Several years ago at my specialty society convention, I hailed a contemporary of mine, who quickly backed me into a corner and started peppering me with questions.
"I heard that you were retiring to do missionary work. How can you retire at your age? Does mission work pay that well?"
"No, it doesn't pay well at all," I responded. "I am going as an unpaid volunteer, working for the Lord."
My colleague then pushed me further into the corner and dissected my financial life and history, wanting to know every detail about my pension fund, the value of my home, the buyout arranged with my partners and so on.
"Why is this so important to you?" I asked, somewhat bewildered by the doctor's aggressiveness in relation to my private affairs.
"I am older than you are and I want to retire, too," my colleague said. "The fact is, I can't retire. I don't have a cent."
Thinking that my colleague was needling me, I asked, "What about your retirement plan?
"I never funded my plan."
"What about your savings and investments?"
"My 'ex' took half of all I owned. I wasted most of the rest at the country club. The truth is, I get up and go to work every morning because I have to, not because I want to. And I hate every minute of it."
I winced, thinking about being operated on by an oral surgeon with such an attitude toward work. I had always admired this colleague's sophistication, poise, good looks and athleticism. Because I had a rough idea of the money that had passed through this doctor's hands during at least a thirty-year career, I found it hard to believe that nothing was left. I have since discovered that this story is not so rare. In fact, it is devastatingly common and a real tragedy.
When a Christian tells this kind of story, it is doubly tragic because the Scriptures have so much to say about money and its management. Moreover, as believers in, and followers of, Jesus Christ, we are obligated to search the Scriptures and adjust our attitudes and actions so that they are in accord with what the Bible teaches. Following biblical principles certainly should lead to solvency and financial independence after a lifetime of earning.
Attitudes about Money
First, we need to understand that money is nothing more than a medium of exchange. It is a wonderful convenience, certainly, when compared with bartering goods for goods and commodities for commodities. You put the cash in your pocket instead of taking home bales of cotton or a barrel of flour.
Money is a means to an end. It allows us to purchase the necessities of life. Unfortunately, for many people, money and its acquisition becomes an end in itself. When this happens such people have already strayed from the teachings of Scripture.
The Satisfied Class
Paul the Apostle, writing to Timothy, described three classes of people in relation to their attitudes about material things. First, there are those with few possessions, who are satisfied with what they have: "For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (1 Timothy 6:6). This group (and Paul places himself within it) consists of those who are not rich. To them he says, "Don't follow the false teaching that godliness is a means to financial gain." The truth is that godliness with contentment is of more worth than a lot of money that has no eternal value.
Those Who Want to Get Rich
The second group consists of those who want to get rich (verse 9). They are prone to let their appetites for the foolish and harmful things that money can buy pull them into a trap that brings ruin and destruction their way. They seem to develop a love for money that becomes a root of evil, leading them to do real harm to themselves and to wander away from their faith-the only asset that will not pass away.
Those Who Are Rich
Those who are rich in this present world comprise Paul's third group (verses 17-19). He warns them not to be arrogant, nor to put their hope in wealth—wealth can quickly disappear—but to put their hope in God, who is eternal and quite capable of supplying all our needs. Rich Christians should be generous and willing to share their money. Rich Christians should be busy doing good deeds, not just buying things to gratify themselves. Rich Christians ought to be laying up treasure as a firm foundation for eternity, and in doing so their values will be solidly based: "that they might take hold of the life that is truly life" (1 Timothy 6:19).
You're All Three
Most of us fit in all three categories. Very few of us consider ourselves rich. We know that we can't take our possessions with us when we die, so we are somewhat content with food and shelter. However, we wouldn't mind having a little more, whether to pay tuition for our children or to buy something we really don't need but which "we deserve for working so hard." And probably all of us are very rich by the world's standards. We have options. Most of the world does not. That makes us rich, and it is our obligation to share generously and to do good works, not for our salvation, but as a means of truly enjoying both this life and the next.
How to Live Debt-Free
If debt is so confining, if it limits options for a carefree, service-oriented present and future, what is the secret to living debt-free?
A professional colleague asked me to speak at a conference he was arranging for a group of Christian health professionals in his community. "I attended one of your seminars and used your study guide for devotions with my wife," he said. "We are living debt-free for the first time in our lives. We can't get over the burden that has rolled off our shoulders. We are free to serve the Lord and finance our own teaching ministries in the Third World. What a blessing we are experiencing! We want to share it with others."
This is not an isolated incident. This particular colleague told me that he and his wife had never considered the possibility of paying off loans. They just kept plodding through the monthly payments and kept on borrowing with their credit card. Our society is so debt-oriented that no one had told this young family that an early goal for them should be debt-free living.
Following are several steps that will help you take charge of your financial situation so that you are proactive and in control:
Set Financial Goals
Without targets you will achieve nothing. Short-term goals of one or two years might include the elimination of all credit-card debt, saving a certain amount based on present or future educational needs for your children and the establishment of a spending plan to help organize and apportion income and expenses. Long-term goals might include the funding of pension plans and IRAs, the purchase of a new automobile, the preparation of a will and estate plan with a charitable remainder trust, organization of giving through a private foundation, development of a business interest and inquiries into missions service, either foreign or domestic.Once you've established goals, you can identify objectives to help reach them in an organized, measurable manner. Objectives are like signposts or checkpoints along the route of a marathon, for they break the task into achievable segments. As we achieve each objective, we build confidence that makes the next objective more easily attainable.
Develop a Spending Plan
A spending plan organizes the family's finances so expenditures do not exceed income. Priorities ensure that essential obligations are met first; desires come after needs. Living according to priorities and with a spending plan, one realizes quickly whether sufficient income is present to support a particular lifestyle. If lifestyle outstrips income, major downsizing adjustments must be made. The reward of making these adjustments is financial freedom.
Most of the Christian financial management books found in a Christian bookstore have forms that you may use to develop such a plan. One of the most important steps is to list your expenditures in the order of your priorities.
Here is a workable sample:
- Payment of loans, interest and principal
- Living expenses: housing, food, automobiles, insurance, recreation, etc.
Living expenses should be allocated according to a workable formula, which can be derived by using the charts in a financial planning book. If you're spending too much on housing or automobile payments or clothing, lifestyle adjustments must be made. Keeping in mind the reward—good provision for the family, orderly finances and a future free from obsession with financial problems—will provide powerful motivation to endure difficult adjustments until new behavior patterns become habitual.
Discipline will be necessary. You will be tempted to deviate from the plan. A Bible school professor once said, "First the testimony; then the test." Once you've decided to pursue a debt-free lifestyle, it will never be harder. As with the establishment of any budget, shopping list, or financial plan, impulse or point-of-purchase buying becomes a trap. One will have to do without, as strange as that may sound in our debt-tolerant society. The plan will only be as sound as the discipline exerted to adhere to it.
Control the Credit Card
In order to adhere to a financial plan, you must control spending, not be controlled by it. You should do all shopping with a list and a resolve to not succumb to extras. Furthermore, the person in your family with the most self-control should do the shopping. Credit cards have become even more dangerous as it's become easy to use them at grocery stores. It's just too convenient to overspend. The bottom line is, if you can't control credit card spending, you'll have to destroy the card and replace it with a debit card, which deducts the amount of purchase directly (and speedily) from your checking account.
Thoughts on Borrowing
Borrowing money is a spiritual matter. All material resources belong to God, and borrowing involves the use of material resources. Borrowing must be taken seriously and should be considered with prayer and spiritual counsel, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Here are some recommendations:
- Borrow money only with serious deliberation (and full understanding and agreement between husband and wife, if married).
- Never borrow for spending on consumable goods.
- Never borrow on a credit card. Credit card interest rates are the highest charged and, in some cases, are usurious.
Borrowing should never be predicated on whether or not you can make the monthly payments. In many cases credit-card repayment is structured so that the monthly payment does not include all the interest charged that month, so as to charge interest on accumulating interest, enriching only the credit-card lender. You should have a clear understanding of the devastating effects of compound interest working against you.
On the other hand:
- Borrowing to buy a home in which the value of the house is more than the total borrowed (if, in other words, the loan is secured by the value of the house) generally makes sense, especially in a rising real-estate market. But even in this instance, if the real-estate market is deteriorating, the down payment should more than cover any potential deficiency between the sale price and the mortgage, should the house have to be sold.
- Borrowing to set up a practice or for a business venture is also sensible if good value is received. However, one must be on guard against the recent practice of banks to have each partner in a venture personally guarantee the full value of the loan against his or her own personal financial assets. If a real-estate venture loses value greater than the amounts borrowed, for example, the bank can and will seek full satisfaction for the "deficiencies" from each partner's personal holdings. This exposure can completely upset the financial plans of the unsuspecting.
I have alluded to giving several times in this article. It is such an important part of the faith disciplines of the Christian life that I would like to make several points regarding it. First, I know from longtime experience that giving is a discipline that brings much blessing, joy and spiritual fruit. I was fortunate to be brought up in a family that practiced giving as a high priority, and I developed the giving habit early in life. Therefore it is difficult for me to be objective about giving. But experience—and the Bible—don't lie: "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).
That leads to my second point: Scripture clearly and firmly describes financial guidelines for the believer. All of us must study the kinds of giving described in the Bible and decide for ourselves what is appropriate in our own lives. Frankly, this issue is really between the Lord and us. Christ knows our hearts and sees our performance. We are answerable to Him. The amount of teaching devoted to this topic confirms that it is important to Him.
The four types of tithing described below allow flexibility and different levels of growth as we mature in our faith. At various times many believers known to me have used all of these, and sometimes combinations of two or more of them.
This teaching involves bringing the tithe to the storehouse, God's house, in order to support the temple, the priests and to care for the poor. Most interpret the amount of tithe to be at least 10 percent or as much as 38 percent based on the Law. Many believers conclude that the temple for us is represented by the local church and that our tithe should be given there. Support for parachurch ministries should come from anything given after the tithe.1 Many Christians argue about tithing, stating that it is outdated because it is based on the Law. But I have never met anyone who adhered to this method of giving who has not experienced the blessing promised in verse ten. Furthermore, we must be careful that, having objected to the legalism of this passage, we respond appropriately to the grace and freedom, which are the spirit of giving in the New Testament.
In response to the physical needs of fellow Christians in a time of famine, "The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help." The implication is that those who had more gave more, maybe more than a "legalistic" 10 percent.
Generous, Cheerful Giving
2 Corinthians 8:2-3 and 9:6-8
The Macedonian believers gave to their fellows in Jerusalem even though they were enduring severe trials and extreme poverty themselves. Their giving "overflowed with joy" and "welled up in rich generosity." This implies that the Macedonians gave more than 10 percent of what must have been a very meager income.
In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul makes it clear that our giving ought to be not only generous, but also cheerful. This is the demonstration of grace that God develops in us, grace that gives substance, meaning and fruitfulness to our good works. There is a warning against giving reluctantly, grudgingly or out of a sense of duty. When our financial house is in order, when we are not beset by problems of debt and mismanagement, it is much easier to give out of a sense of blessing and with great joy—yet another reason to strive for debt-free living.
2 Corinthians 8:3
This form of giving started in the independent missions movement to support foreign missionaries. One verse in 2 Corinthians 8 describes the Macedonian Christians as having given "even beyond their ability." In Faith-Promise Giving, a person promises to give more to God than previously, not knowing where the funds will come from, but trusting the Lord to supply that which has been promised. Many people, including me, can testify to God's marvelous provision when we have promised to give by faith.
Guidelines for Giving
The following guidelines have helped me establish a routine for giving. I review them when I find myself feeling indifferent, irritated or distracted about sharing my financial rewards freely:
Give Yourself First
Follow the example of the Macedonian believers who did this very thing (2 Corinthians 8:5). Be willing to stay and use your spiritual gifts and your training to grow the local church and help bring it to maturity. Be willing to go to use your profession to relieve physical needs and as a vehicle for introducing people to the love of Christ.
Give According to Your Own Agreement with God
In order to be responsible and accurate in determining the amount you decide to give, keep - and review often - good records. Carefully-kept records are a key to maintaining accountability before God and they allow us to easily adjust our current situation when we have more or less than anticipated income. As well, we ought to take full advantage of the tax laws as they encourage charitable activities by private institutions in order to spare government of further involvement in addressing human needs. Good records are also essential to verify tax-deductibility.
Tithe First and Tithe the Whole
Develop the habit of writing your tithe check as the first payment made for the pay period. Tithe on before-tax income. Praise God as you write the check. Pray that it will be used to bring others to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and you will write the check with joy. It will also be easier to live on what remains as time goes on.
Begin Tithing as Early as Possible
It is easier to start when income is low and increase as income increases. It is almost impossible to start at a high point, since it seems as though one is "giving up too much," and the lifestyle adjustments are too radical. Don't postpone giving to a time in the future when you think you will be able to afford it. That time will likely never come.
Be Involved in Your Giving
Ministry and charitable organizations should be investigated and held accountable. Follow your gifts with prayer. Look for new opportunities to increase your range of giving as God brings new people and organizations within your notice. Support start-up ministries within your sphere of interest and influence, especially if they are meeting needs that are being met in no other way.
Aim to Increase Your Giving Gradually
As your family grows and children leave the nest you may be able to increase the percentage of your income given. I know Christian professionals who share 50 to 70 percent of their incomes, though they have given up many extras to do so.
Never Use Tithes as a Weapon or Bargaining Chip
We must not follow our gifts with caveats, conditions and subtle messages. We should simply pray that God would give those who administer the gift wisdom and a keen sense of stewardship.
Keep Balance in Your Giving
Give to the church. Give to a congregation in the Third World. Give to members of your profession who desire to serve God in difficult places and are held back by lack of support or the burden of student loans. Give to ministries fighting many battles in the inner cities of our nation, and keep a reserve in order to have God's money in hand when a crisis strikes.
Preparing for the Future
All of life is preparation for the next event, and good stewardship brings a special responsibility to prepare for the future. As we take seriously the present managerial role in which God has placed each one of us, we need to be ready for the widening role He has promised in Matthew 25:21: "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"
When we have kept our financial houses in order, we will have prepared for a future that is free from worry about financial matters, allowing us to engage in ministry responsibilities that are even wider ranging and more fruitful than when we were active in practice.
Part of wise planning includes fully funding retirement plans in order to take advantage of the government's incentives to invest tax-deferred accounts with before-tax dollars. Making arrangements for retirement is neither an expression of greed nor a desire for a full barn in order to "take our ease, eat, drink and be merry." It is a way of providing for a future of ministry without having to be salaried or even reimbursed for expenses. It is a way to continue to increase giving so that our gifts will be used to encourage others in their service to God. Students can be sponsored for short-term missions. Others eager to serve God as career missionaries can be enabled to do so through your generosity.
Careful financial planning can also have ministry implications as we learn more about opportunities such as Gift Annuities that give us income while it is needed, then revert to the designated Christian charity upon death. And astute—even shrewd—estate planning will radically reduce estate taxes so that we can provide our surviving spouse and heirs with increased income and our favorite charities with generous bequests. Using Charitable Remainder Trusts, Revocable Trusts and Unitrusts will keep us giving long after we have been united with our Savior in Glory.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Today's Christian Doctor and was adapted from the new CMDA book: Spiritual Issues and Choices in Dentistry, edited by William C. Forbes, D.D.S., M.Div., and Richard G. Topazian, D.D.S. Copyright 2001, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1CMDA does not have an official position on whether tithing is the New Testament standard for giving for Christians. However, all would agree that for the Christian, giving should be regular, proportional, cheerful and generous. Most Christian financial experts suggest that in America, where God has blessed us so generously, 10 percent may be less than proportional and generous for most.