Debt: A Spiritual Discipline

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Brenin and I have less than $5,000 of the $48,000 in student loans left to pay off. We’ve been aggressive about paying off this debt and I’m so excited that the end is in sight.

I remember the first time my debt became real to me. It was my sophomore year at Hope. Campus Ministries was putting on a mini-series about love, sex and dating. Oddly enough, I don’t actually remember much about the love, sex, or dating part, but I do remember one of the warnings about money. The teacher looked right into my soul, I swear, and said, “When you marry someone, you’re marrying their debt, too.”

I thought about Brenin. At this point we had been dating for over a year. He knew we were going to get married and he was just waiting for me to catch up. He had been so good to me—so gracious, patient, loving. I pictured our wedding day: me in a white lace dress walking gracefully down the aisle toward my groom…with a giant weight tied around my ankle. It said, “Owes $80k.” I shuddered.

Until that point, debt felt kind of like magic to me. Some people believe in it, some people don’t, it’s kind of confusing, and it’ll probably eventually just disappear. It wasn’t a hard decision for me to take out student loans to afford college. Everyone does it, I thought. I need a quality education from a school with a good reputation, otherwise I’ll never get a decent job. My initial plan was to become a teacher, and by my estimates, they made around $60-$70k a year, right? (I obviously did loads of research.) So I could pay off $80k in less than two years. Simple as that! And of course, even if I did by some miracle rake in that salary as a teacher, I failed to factor in a few other expenses, like, for example, food and shelter.

I soon realized my debt was a bigger problem than I originally thought, and eventually I transferred to a more affordable public school. And then I transferred to an even more affordable public school. But that’s another story.

Basically, instead of my horrifying vision of walking down the aisle with a chain that said “$80k,” it was now a much more pleasant reality—I walked down a beautiful pathway under the trees in the woods, surrounded by my dearest friends and family, with a chain that said, “Only $48k! You’re welcome!”

But Brenin, bless his heart, was not scared by the numbers, and jumped right into repayment mode. This was much easier for him than me. When he sets a goal, he has tunnel vision and will get to the finish no matter what pain he has to endure. I’m serious—he competed in a triathlon with three broken toes wearing his leather work boots. There was nothing on the line for this race other than the fact that he said he was going to do it, and that’s that. So debt repayment was similar: ignore and endure the discomfort because there is an end and it will be worth it.

The process for me, on the other hand, was more painful. It really was less about paying off debt and more about God stripping me of my flesh, removing layers of false identity I had donned throughout my life in order to gain affection or secure my status.

Ultimately, this process has been about God breaking me down and rebuilding me. He’s been revealing to me how problematic my love for money is, and gently showing me that if I really want to follow Him, I’m going to have to give up everything. I’m going to have to stop loving everything else more than Him.

Thankfully, God knows how difficult it is for us to obey Him, so He gives us heaping doses of grace along the way. That’s what this journey has been for me.

It’s been 4 years since we started paying this off. In those 4 years, I’ve done and said things that embarrassed me, humbled me, and surprised me.

The first two years of college were all about keeping up with everyone else. Everyone’s going out to Lemonjello’s for overpriced coffee and vegan chili…if they can afford it, I can too, right? Who cares that I already paid the school cafeteria an exorbitant amount of money to eat grilled PB&J (don’t knock it till you try it) and chicken fingers for each meal!

There was also the issue of wanting to be (or at least, appear to be) generous by paying for other peoples’ meals and coffees and concert tickets.

Being generous is a wonderful thing, but you can’t be generous with money you don’t have.

Also, I really don’t care to know how much money I spent on Moose Tracks ice cream alone from 2011-2014. I fear it’s in the thousands, and I wish I was exaggerating.

Imagine the discomfort I felt when I was suddenly married and all my spending was now accountable to another person. I mentioned earlier that Brenin is gracious. That is 100% true. But everyone has a limit, and I found that limit when I insisted on several late night trips to the grocery store for ice cream.

It was painful. I’m not just talking about the physical effects of Moose Tracks withdrawal—I mean the whole thing. Saying no to things I wanted in an effort to only spend the money I actually have. There really are people who are living within their means, but they seem to be harder to find than the rest of us.

So, instead of saying yes to every invitation for late night apps, fun concerts, and coffee runs, I found myself saying things like, “Sorry, I can’t, my eating out budget is empty” or “I’d love to join, but I’m going to pack a sandwich.”

A sandwich! Who am I?! I’d think. I would pack a brown bag lunch to go shopping with friends and just get water when they went out to eat! I’m not sure what my friends thought of this, to be honest. They never said. Sometimes I felt like they thought I was weird, or pathetic, or just trying to prove a point. Other times, I could feel their relief. One time, a friend said she’d pack a lunch too because she really didn’t have the money to go out, either.

What I realized by admitting my limitations was this: a lot of other people feel the same way and are just waiting for permission to admit their limits, too. It’s like we’re all sprinting in the same direction, trying to keep up with one another, but no one is stopping to ask, “Hey, where are we going?”

Yes, this process has been about money. But it’s also been more than that. It’s been about trying to be someone who stops mid-race and says, “Is this even a destination worth going to?” or “Is there any other way to get there? A way that honors my body and resources and sanity and isn’t so concerned about just keeping up with everyone else?”

It’s usually pretty painful to take a big chunk of money—a chunk I feel I’ve worked hard for—and rather than enjoy it, just give it to the Department of Education. It’s never been very satisfying. Writing a check for $800 feels huge until you see that it’s barely a dent when you owe tens of thousands.

It butts up against my desire for instant gratification. It forces me to play the long game. It challenges me to wait, to dream, to hope.

And the parallels with my spiritual life have become exceedingly obvious to me as time goes on. As my faith has matured, I’ve experienced fewer blatant “rewards” for my obedience to God. In the beginning, following Jesus was so exciting to me that I was willing to say yes to everything he asked me to do. Trust Him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding? Sure! A life of faith sounded adventurous and romantic. Blessings would abound, I was sure!

But then trials came. And some of the stuff God asked me to do felt more painful than exciting. I would do things the Bible said to do, and it would offend people. People misunderstood my heart and motives, and that hurt. Following Jesus wasn’t all excitement anymore. To be sure, it was still exciting and rewarding and abundant, but it was also difficult and confusing and lonely at times.

And those times are when I’ve had to take an honest look at my heart and ask, “Why am I following Jesus? Is it because I love Him, or is it because I love what I can get from Him? Do I love Him enough to care only about pleasing Him, or am I still more concerned about pleasing others?”

Many of the choices I make in my effort to follow Jesus come out of a blind faith that what I’m doing will have an eternal impact rather than an immediate one.

Paying off debt has been a way of exercising my muscles of discipline—the same muscles I use when I try to pray for my enemies or give away portions of my income or give myself to people who I know won’t give me anything in return.

So many of the things Jesus did were slow. He was never in a hurry. I mean, think about it—He’s God. If His mission was to make disciples, He could’ve just made us all disciples instantly. If His hope is for everyone to know His love and be saved by it, He could’ve just implanted that knowledge to all of us and made it happen.

Instead, he chooses us, his flock, to carry out His mission. He decides to do it with us, his sheep, as the Good Shepherd. How frustrating it has to be, trying to accomplish a simple task that you could do yourself, but instead to have to keep veering off and chasing after your sheep because they keep getting lost and distracted! And yet, he looks at us with compassion and delight. We’re not obstacles to His message, we’re the ambassadors of it!

I believe that God can use every little detail of our lives to reveal Himself to us, and that’s what I’m finding as I repay this money.

It has been slow. It has required patience. I have veered off course and had to be reminded of the goal.

It will feel really, really freeing when I see a $0 balance on my loans. I will be ecstatic. I have a list of all the purchases I’m going to make when I finally get to keep some of that money I’ve been letting go every month for 49 months.

But, if I pay off all my loans and then just go back to loving money and spending frivolously again, I haven’t learned much.

My hope is that God has used this time to refine me, to shift my priorities. I want to love God, not money. I want to live in such a way that, even if all that money is taken from me and I never get any of it that I’ve hoped for, I’ll still be able to say, “God is good and I am well taken care of.”

I pray that this process has had more than just an immediate impact. I pray it has an eternal one.

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