Borrowing

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Pro 22:7)

The majority of people in this country will borrow at some time in their lives. Students have to borrow nowadays to go to university unless their parents are rich enough to pay their expenses, and many people take out mortgages to buy their homes.

So borrowing affects a lot of people in our society, and I want to say from the outset that borrowing is not a sin. But the Bible does speak on the subject and, as students of God's Word, we need to know what the Bible teaches so we can live our lives accordingly.

Psa 119:105 says:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

That means that God's Word is here to guide us through life and to give us wisdom in the decisions we make.

Facts and figures

Firstly some facts about borrowing. This country is currently in the grip of a borrowing frenzy. Personal borrowing is at record levels and has been for a number of years.

The total UK personal debt at the end of November 2005 was £1.1 trillion (a trillion is a million million) and that debt mountain—and that is the only way to describe it—is continuing to increase at an average rate of £1m every four minutes.

The figures are reaching astronomical proportions. 2004 saw the largest single-year increase in personal debt (£116bn) since the Bank of England was founded in 1694.

However, we have to take into account that 83% of personal borrowing is for mortgage purposes and, as house prices have tripled in recent years, someone taking out a mortgage today will have to borrow three times as much as they would have done a few years ago.

But that still leaves £192.1bn of unsecured loans, such as overdrafts, credit card balances and the like, which is equivalent to £4,121 for every adult in the country. That is an increase of 10% on the previous year's figures and a 45% increase since 2000.

As depressing as these figures may seem, they are nevertheless the truth and we cannot ignore them. As the level of personal debt increases, so does the number of people with debt problems. Surveys show that money is the most common cause of arguments between couples—arguments about money accounting for 44% of quarrels.

Bankruptcy is also on the increase. From July to September 2005 there were a record 12,043 personal bankruptcies in the UK—an increase of 6% on the previous quarter, and 31% up on the same period in the previous year.1

Added to that, it is estimated that a quarter of those in debt are currently receiving treatment for stress, depression and anxiety from their GP. Debt is beginning to overwhelm some people.

So, if borrowing is the cause of so many problems, is borrowing wrong? Let's look at what the Bible says.

Owe no one anything

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. (Rom 13:8)

A more literal translation of the first part of that verse is: 'Owe no one anything… (ESV).' Does that mean that Christians shouldn't borrow? I don't think so.

Scripture verses should be viewed in the context in which they are written because they usually refer to the subject matter that surrounds them. Those words follow on from the previous verse, which reads:

Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. (Rom 13:7)

V8 expands v7. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't borrow, but that if we have a debt we should pay it. I believe in paying bills as soon as I receive them, providing I have the means to do so. I owe that money and the people I owe it to are asking me for it.

Many companies have gone bankrupt because of late payment of bills. If people hold back on paying their bills it can force a company into liquidation. If I hold back payment of a bill when I have the means to pay it I am not acting in love, and loving our fellow man is the fulfilment of the Law (Rom 13:8b).

Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you and you will be guilty of sin. (Deu 24:14–15)

Even though companies cannot be poor as individuals can be poor, they rely on people paying their bills to run their businesses and to pay their staff. These instructions were given under the Law, but they are principles that do not change because they are based on love.

Don't hold money back that you owe someone, whether it's a local tradesman, a multi-national company, or a friend. If you owe someone something then give them what you owe them as soon as you can. That is how God wants us to live.

Be willing to lend

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Mat 5:42)

If it was wrong for Christians to borrow Jesus could have made it clear from that statement, but he didn't. We should give to those who ask us and lend to those who want to borrow from us, and that includes fellow Christians.

Under the Law, the Jews were allowed to charge interest to a foreigner who borrowed from them, but not to a fellow Jew (Deu 23:19–20). In the same way, if a Christian wants to borrow from us we shouldn't profit from it.

However, we need to be discerning in our giving and lending. The instruction to give to those who ask us, and to lend to those who want to borrow from us is a principle, rather than something that must be obeyed in all circumstances.

If a group of youths came up to you and said: 'Can we borrow your car please?' You shouldn't say: 'I'm a Christian and Jesus said that we shouldn't turn away from those who want to borrow from us.'

If you gave them the keys, you probably wouldn't see your car again. Jesus said that if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into (Luk 12:39).'

Jesus doesn't want us to be a soft touch for every thief and vagabond on the street. The money and possessions we have belong to the Lord and we should be Spirit-led in our giving and lending—even to other Christians.

A Christian who asks you for something may not be speaking by the Holy Spirit, but from themselves. If we pray about the request, then we'll be giving them what the Lord wants them to have, which is the most important thing.

Reasons for borrowing

At the beginning I wrote about the increasing problems that are being caused by borrowing in this country, but it's not borrowing, as such, that is the cause of the problems, it's excessive borrowing that is the cause.

If I borrowed £10 from someone, it wouldn't cause me any problems, but if I borrowed £10,000 from someone, there could be problems. The problems occur when we borrow in excess of our ability to repay, and at this point we should look at why people borrow.

1. Ease of borrowing

One of the reasons so many people borrow nowadays—and often borrow to excess—is because it's become increasingly easy to do so.

Make no mistake about it, lending money is a profitable business, so profitable that companies are falling over each other to lend us money—hence the constant stream of offers for loans and credit cards that pour through our letterbox week by week.

Even with increasing levels of bankruptcy and bad debts, lenders still make big profits because they control the interest rates.

If bad debts increase, they put up the interest rates to compensate and, unless you've taken out a fixed rate loan, there's nothing you can do about it. As our opening text says: 'The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender.'

2. Buying a home

Another reason people borrow is to buy a home. Even though you will pay a large amount of interest if you allow the mortgage to run to its full term, the property will eventually belong to you. Whereas if you rent a property, you may pay almost the same amount in rent each month, but have nothing to show for it at the end.

So, if you can afford a mortgage, it usually makes sound economic sense to take out a mortgage. If you don't keep up the repayments your home may be repossessed, but if you fall into arrears with your rent you are liable to be evicted as well. Neither is without risk.

3. Paying for necessities

17% of personal debt is taken up by overdrafts, credit card balances and other loans. The reasons people take out these loans are varied. Sometimes poor people borrow to provide necessities for themselves. We find an example of that in Neh 5:1–5. In my view, it's not wrong for Christians to borrow to pay for essentials, but it should only be done as the Spirit leads.

4. Living beyond our means

Some people borrow because they're not content to live within their means. We're constantly being bombarded with advertisements that entice us to buy the latest this, or the most modern that, or to go on the holiday we deserve. And then, when the loan offer pops through the door, it shows us how we can do these things and achieve our dreams.

Loans can be marketed in such a way as to make you think that the money belongs to you. But you spend it and then have to pay it back, because the money does not belong to you and has never belonged to you: it belongs to someone else and they want it back.

And, while you're repaying the loan, unless your income increases, your disposable income—ie the amount that's available for you to spend on everyday items—will decrease. In effect you're having to take a cut in salary until your loan is repaid.

5. Impatience

Borrowing is often fuelled by impatience. A person wants something and they want it now. They can't wait to save up for it, even if it's going to cost them more in the long run.

The Bible says that patience is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). If patience is a fruit of God's indwelling Spirit, then man can't possess much patience in his natural self. The gifts of the Spirit are given instantaneously, but the fruits of the Spirit (including patience) take time to grow.

6. Envy

Some people borrow because of envy, which is a desire to have what others have got.

And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbour. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecc 4:4)

God, who understands the human heart infinitely better than we do, tells us that envy is a powerful motivating force in the world.

Envy is a feeling of resentful longing aroused by another person's better fortune. In other words: 'I feel upset because I haven't got what you've got.' Then along comes the loan offer and we say: 'Hey, look at this—we can have a new kitchen like our neighbour's, and we can have it now. Let's take out this loan!'

In my opinion, it's not wrong to borrow when you can't afford essentials, but many people are borrowing nowadays to provide themselves with luxuries. They do that because borrowing has become easy and acceptable.

Return what you borrow

We've been looking at borrowing only from the perspective of borrowing money, but any of us could find ourselves in the position of having to borrow a physical item at any time. If we find ourselves in that position, the Bible teaches that we should respect what we borrow and return it to its owner.

The company of the prophets said to Elisha, 'Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to live.' And he said, 'Go.' Then one of them said, 'Won't you please come with your servants?' 'I will,' Elisha replied. And he went with them.

They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axe-head fell into the water. 'Oh, my lord,' he cried out, 'it was borrowed!'

The man of God asked, 'Where did it fall?' When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. 'Lift it out,' he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it. (2Ki 6:1–7)

Why has God put this into his Word? It tells us that God wants us to respect what we borrow from people and to return it to them. Elisha could have said: 'Don't worry about it. Just tell the person it was an accident and say you're sorry,' but he didn't.

The man who had lost the axe head was a prophet: he was a godly man. He was a servant of the living God and was very concerned that he'd lost something that belonged to someone else. And God performed a miracle so he could return it to its owner. That shows that God wants us to return the property we borrow from people.

Christians should not be lax in returning borrowed items. I believe we should respect what we've borrowed and return it as soon as possible, unless we've been given instructions to the contrary. Psa 37:21 says that the wicked borrow and do not repay. That covers the borrowing of physical items as well as the borrowing of money.

How many items do we have in our homes that we've borrowed from others and haven't returned? We may have genuinely forgotten about them, but God doesn't forget. It's other people's property we have in our homes. 'Can I borrow?' doesn't mean: 'Thank you, it's now mine.' 'Can I borrow?' means: 'I will return it to you.'

This can be a serious problem in the Church. We often wonder why our prayers aren't being answered. Israel couldn't stand against its enemies because Achan had something in his tent that shouldn't have been there (Jos 7:1–26). Returning what we've borrowed is a righteous act, and James says that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (Jam 5:16b).

Similarly, If we've borrowed money from someone we should pay them what we owe them, otherwise we'll be guilty of wickedness. For that reason I cannot see how bankruptcy can be an option for Christians.

But, if we've borrowed excessively and haven't the means to repay, what should we do? We should begin by confessing what we've done to the Lord and then praying that we'll be able to repay what we've borrowed.

There are four things to remember here:

Lordship

When we give our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ, we should give him our all—not only ourselves, but also our wealth and our possessions as well—we should lay everything at his feet.

The Bible teaches that everything we have comes from God (1Ch 29:14) and therefore belongs to him (Job 41:11). We are merely stewards of that which he has entrusted to us, so our financial decisions should be made before the Lord.

The story goes that a pastor had been instructing his congregation about the meaning of baptism: how we are buried through baptism into Christ's death, so we can be raised with him and live a new life (Rom 6:4).

As one of his flock approached to be baptized, the pastor noticed that his wallet was sticking out of his back pocket. He leant forward and whispered, 'Do you know you've left your wallet in your pocket?' The man replied, 'Yes, I know, that's got to die as well!'

It's possible for money and possessions to have a powerful hold on a Christian's life. Jesus said that no one can serve both God and Money (Mat 6:24). We have to choose who (or what) we're going to serve in this world.

Borrow as little as possible

My advice to Christians is that they should borrow as little as possible and repay their loans as soon as possible. In that way they will pay the least amount of interest on the loan. That makes sound economic sense.

When you borrow you're paying more for your goods than is necessary. Not only are you paying for the article, you're putting money into the lender's pocket at the same time. In this way the gap between rich and poor widens: the rich (who lend) get richer and the poor (who borrow) get poorer.

God told his people in the Old Testament that if they obeyed his laws they would lend to many nations but would borrow from none (Deu 28:1,12). If you're a lender, rather than a borrower, you pay less for your goods because you don't have to borrow to purchase them. Not only that, but someone is giving you money for the privilege of borrowing from you.

Be led of the Spirit

However, our financial decisions should not be made purely on the basis of logic and sound sense. Pro 3:5–6 says:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.

If we give our lives totally to the Lord, he may lead us down paths that we wouldn't expect or choose for ourselves. But if he does, there will always be a reason for it, and it will ultimately be for our good.

Sometimes it's difficult to discern the Lord's will with respect to financial decisions, but if we keep praying then answers will come. If the purchase of an item will take us into debt, we need to ask ourselves whether we really need it. Can we make do with what we've got for a little longer? Must we have this thing now, or can we wait until we've saved up for it?

Often our purchases are merely fleshly desires that come from living in a materialistic world, rather than led of the Spirit. But if we submit ourselves to God, his desires will be made clear to our hearts.

Most of what the Bible teaches about debt and borrowing is wisdom rather than commands. However, as God's people, he expects us to take his wisdom into our hearts and apply it to our lives.

And finally, on a personal note, our opening text states that the borrower is servant to the lender. I don't want to serve lenders on this earth, I want to serve God. How about you?

Michael Graham
January 2006

1 Source: themoneycharity.org.uk

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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