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ss nucleus - summer 2003,  Managing Money and Debt

Managing Money and Debt

Giles Rawlinson casts an eye over our finances

You are an eager young medical student; you are keen to learn; you want to use your increasing medical knowledge to relieve others’ suffering, but you find yourself increasingly in debt. As a recent Times magazine article indicated, you may well reach the end of your training £35,000 in debt. A poll at the 2002 CMF Junior Doctors’ Conference suggested that a figure closer to £15,000 is more likely for CMF members, but that can feel like an enormous weight to carry, bringing considerable stress and worry, just at a time of significant change with a new, pressured job, new living arrangements, probably a new church and, with this, the loss of the support structures you have established during college years.

So what is a right attitude to money? How should we view debt? Does it matter if we follow the world’s ways and allow ourselves to spend most of our careers in debt, living beyond our means? This article seeks to look at what the Bible says about this important area of our lives.

Let’s start with a reality check before we descend into a mire of worry and self-pity, reminding ourselves of the immense privileges of our situation. You are amongst the most academically gifted of your generation. You are gaining a professional training that is the envy of the world. Medicine will give you the opportunity to play a significant part in the lives of many people, often with more opportunities even than clergy to speak of the love of Christ at moments of crisis in individuals’ lives. Finally, if you work within medicine full time for the whole of your career, your earning potential is impressive: assuming an average salary of £50,000 per annum (and this is likely to be significantly understated as you progress up the medical career ladder), and not allowing for inflation, you will have earned £2,000,000 by the time you retire!

Let’s consider what the Bible has to say under five simple headings:

The principles of wealth creation

a. Everything is the Lord’s

The Bible makes it plain that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.’[1] This must inform everything, not least our careers and the wealth we earn as a result of our medical training.

b. We are his stewards

Let us remind ourselves of God’s creation ordinance to man: ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’[2] Twice we are told that God created man in his own image, and twice man is given the charge to rule over all living things. What an awesome responsibility for us to fulfil individually, let alone as a society, or even as part of a global community. We have a fundamental responsibility to be stewards of all that God has so richly given us.

c. Thank God for his gifts 

David knew the extent of his dependence upon God, and so acknowledged this before the whole assembly of Israel.[3] How good are we at giving thanks to God for all that we have?

d. Decide where your heart is [4]

This will determine where your treasure is, and what your treasure will be! Are you more interested in serving the Lord Jesus Christ than storing up treasure on earth? James is utterly uncompromising in his warnings about the misuse of wealth.[5] If this seems a little far-fetched, then start drawing comparisons between the position of doctors in the UK and those trying to train and qualify in less developed countries. Listen to some of the stories from overseas students coming to the UK and James becomes frighteningly contemporary. If you are as yet unconvinced about the snares of wealth, read on. The Bible is very clear indeed.

e. Develop relationships

The book of Proverbs is as you would expect - proverbial! Money tends to isolate and alienate. Just look at the gated mansions in the wealthy suburbs and read about the bizarre, lonely lifestyles of the rich and famous. Proverbs does not condemn wealth, but calls us to use it for others.[6] Give it away, invest it in people and not in things, use it wisely for the good of others, and this will bring its own, even greater reward. Be rich towards God as well. Ultimately it is relationships that count - our relationship with God and with others. ‘A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.’[7]

f. Do not discount the future

Medical students and doctors, of all people, should be aware of the ultimate statistic: one out of one dies, and yet we often live and behave as though we will never die. We can set our life priorities with only this world in view. God’s judgment on this? ‘You fool!’[8] Don’t forget that there are no pockets in a shroud, and there is no point in putting your wallet or purse in your coffin. Sterling is not accepted currency in heaven, but godliness is, and contentment goes with it, which is very great gain![9] Paradoxically, money is the worst long-term investment you can find.

The dangers of wealth creation

a. Wealth is a rival deity vying for our worship [10]

It doesn’t sound likely, bowing down to a pile of banknotes, but our heads can easily be turned by a smart briefcase full of freshly printed £50 notes, all neatly counted and wrapped. What is the attraction of the National Lottery, if not the worship of money and what we believe it can bring? What is the enduring appeal of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ There is more of a danger than we realise in worshipping wealth, and given a chance it will usurp the Lord Jesus Christ in our affections. So don’t crave money - it will not fulfil.

b. Wealth is a positive barrier to faith [11]

Anything that stands in the way of trusting in Christ is a danger to us, but wealth is particularly subtle, for we can find that we have been taken over by its lures. Don’t love money - it is not worth it.

c. Wealth is deceitful

It offers much, but the ‘Teacher’ of Ecclesiastes soon discovered that it does not satisfy.[12] Enough is never enough; more is always needed, it never fulfils. No investment is ever totally safe; just consider the current state of the UK stock market having lost over 40% of its value in the last two years, if you are tempted to imagine that money is safe and can protect you. Wealth is a deceitful master not worth wearing ourselves out for – it flatters to deceive.[13] Worries about money can also paralyse us from doing anything, let alone the right thing, and the power of the Word of God can be negated by the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth.[14] Don’t trust money - it cannot be trusted.

d. Wealth can be very ugly [15] 

We can all be seduced by someone’s generosity, but we should actually shy away instinctively from ostentatious consumption and extravagance. Pride looks very ugly when it is seen in its true colours, although we can all work very hard to cover it up. James warns about making distinctions based on outward appearances, and tells us of God’s bias towards the poor, and the folly of being exploited by the rich.[16] So don’t flaunt money or be exploited by it - it is an ugly and cruel master.

The Christian’s attitude to money

a. Acquire it honestly

The worker does deserve his wages,[17] but only if he has done his work! The apostle Paul also quotes the Old Testament and Jesus in the context of Christian workers deserving wages for the Christian ministry they fulfil (Paul says both references are Scripture by the way, but that is the subject of another article!). What will our attitude be to our employer? Will it be to work as hard as we can, or to do the least we can get away with, maybe in the mistaken view that we can do more Christian work? What will our attitude be to paying taxes, and filling in tax assessments?[18] Paying tax willingly and playing our part in a democratic society is important. What is our view of gambling and the National Lottery? At the very least such activity encourages greed and covetousness: it is not good stewardship of our limited resources, and even if we are not enslaved and ruined by it, others may well be. Such activity also has a very poor return on investment. We are to be above reproach in all our financial dealings.

b. Save it carefully 

Budget for giving first, then the spending you need, and finally saving what you can afford. It is prudent to allow for crises and cash flow irregularities, and it is wise to prepare for future anticipated needs as Joseph did when he was Governor of Egypt, or when the early church responded to the needs of the church in Judea.[19] We need to be wise about our investment choices, making full use of tax-effective saving (ISAs, pensions etc). Are we careful how we borrow? The most easily available money from credit cards etc will probably be the most expensive, while making good use of subsidised student loans is much more cost effective.

c. Spend it wisely [20] 

We should all be aware of the dubious merits of the latest alternative medicine – retail therapy! In contrast, we need to develop the habit of asking ourselves the following questions before any purchase: Do I really need it? Can I afford it? Could I borrow it or hire it? How will having it change my life? Will it help me serve God better? Will it help or hinder others? Who am I helping by buying it? Having said that, we need to be wise about spending on rest, holiday, relaxation and recreation to ensure that we don’t burn out, and fall apart (had you noticed what a good word recreation is, by the way?).

Christian giving

Here are five words that should inform and define our giving, as we give back to God what is already his. Our giving should be:

a. Spiritual

The world will be committed to many excellent charitable causes, but only Christians will give for the extension of God’s kingdom, and this should be our priority.[21] It has been well said that the camera is an enemy of the gospel because no one has yet invented a camera that can photograph the destiny of a man’s soul. So don’t respond to the latest high profile celebrity appeal, but support Christian ministry with which you have a direct link - this might be your local church, the needs of the CU or a friend serving as a short term missionary. It might even mean supporting CMF!

b. Generous [22]

Someone will correct me if I am wrong but I think it was John Wesley who lived on £30 per year when his income was £100, and still lived off £30 when his income rose to £300. As a consequence, he was able to give so much more away. What an impressive example to follow as our earning potential grows. If you are asking how much you should tithe, you are asking the wrong question! But if you really want an answer, start with 10% of gross salary (that is before income tax and employee’s National Insurance contributions) and increase from there – why should the King of Kings come after Her Majesty?

c. Methodical

Giving takes planning, so get planning![23] Avoid impulse giving and be brave enough to say no to those who might rush you into an ill-informed, emotional gift on the street, when you do not know very much about the organisation or the recipients. Be informed about the causes you support and don’t assume they are making good use of your resources. Do be involved and pray for those organisations you support; build links with specific activities, so you can really feel part of what is being done.

d. Secret

Our giving should be achieved, as far as is possible, with utter discretion. Our aim should be to seek an eternal reward, not human recognition.[24]

e. Cheerful

Giving should be enormous fun for the giver, and the cause of real joy for the recipient.[25] So let’s make our own giving fun, rather than just a duty.

Practical decisions now

Let me finish by being as practical as possible:

a. Start thinking now about major life choices 

Do you expect to live in the 1st world or the 3rd world for some or all of your working life? Do you have to be committed to a middle class lifestyle, or could you live with less? Do you expect to marry, as a right, or are you prepared to remain single (it is worth asking this question anyway as a preparation to any serious relationship!)? Do you want to have none, two, four, or even six children? Are you committed to medicine, or would you consider Christian ministry, or mission work overseas?

b. Who is going to decide your standard of living? 

Will it be the world, with the constant inducements to unnecessary consumption? Will you hand over that major decision to the faceless bureaucrats of the NHS, who will set the pay scales? Or will you make that decision positively for yourself? Might God the creator and sustainer of all we know have an interest in that decision?

c. Pay off your debts

This may seem a foolish thing to say now in the middle of your student years, but if this is your real intention as soon as you start earning, it will help keep in check the worst excesses of unnecessary expenditure now. These only increase your indebtedness, making it harder to pay off debt once you are in a position to do so.

d. Live within your means 

In the light of the choices you are prepared to make above, live accordingly. If you plan to go overseas, then free yourself of student debt as soon as possible, and start saving so as to afford to go to Bible College or any other preparation you might need. Once you are earning, buy a house or flat that is within your means (if you need to), and avoid having to pay off a mortgage for the next 25 years (unless that is part of the bigger picture). Do you need to run a car now, and when you are earning, do you need the newest, fastest, smartest set of wheels, or will something less costly serve your needs more effectively?

e. Spend on people rather than property

Practise hospitality.[26] This is a habit we can develop even as students on very limited budgets. Are people more important than things to us? When did we last invite friends round to share even a very ordinary meal? Why not cook twice as much for the meal after your regular church service and be on the lookout for some people to invite home?

f. Live in the light of eternity 

Three score years and ten is a very short time, while eternity goes on forever. Do we live as if it is exactly the other way round, and that this life is all there is to consider?

Let me finish with two quotations that speak for themselves.

American Jim Elliott wrote at the age of 22: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’. Seven years later he gave his life for the Auca Indians of Ecuador, who martyred him.[27]

Our Lord himself summarised the situation perfectly: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ [28]

References
  1. Ps 24:1,2
  2. Gn 1:26-31
  3. 1 Ch 29:10-13
  4. Mt 6:19-21
  5. Jas 5:1-6
  6. Pr 11:24-28
  7. Pr 11:25
  8. Lk 12:16-21
  9. 1 Tim 6:6-8
  10. Mt 6:24
  11. Pr 3:5,6
  12. Ec 5:8-12
  13. Pr 23:4,5
  14. Mt13:22
  15. Ezk 28:1-5
  16. Jas 2:1-7
  17. Lk 10:7; 1 Tim 5:17,18
  18. Rom 13:1
  19. Gn 41:46-57; Acts 11:27-30
  20. 1 Tim 6:17-19
  21. Gal 6:10; 1 Jn 3:16-20
  22. 2 Cor 8:1-4
  23. 1 Cor 16:1,2
  24. Mt 6:1-4
  25. 2 Cor 9:6-11; Acts 20:35
  26. Rom 12:13; 1 Pet 4:9
  27. Elliot, E. Shadow of the Almighty. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989
  28. Mk 8:34-36
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