2016-06-30
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Is overspending a spiritual weakness? Is being in debt a sin? Beliefnet spoke with Kristen Johnson Ingram, author of "Devotions for Debtors," about spiritual approaches to facing debt.

You wrote "Devotions for Debtors" because you, like many Americans, were in debt. How big a problem is it?

Every day the news gives huge figures. And I’m not completely out [of debt] either. I wrote the book, but I haven’t completed the cycle. Because it’s so easy to get in debt and it’s so hard to get out of it. And there’s a mindset that goes with getting out of it like, “if I tear up my credit cards, will I still be able to get the Internet?” People have a lot of unanswered fears about trying to do it.

You're not talking about student loans or mortgages, right? You’re talking about impulse buying.

Sometimes it isn’t even impulse, sometimes it just seems like it’s the only way. That’s the biggest falsehood in America, that there’s no other way. That you’ve got to get in debt to be an American.

Your book offers biblical passages and spiritual support for debtors. Is the implication that being in debt is a spiritual failing? Is being a shopaholic a sin?

I can’t speak for all shopaholics, but for people like me, the major sin is lack of trust in God---that I won’t get what I need, God won’t give me what I need unless I go in debt for it. That’s a real fundamental problem in a lot of other sins. People commit sins because they don’t really believe God is going to help them.

Your book says that when you start facing up to debt, your vision of God changes. In what way?

The minute you start trusting, your relationship with God changes. The more you can relate to God, the more God’s image changes in your mind. It’s one thing to have a judge, and it’s another to have a friend.

I felt that God was with me in the effort to get out of debt, offering me solutions to things and reminding me that I didn’t really need something.

What kind of solutions?

Like having things refinanced. Because of the ["Devotions"] book, we got a much lower interest rate on our home mortgage. We began to feel powerful rather than helpless. There are people who need almost like a 12-step program where they have to admit their helplessness over shopping. That is not my problem, but I sure know a lot of people who have it.

Powerlessness is an American illness right now. We feel powerless over the government and over money. I know lots of people who no longer vote. "Why bother? It’s going to happen the way they want it to happen anyway." And it’s the same thing about money—"I can’t control it." The terror of layoffs and jobs ending may have made people think they have to buy everything now. "I’d rather buy it quick before I lose my job or something."

Your book says that winning the lottery isn't the answer. What should people ask for when they pray about debt?

They should ask for wisdom and for a sense of having enough. I mean, the definition of what’s enough anymore is really pretty expanded. There has to be the individual response, "OK, I’m not going to do this anymore."

Of the Bible verses in your book, which ones have helped you most in your struggle?

Maybe the most important was the very first one [read the devotion], "don’t take a staff, don’t take any extra clothes." Because that means you’ve got to get down to the absolute basics of what you need and you’ve got to trust God for the rest. The idea that you could travel that light is really freeing.

What are other spiritual suggestions for debtors?

I’m learning how to get rid of stuff. I’ve always had a rule that if I buy a book, I have to get rid of a book. The same thing with clothes—if I buy a garment, I try to get rid of one. I find that very freeing. To say to myself, "I don’t need this, I don’t want it, I’m getting rid of it."

I give money to beggars, too. In fact, I am getting to be fairly famous around this town, for handing money out my window to people with signs. I am a member of a lay religious order called the Order of Saint Aidan. I took my vow of, they don’t say poverty, they say simplicity. I took the sixth chapter of Luke literally: it says to give money to anyone who asks you.

I’ve got to say, I’ve never missed any money that I gave away. Ever. In fact, I think God really replenishes it, though I don’t want to do it for that reason. But I usually find money in my pockets and purses that I think God’s sneaked in there.

I go on spending fasts where I don't spend any money at all. I make do out of whatever is there. Sometimes it's very inconvenient, because I've got something due, and I need a new cartridge for my printer. But if I'm in a fast state, then I have to wait.

How long do your spending fasts usually last?

I think the longest one I ever took was three months.

Did you buy food?

No, I didn't. There's enough food in this house. We bought bread and milk. We had a lot of dried fruits and things that I love to buy.

You also said you watch yourself for "trigger times"—times when you're tempted to buy something. When that happens, you go for walks, pray, sing hymns…

Make tea in my grandmother’s teacup or something like that. I used to take my pleasure in small things, and I’m learning to do it again. I don’t know when I started going, I want, I want, I want. But all my friends, want, want, want too. We talk about this a lot, saying what mechanism is triggered here.

How can we fight it spiritually? How can we fight wanting?

Praying is really the biggest answer: asking God to show me what I really, really need. That doesn’t mean you can’t have any luxuries at all. But for instance, when we were going to take a long trip through several states and our car wasn’t wonderful, we talked about buying a new car. Then I said, “No, let’s rent a car for 2 weeks.” And we did that, and we paid it off very quickly. God always always offers an escape for us going in debt.

Envy is really a serious problem. You see something that someone’s got and they may have worked for years to get that. And sometimes I want the same thing and I want it now. And so envy comes out of what I consider the satanic sin, the longing for power.

If you have money, then you have power, usually. And the kind of power that God offers is a lot different from what the world, the flesh and the devil offer. It’s the power to be a whole person.

What spiritual encouragement would you give couples when one spouse's spending has put both in debt?

[The spender] needs to confess what they are doing as sin. Either to each other or to another friend or somebody. I am an Episcopalian, so that isn’t too hard for me, because I’ve got the clergy. Then we also need to confess to each other when we’ve spent money. A lot of people kind of halfway hide their spending from their spouses. Should there be any half lies between you?

I talked to a lot of people when I was writing the book and they confessed, so the first thing that couples need to do is be absolutely honest with each other. You’re in this thing together, and if you got in debt, even all by yourself, you need each other to help each other out.

You mention having a debt partner, like a buddy system. How does that work?

I have a dear friend, and she and I often sit and talk about, "OK, how do we do this? How do we keep from doing that?" Instead of going to really nice lunches, we’ve started going to McDonald's and getting a salad, where normally we would have spent probably 10 bucks each. All those small things make a difference. God has said, when you’re faithful with small things, you’ll be trusted with big ones. I’m not sure I’m ready for big ones yet, but I’m working on it.

Usury used to be a sin. Do credit card companies have a moral responsibility in this?

Part of the problem is with the hype of companies. This morning I was looking at the news, and I can’t tell you how many things could have made my life easier if I was willing to go buy them, like a Swiffer mop and a bunch of stuff.

They’re constantly hyping us with “You need this to make your life complete.” There are a lot of people who don’t think their lives are complete, especially if they don’t have a strong spiritual life of any kind. They are going to have the feeling that things are the answer.

What would you tell someone who was in deep spiritual despair about debt?

I would first tell them that there is no debt in the world that is worth their life, whether we are talking about suicide--and I know a couple of people who have attempted suicide because they were so deeply in debt.

And maybe they’re losing their life just by being so miserable. And I’ve seen some real misery in people and I tell them first of all, you’ve got to spend more time in prayer. I don’t just mean saying, “Help me God, help me God, help me God.” You’ve got to do some praying where you’re allowing God to talk to you and listening for that really small voice that is so encouraging.

I remember years ago I was at a Bible study. I heard a woman say something that I’ve repeated many times. She said, “He’s so for us.” And God is so for us. Almost like a nervous lover, you know, “What do you need? What do you want?”

The worst thing that can happen is that you lose everything you have. And that’s not so awful after all. Your life is worth more than that.

The second thing we need to do is to find something that gives us joy, whether it’s painting or digging in the ground or whatever. The more simple joy you put in your life, the more you are able to pull yourself away from stuff. You can get a bird book from the library and start watching birds. If you can’t afford bird food, you can at least go sprinkle your breadcrumbs outside and watch the birds.

If you can find yourself even for ten minutes feeling joyful, that’s a start.

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