The Spiritual Impact of Debt

In all the parishes we have visited all over the world, there have only been two or three times when the priest gave a homily on responsible spending and the benefits of avoiding debt. But when he did preach on that subject, he had the full, rapt attention of the congregation.

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After all, money is something we deal with every day. We are either working to earn money, spending money, planning how to spend money, or using something on which we have spent money. Money is a big part of our daily life, and too often a large part of how we handle money includes debt.

Many churches don’t talk about personal finances unless there is a need for increased giving. Yet the spiritual impact of debt is clear:

  • Financial challenges can ruin marriages, leading to divorce.
  • A family wants to send the kids to Catholic school, but can’t afford the tuition because there are other places where their money is committed.
  • Vocations get postponed because many religious orders or diocesan vocations offices will not accept candidates who have student loan debt.
  • People feel like they can’t be generous givers because their debt is overwhelming. 

In the seemingly affluent United States, out-of-control debt is sort of a quiet monster. We are discovering something that Sirach talked about around the time of 200 B.C. Sirach lived in Jerusalem with all of its trade and travelers. He realized that “a man may buy much for little, but pay for it seven times over” (Sirach 20:11).

And paying seven times over is what happens to us when we buy stuff using credit cards that never get completely paid off. Debt that just keeps growing is first of all a money problem, but it can become a spiritual problem too, as debt drags us into slavery.

Overwhelming debt can make people feel isolated, embarrassed, and alone. When creditors call day after day, stress will eat away at peace of mind. Debt can make people feel depressed and powerless. 

One of the most amazing things about America’s growing difficulty with debt is what kind of people fall into the pit. Without paying attention to where the money is going, it could easily happen to anyone. There is no common thread among those who get into financial trouble. People with six-figure incomes can get into debt trouble as easily as someone whose income is much less.

People run up their credit cards month by month. In the short term, there really isn’t much pain. Minimum payments are easy to make. Then the balance balloons out of control and the interest rates and late fees hammer them, and suddenly the monthly payments don’t even touch the principal.

Spiritual questions about overspending include why people do it, and if they ever reach a point where they feel like they have enough. If we keep spending and spending and if we can’t afford it, it’s a huge spiritual issue. It means we don’t trust God to provide what we need and we are looking elsewhere for fulfillment.

Pope John Paul II, in a 1998 homily, described consumerism as a false antidote to spiritual emptiness. “Christ alone can free [us] from what enslaves [us] to evil and selfishness: from the frantic search for material possessions, from the thirst for power and control over others and over things, from the illusion of easy success, from the frenzy of consumerism and hedonism which ultimately destroy the human being,” the late pope said.

Consumerism can be an addiction. Your consumerism can consume you just as much as other pursuits can, and that’s not helpful to your pocketbook much less your soul.

The way we spend our money is an expression of our faith. We spend our money, time and thoughts on the things which are most important to us. Stop and think for a minute—what are your priorities? Over the last month, where did you spend your time, money and thoughts? Those are your priorities.

How you spend your money is an indication of how you integrate your faith into every aspect of your life. Getting out of debt means intentionally deciding not to define yourself based on what you own.

That’s not to say that spending is inherently wrong, or that treating yourself to some nice things is bad. But how much you buy depends on how much you can afford, and that is a reflection of your values.

It’s amazing how content we can be living a very simple life if we would only make the effort to do it. 

There is a parable about a man who had an abundant harvest and didn’t have enough space in his barn to store all his grain. He decides to tear down the barn and build a larger one. That same evening the man dies, showing the futility of putting our faith into material possessions.

People who have dragged their way out of debt say not owing money gives them a sense of joy, freedom and gratitude to God. They live out their understanding that everything they have is a  GIFT from God.  With that understanding comes thankfulness and peace, along with a sense that God will provide for them in good times and bad.

Everything that we have, including our money and possessions ultimately comes from God, not our own efforts. As Paul reiterated in Acts 17:25,  “it is [God] who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.” When you realize this, it suddenly became a lot easier to escape from the grasp of consumerism and quit trying to fill the void by accumulating more stuff. 

“To be full of things is to be empty of God.  To be empty of things is to be full of God.” (Meister Eckhart) 

The Compass Catholic podcast shares more about the spiritual impact of debt.

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