Some implications of debt I didn’t see coming

The why and how of our student loan debt is a long story, but after treading water for a few years in Arizona (not adding much debt, but not paying any off), we gulped at the unbelievably large number. I insisted, desperately, that the figure had to be wrong. We couldn’t possibly owe this much money! After confirming its accuracy, I tried to rehash exactly how we had gotten there, which was futile and sickening.

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I had read The Total Money Makeover a year earlier, but hadn’t applied its principles. By the time Mike started his job in South Carolina, high monthly payments were just a few months away. I started listening to Dave Ramsey on the radio and we enrolled in an online version of Financial Peace University.

Mike and I didn’t really fight about money before, but we didn’t successfully communicate, either. FPU helped us clarify the why and how of our financial goals. We really appreciated the biblical backdrop of the course, which helped us see biblical financial principles beyond giving.

We fully believe that debt is an emotional and spiritual burden. We’ve rejected the cultural tolerance for long term debt of all kinds in favor of God’s simple way: “owe no man anything, but to love one another” (Romans 13:8).

Dave Ramsey emphasizes the importance of working hard and sacrificing to pay off debt, which I wholeheartedly embraced. Early in our marriage, we leaned on God in a way that we called believing, but was really a lack of diligence. We always worked hard and gave faithfully, so we didn’t realize our subtle but costly spending errors.

Embracing the idea of hyper diligence and increased sacrifice felt good to me, but for the wrong reasons. Instead of a change in direction based on better understanding, it became a sort of penance. I struggled to face debt without feeling deficient, even though I intellectually knew I was spiritually whole.

I didn’t believe I owed God anything, but I did feel better or worse about myself based on how much money we paid toward debt each month. Instead of asking God to help us achieve a goal clearly aligned with His Word, I was working really hard to do it on my own.

I knew He cared, and I knew He wasn’t holding it against me, but since the debt was our fault I felt a heavy, oppressive urgency to clear it. I didn’t feel like debt was keeping me from relationship with Him, but it was. 

Jesus said you can’t serve God and money, which is true no matter the amount. A high income or net worth can consume a person’s identity, but so can debt. I’m enslaved by even the worthiest goal if my self worth depends on it.

I expected that the sacrifice, the constant delineation between wants and needs, and delayed gratification would be difficult while we focused on debt. I didn’t anticipate the identity issues I’ve faced. I didn’t expect to grapple with grace and forgiveness. I didn’t know the sinking feeling of owing so much would help me internalize the weight of what Jesus paid.

I’ve run through the emotions I’d feel if someone wrote a check to pay off all of our debt for us. It’s an overwhelming combination of elation, gratitude, and a reverential fear that accompanies the first steps into something new and wonderful.

But it is such a small thing compared to the first steps into new life: “…Having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)

I look at our loan balance, and I look at this verse – and I am intoxicated with the elated, grateful, reverential fear that is due Him.

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