Generosity While Paying Off Debt: My Dilemma

DH = Dear Husband
               My sister-in-law, the wife of DH’s brother, sent me an e-mail last month saying that her son and his wife would be going to a developing African nation to help build a school this summer, and that they needed to raise many thousands of dollars.  Would we be able to help out?  Such a good cause.  Such a great family.  Such a sweet couple.  Such a predicament!  I didn’t answer the e-mail for weeks.
               Ramsey says that getting out of debt requires a change of heart and that you will find out what your obstacles are as you pursue the goal.  For Ramsey, as for many men, it was the desire for shiny, spiffy new cars.  For me, it’s the desire for people’s approval.  Years ago, when Oprah talked about “the disease to please” and the need to “exercise your ‘no’ muscle”, I knew she was talking to me.  And I’ve come a long, long way.  But it’s still an obstacle.

Digging deep: examining my moral paradigm

               Each one of us operates according to a moral paradigm, whether or not we’re aware of it.  An atheist has a set of moral values, as does an agnostic, a Pagan, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Hindu.  My journey out of debt requires me to examine, define, and refine my own Christian values, and my sister-in-law’s e-mail really put me to the test.
               I remember a sermon I heard in the year following my recommitment to Christianity (after a serious lapse) eighteen years ago.  It had been filmed at a huge pastors’ convention, and our own pastor showed it for Sunday service Father’s Day of 1995.  He explained that the man speaking had had brain cancer and that he had died three days after the filming.  I recall these details because that sermon proved to be so pivotal for me.  It was based on Proverbs 29:25.  “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”  In what would be his last public address, this man established the fact that we are indeed all born with a legitimate need to be approved of.  The point was to fulfill this need through God’s approval and to avoid the trap of seeking people’s approval, as per the proverb.  Just as certain products that we purchase are stamped “Approved” by various regulatory organizations, he advocated for the wisdom in our own seeking to be stamped “Approved Of God”.   This dying man challenged the pastors in his audience to consider their good works, particularly in attracting large attendance at their churches and speaking engagements, and to be honest about whose approval they were really seeking.  Even though I was watching the filmed version of this sermon, and even though there was no panning of the original audience, I was struck by the palpability of the shame those pastors experienced as they recognized and were confronted by their own desire to seek the approval of people through their works – good as those works were.  And I had a “eureka moment”.  My own need to be approved fundamentally transferred from people to God.  It was very liberating.
               I do not subscribe to a legalistic approach to Christianity.  Christ is all about grace – not law. Still, there are undeniably rules.  The Ten Commandments stipulate, among other things, that we are not to commit murder, theft, or adultery.  Jesus taught that we are to be humble, to repent, and to forgive.  There are also clear messages about the importance of giving:
·        “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it . . . to be honoured by men . . . do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Mathew 6:2-4) 
·        Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
So we are to give to the needy; we are to give in secret; we are not to give reluctantly or as a duty; we are to give cheerfully. 
Then there is the whole matter of tithing. To tithe is to give ten percent of all you have, and it is a matter of great debate among Christians.  Furthermore, it stirs up feelings of guilt in me.  I am trying to get out of debt, and I’ll be straight:  I am not tithing.  Not even close.  If I tithed, I would not be doing so cheerfully, but in resentment of an imposed duty.  When I see the woman at church who counts the offering, I just want to say, “Sorry!”  I find myself wondering if all she sees is a stingy double-income couple with a big house.  I find myself hoping that she knows DH went through a long period of unemployment; that our van is really old; that I haven’t bought any new clothes in months.  “Fear of man brings a snare . . .”   I can’t let myself go down that road.  I do not need the approval of the people at my church.  (And of course it’s my own guilt that makes me uncomfortable, not the offering counter herself.)  In the end, I believe that God does approve of our efforts to get out of debt, and I believe that the grace of God is big enough to absorb that fact that our giving is going to be limited as a result.
I finally answered my sister-in-law’s e-mail.  I told her how much I admired her son and his wife for the wonderful work they had taken on, but that unfortunately we would not be supporting them financially because of our commitment to get out of debt.  I said that I truly wished it could be otherwise.  There was no response for quite some time.  “She’s angry,” I worried.  “She thinks we’re selfish and indifferent.” But I didn’t waver.  “Fear of man brings a snare . . .”  When I did receive a response – after she and her family had returned from vacation – it was full of acceptance and understanding, as well as a wish for all the best in our efforts to kill off debt.  Phew!  The people-pleaser in me was relieved.  I just can’t be motivated by that side of me. 
Ramsey advises still to give as we’re getting out of debt – just as he advises us still to invest in fun – and to recognize that generosity can mean time and work as well as money.  I am exercising my “no” muscle, and it’s hard.  But I’m also finding out that generosity is possible, and I’m discovering what it will look like for me while I’m on this journey out of debt. 

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  1. You are superb writer and I’m engaged by your way of sharing/telling a story. You’ve given us something to think about, as always! By sharing publicly (so to speak) we apparently have a better chance of following through to our goals – so bravo!

    An admirer who is inspired (i.e., also trying to get out of debt).

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