The benefit of massive debt

You’d think that debt is a concept with which we are immensely comfortable. Want a new F-150? No problem. It can be yours for 72 payments of $1,000.00. New house? That’s $2,000.00 per month for 30 years. Oh, you wanted the gated community . . . make that $2,250.00 per month. You want your kids to go to college don’t you? I mean, come on, that major in sociology will pay them a cool $30K per year, so $60,000.00 in student debt should suffice. Let’s start them out right. In debt. Like the rest of us.

Debt is weird. It changes the hard-wiring of our brains in the much the same way that a horse’s mindset must be changed when he hears the driver’s whip constantly cracking the air immediately behind his head. It drives us for as long as we have it. It becomes one of our prime motivators for functioning. For going to work. For seeking the next promotion. For threatening our fellow man, even. And, considering that we’re born into a culture that adores it, you’d think we wouldn’t fight against it. In most cases, we don’t. In fact, if debt could be smoked, eaten, or drunk, we’d probably do it. But there is one form of debt that we really hate. We hate it so much, that even though every one of us carries our own variety of it, many will deny that it exists.

Imagine your debt. Triple it. Now cut your salary in half. You’re stuck. You’ll never pay it off. Imagine that bankruptcy can’t erase it. Imagine the weight of it. The dread. The permanent stain that it leaves on every single aspect of your life and existence . . . your daily decisions for eating or vacationing or planning for the future. Now imagine that a benefactor pays it off. Someone you’ve never met, who out of pure generosity, frees you from it. Why would they do that? Now, how do you feel? Relief? Sure, you do. What if, after paying off your debt, they said, “Come, follow me”? Wouldn’t you at least be intrigued and tempted to do it? Wouldn’t you be the least bit curious about this stranger? Even if your benefactor looked and acted like a weirdo and wanted the same of you?

Many, many years ago, long before our current histories of Reformations and various events that point to division in the church, we had a pretty clear picture as to how we were to live. In America, in the 21st century, the unfortunate prevailing message of the church appears to be 1) “Jesus died to make you happy” and 2) “Jesus died so that you could have a bunch of stuff”. One of my favorite messages comes from a Syrian named Isaac who lived in the first millennium Church. He said “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.” I love this quote. This quote, as much as any scripture I’ve read, has had a profound impact on my life and my faith. Of course, for this to have affected me that way it has, I first had to believe that I was in trouble. And I was in trouble.

So, let’s reflect on the debt from earlier. Imagine that it is infinitely huge. Literally, infinitely huge. No amount of money can pay it off. Denying that it exists doesn’t make it go away. Seeking relief from a different creditor won’t erase it. It’s infinite. It can’t be fixed. You can’t make enough money. That’s the trouble that we’re in. Of course I’m talking about sin. This is a very unpopular thing to talk about. Many people, even some in the church, don’t like talking about sin. That doesn’t make it go away. If I tell God, “X isn’t a sin,” God says, “Yes it is. But if you don’t like X, then let me show you A through W. They are also sins, and you’re guilty of them, too. And, like X, they are infinitely huge and you can’t fix them.” So my next course of action, naturally, is to say, “Well fine, then I don’t believe in sin” to which God replies, “I do. And what I believe matters more than what you believe. I’m God. That’s the way it works.”

This is where most people will leave Christianity behind. I’m not so naïve as to believe that I possess the writing prowess to convince an unbeliever that they are in error with this simple illustration. This is simply the nature of things. All I know is that most won’t accept this. They’ll deny their sin problem or they’ll attempt to reason their way out of it, but this life calls for repentance which, I guess, begins with believing what God says about us and our sin. Namely, that it’s a problem, it’s stuck all over us and, and we have to get rid of it, but are unable, on our own, to do so. So, Jesus did it for us. Simple. It’s done.

It’s at this point, I think, that modern Christianity loses focus. “Jesus died for me. That’s nice.” But what about the life of repentance? What does that even mean? Don’t we remember how big the debt pile was that Jesus erased? It was HUGE. Infinitely huge. Why aren’t we more grateful? Now look, I believe in Grace in every sense of the word, which means that I believe Jesus did this regardless of anything that I had ever done or would ever do. But I also believe that if I really think about my now-erased debt pile, I’ll act a little bit more grateful. As in, I’ll attempt to live in such a way that would please my benefactor. As in, I’ll attempt to live a life of gratitude . . . or repentance.

Well, what does that look like? Living in the desert with 12 dudes and waiting for my own execution? No, not quite. Maybe it looks like not getting angry with my wife as often, because my motives are usually selfish anyway. Or maybe not hating people with a different political opinion, or not hating people who won’t go to work, or not hating people who want me dead. Maybe it means not celebrating the death of my perceived enemies or celebrating when someone bad “gets theirs.” Or not intentionally antagonizing someone just to watch them squirm for my own enjoyment. Or maybe it means going out of my way to look my son in the eye and tell him that I love him no matter what, and actually meaning it, with no strings attached. It might look like not worrying about having 3 legs of the retirement stool in place, as I am apt to do . . . at 2:00 in the morning. Or it might look like loving someone who is very different than me and who will never share my beliefs about Jesus. Maybe it means learning to pray for the friend I used to have who threatened to sue me and meaning the things I pray and meaning them so much that when I hear good news about him, I can be genuinely happy. Or simply not holding a grudge. Or being gracious when I receive unsolicited criticism. Or digging deeper to work harder for an employer who trusts me. Or, at the end of the day, engaging in any action or thought or motive that truly honors what Jesus said about our lives and that denies my own feelings of entitlement.

This way of thinking stands in nearly complete opposition from what we’re taught from birth. Our culture says, “Value independence.” Jesus says, “Depend upon me.”

Culture: “Liberty is the ideal.”

Jesus: “Everyone has a Master.”

Culture: “I tried to be nice and got burned.”

Jesus: “Try again.”

Culture: “You’ve worked hard and done your time. You’re entitled to more.”

Jesus: “You’re entitled to nothing.”

Culture: “I’ve basically been a good person.”

Jesus: “Who are you?”

Culture: “It’s harmless.”

Jesus: “It’s poison.”

Culture: “I’m looking for my soulmate.”

Jesus: “That’s a made-up word.”

Culture: “I have a chance to make more money.”

Jesus: “Do you need more money?”

Culture: “He hates me wants to hurt me.”

Jesus: “Love him. Pray for him.”

Culture: “I want my kids to be successful.”

Jesus: “I want your kids to love me more than anything else.”

Culture: “I am a self-made man.”

Jesus: “You had help.”

Culture: “Don’t you want me to be happy?”

Jesus: “Where are you looking for happiness?”

Is it any wonder that there’s a mass of confusion around Christianity? Any atheist who picks up the Bible and opens to Matthew will, pretty quickly, come across text that basically challenges the American dream or what most TV preachers are teaching — especially those who unabashedly adhere to a specific political party — and what most believers are believing. It’s no wonder we’re mocked by unbelievers. I find it hard to resent them for taking the Bible more literally than I have for most of my life. An oft-maligned entertainer, Bill Maher, once hysterically stated (and I’m paraphrasing) that you can’t call yourself a christian if you ignore everything taught by Christ. I have found that I have to be extra careful when speaking with Christian friends about Christ’s teachings, as they are more likely than unbelievers to take offense to his model for living. The idea of a life of continual repentance and perpetual debt certainly stands in opposition to the ideals of individualism. A life of repentance, I think, ultimately means evaluating and re-evaluating every single aspect of my life — especially the areas that I hold as sacred — and comparing them with the new measuring stick that Jesus gave us in light of His enormous debt forgiveness. And when I fall short, I ought to begin making changes because my debt was infinitely huge and it’s been paid. Paying my un-payable debt was the hard part. No matter how much I think I’m owed, I owe far more. And in light of that gift, the easy part ought to be living like I’m grateful for it. Even when it makes me look like a weirdo.