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drowning in debt


The third of three articles on how to avoid personal bankruptcy, showing how my thinking changed from that of a man who was drowning to that of a man willing to trust God

After I sent the “Before You Grab That Lifesaver...” e-mail to my friend’s cousin who was struggling with debt, I got the following response:

I appreciate your advice but we've decided to pursue bankruptcy. We met with the attorney last week.

This is what I wrote back:

I'm not saying bankruptcy is always wrong. But I do think you should consider it as an absolute last resort, after you've explored every other possible option, which in my mind means right before your creditors file suit. Otherwise, you're choosing the easy way out rather than trusting God, like I did with my credit cards. If you don't give Him a chance to do His thing with you now, you're probably going to face something far worse later, if you can imagine that. Because what He's trying to do is get you to trust Him. And what He's asking you - and what I'm asking as well, if I may be so bold - is what's it going to take? How low do you have to go before you're willing to turn to Him rather than (as I did) credit cards or (as you're doing) bankruptcy? Why do you want the easy way out instead of His way? God's interested in your character, not your comfort. Let Him have His way with you now, and you'll be far happier later.

After that, my friend got an e-mail from his cousin’s wife. She said, "I can appreciate what is being said here. I look at it from a different angle. God has provided us a Christian Attorney who didn't place judgment on our situation. He looked at the picture we showed him, gave us his advice and has left it up to us. Looking at the full picture of our combined debt and the additional debt I don't see any other avenue at this time.

"And you have to keep in mind that if you don't pay they will come after me for our combined debt... Things are already tough enough now.

"I am reminded of the story about a man stuck on top of the roof with flood water rising that wouldn't allow a rescue boat nor a helicopter take him to safety. He asked God why he didn't allow him to live, God responded and said I sent a boat and a helicopter. I know this is just a story; but in our case, for an attorney to reduce his fees like he did I see it as a safety rope. I choose to grab hold. This was not my intentions and I don't see it as a easy fix because it is one we have to live with."

What bothers me about this is

1- Offering advice that doesn’t agree with her opinion implies “placing judgment” on her situation.

2- She assumes that her creditors will come after her. That is not necessarily true. And if they did, it wouldn’t be immediate. She still would have time to trust.

3- Rather than finding a scriptural context for their situation, she uses a lame analogy - or, as she calls it, “just a story” - that could be used to justify anything.

4- She sees herself and her husband as victims of circumstance rather than victors in Christ. She compares her situation to drowning in a flood, requiring “a safety rope;” rather than what is really happening, which is a father throwing his child into the deep end of a pool so he can learn to swim. She doesn’t see what is happening spiritually because she is so focused on getting her safety/comfort level back.

5- I know that security is very important to women, so I don't fault her for that. But it seems to me that she is placing security above everything else, including integrity, faith, even God. She’s not willing to give God a chance to help them. And, to make it all okay, it’s a “Christian” lawyer giving them the advice to declare bankruptcy. Plus, he’s willing to reduce his fees! That has to be from God.

6- Once she has cut her deal via bankruptcy, what will she have? A story of deliverance? A reason to praise God? No. She'll have ruined credit, an excuse to mistrust God, and an excuse to blame her husband and despise herself - all negative.

This couple doesn’t want to suffer. Who does? But, tribulation brings perseverance, perseverance brings proven character, and proven character brings hope, which is how we become more Christ-like. If this man and his wife are the same kind of people at the end of this experience that they were at the beginning - only with ruined credit, reduced trust in God, possibly even a broken marriage - what is the reason for going through it? There's a lesson God is trying to teach them, and it's about trust - yet, they seem to be running as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

I know it may sound like I'm judging this couple - it always sounds like that when we’re trying to get to the bottom of people’s behavior - but I've been there, I've done this. I know it's possible to work our way out of debt by trusting God rather than figuring it out on our own. And we can end up more Christ-like as a result, which I believe is God’s purpose in this situation. But it means giving up a little of our security - maybe even a lot of it - as well as our control.

It's not easy, but it's worth it. I know.

What's really ironic is that this couple is in the happiest position they can possibly be: having to trust God. But they don't realize it. They are on the doorstep of opportunity, spiritually. All they have to do is walk through the door.

My second floor sunroom has a beautiful cherry tree next to it that wraps around the entire room. There were four baby robins in a nest in that tree, and I watched breathlessly this morning as each of them made his way out of the nest and onto the branches spreading out in all directions. They fluttered their wings and hopped from branch to branch, getting further and further away from the nest until, finally, each one winged his way off into the distance to make a life of his own. It was wonderful the way the two parent robins worked with them, using food to coax them away from the nest.

You know, God does that with us. He allows, even coaxes, us away from our comfortable, safe places so that we, too, can fly. It may not be comfortable - it may even be scary - but once we're away from that place we’ve been trusting for security and start trusting Him instead, we'll be soaring like we never believed possible. But, we've got to be willing to leave the nest and trust Him to hold us up. That’s the lesson God has taught me in my financial struggles. If only I can learn to trust Him in the rest of my life. By His grace, I will; and you will, too.

Waitsel Smith, May 20, 2005

From an e-mail to a friend’s cousin who was struggling with debt and considering bankruptcy

Note: When I first began considering bankruptcy, I owed $80,000 in credit card debt. As of January, 2010, my debt is paid. There truly is a lighthouse in the midst of our financial storms, and that light is Christ.

Text and image © 2005 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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