giving away at least as much as we spend on ourselves, minimum! Still, forget 50% in light of Christ; he gave 100%!

A person who understands and grows in maturity of the gospel will increase in generosity. It’s inevitable. I can tell you that everyone who has ever inspired me spiritually, and especially in terms of finances and faith, their lives have shown they continually give more and more with each year. For most, I have come to learn as a matter of fact that they determined to increase financial giving with each year of their life.

I’m not inspired by people who become more wealthy and just give the same or spend more on themselves. Anyone can do that. That’s not a heart that understands the gospel or loves anyone else.

So to wrap up… Any person who is shackled in debt and looking to get out of it as quickly and strategically as possible for the sake of living a generous, gospel-centered life, will show at least these five characteristics in my opinion.

They demonstrate a person who knows why, how, and what they’re doing. That’s a person any church or individual would love to help, any day. That’s a person God will use in mighty ways to help others come to know the generous reality of the gospel and the treasure of Jesus Christ.

Then, it’s up to you to determine in your heart what you will give and give it joyfully and faithfully.


For more on this, or if you struggle with worrying about finances, be sure to catch the follow-up sermon, here: Seeking, Knowing, Showing, His Kingdom, Our Treasure, Luke 12:22-34, with Riley Voth and Dave Clauson

Riley Adam Voth

I'm a member of Rock Hill Church and enjoy web development, writing, strategizing, marketing, dreaming up new business ideas when I've had too much coffee, and developing ideas, people, and organizations. Occasionally, some of it works out by God's grace. I blog more about work at RileyAdamVoth.com (work-ish) ministry at Elasson.com (personal-ish) and my favorite hobby site for men at TheMajestysMen.com. Catch me on Twitter at @rileyadamvoth.