Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Plastic Prison (Jul-Aug 2002)

Filed under: — @ 6:19 pm and

by Lynn Anderson
July – August, 2002

As I stood in the church parking lot and watched the tail lights of Terry and Jane’s Lexus shrink into the night, my mind replayed the scene from earlier in the evening. Terry and Jane both projected a picture of success. They dressed in the latest and the finest. Both worked high-powered jobs. But appearances did not tell the real story. Moments earlier in my office Terry had looked down at the carpet while Jane jumped right in, “That terrible earthquake hit El Salvador and everyone in our Sunday school class couldn’t wait to help. But we were too debt strapped. The same with Ground Zero. While our friends wrote out hefty checks, we stared at our shoes like losers.” Then real tears flowed.

“We’re not rich,” Terry finally continued, “but with our combined salaries we should have money left over for these things that really matter. Yet we’re scratching just to make the minimum credit card payment, and each month it is bigger. We feel so ashamed and powerless, like we are locked in a plastic prison.”

Actually, Terry and Jane are not real names. But these real people represent throngs of Christians who spend and spend till they have maxed out their credit cards. Then, when a compelling human need rises in their view, it may grip their emotions, but they can give nothing because their cash has long since “gone buy-buy.”

Imagine how you or I would feel if our personal finances were thrown up on a public screen? Mug shot. Driver’s license – and every credit card line item and check stub. We’d feel violated! Right? And exposed! Because you can tell a lot about a person by the things for which they are willing to go into debt. Our secret values lurk behind the numbers.

Of course some debt is inescapable. Sometimes emergencies strike: Accident. Injury. Illness. But more often when we get ourselves locked into our plastic prisons of consumer debt it is simply because we buy too much!

Why do Christian people get into this bondage? On one level the culture sucks us in. A consumer-driven, status-seeking culture relentlessly dazzles us with glittering junk. It whispers pleasant lies into our itching ears; “this stuff will make you happy.” And we spend—under the illusion that the next purchase might bring some of the elusive joy and fulfillment we all so much long for.

On another deeper level, however, the overspending comes not from the irresistible power of the culture around us, but arises from the personal internal patterns of the character within us—or lack of it. We grow impatient waiting for “abundant life” to unfold. We want “the good life”—now! And being self-consumed we lack the discipline to speak the magic word “enough.” So we go buy—buy! Consequently real fulfillment—and financial freedom “go bye-bye “ as well.

There are at three types of spenders:

•Impulsive spenders who “gotta buy it because there is no down payment and no payments for eighteen months.” But eventually the bill arrives, plus twenty percent interest, and a payment book as thick as a dictionary.

•Compulsive spenders who buy things to medicate unmeet emotional needs: “When I feel bad I go shopping” one person confided “but buyer’s remorse and mounting bills leave me feeling even worse.”

•Status spenders who feel, “If I don’t have one like that I’ll look like a loser.” So they spend money they don’t have, on things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like—in pursuit of fulfillment they never find.

On it goes, driven by one or more of the above impulses, we spend ourselves into bondage. Then a cause that really matters rises up in our path: People. Poor people. Suffering people. Lost people. A mission inside the city or outside the continent. Our hearts are touched. Our friends are eagerly writing generous checks. But, we can’t. Like Terry and Jane, debt has stolen our freedom to give.

Debt has also enslaved us to our creditors—and escalates pressure to earn. Of course the figures and attending interest rates are always changing, but at the time of a fairly recent report, if you owed $3,000 on your credit card and added no more purchases—and if you paid the minimum payment each month—it would take thirty-seven years and seven months to pay it off! What’s more, on your $3,000 debt you would pay $7,931 in interest alone!

As J. Rubin Clarke says, “Once you’re in debt, interest becomes your companion every minute of the day and night, and it is working against you. It has no love, no sympathy. It is as hard and soul-less as a granite cliff. You cannot dismiss it. Whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you. It just crushes you.”

Debt also imperils Christian witness. I cannot convince people that “Jesus is all we really need” while my grasping life-style screams that Jesus isn’t enough for me. And you cannot convincingly preach “freedom in Christ” while debt holds you under bondage. A Christian who doesn’t pay his or her bills has no credibility at all!

Actually, at the deepest level of all, debt may result from a form of idolatry. Often, aware of it or not, the deepest reason we grasp for more things is that, at the center of our souls we lack trust in God’s goodness. We subconsciously fear that He is not enough. Oh yes, God promised to care for us “like the lilies of the field.” Granted he offers peace, joy and meaning—and to enrich all of life’s relationships. But that “siren song of a consumer culture” drowns out our father’s gracious promises and we begin to look everywhere but up in our search for what only God can give.

This kind of idolatry is not new. King David borrowed a heap of trouble, when He forgot the Father’s provision and grabbed for himself what he did not need and what was not good for him (II Samuel 12:8-9). The prophet, Nathan, spoke the Father’s sadness into David’s tragic choices, “I anointed you King of Israel, I delivered you from the hand of Saul, and I gave you your master’s house. And if all this had been too little, I would have added more…” Like King David, joy-hungry Christians easily forget the Father’s amazing grace and go whoring after life in all the wrong places. The Father’s ancient lament has a contemporary ring, “I had it in my heart to give you more, if…” if you hadn’t run ahead and tried to bag it for yourself.

So what to do?
We need not stay forever locked in our plastic prisons. Breaking out is very possible. But we do not break free simply by generating more income. The great escape requires at least four steps:

1. A decision. Drive down a stake and resolve to trust in God. And at every urge to splurge, keep on deciding, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have every thing that I need.

2. A plan. One good plan is the widely practiced and time tested 10-10-80 plan. When you get your check, the first ten percent goes to God. Second, ten percent to savings (the more automatic the better, like payroll deductions for example.) The other eighty percent is for healthful living and joyful giving to surprise opportunities. Churches can help here. In our church a pair of trained financial planners led what they called Good $ense ministry (name borrowed from elsewhere). The plan was simple and two-pronged: seminars plus personal financial coaching. The quarterly Good $ense seminars offered training on topics such as “escaping the credit card trap,” “planning a budget,” and “stretching your dollars (similar to the excellent Crown Ministries Bible-based financial management now used in many churches).

3. Accountability. Many Christians find it very helpful to make a trusted confidante privy to inside financial information, a friend who helps keep the plan on track. The personal financial coaching offered couples free, one-on-one counsel in their financial planning, debt management – plus on-going financial accountability.

4. Time. During those Good $ense ministry years, we challenged our people to shoot for a 10-10-80 plan. Realistically, most couples could not do this immediately. But wise leaders coached, “That’s OK. Let the Good $ense folks help you start now to manage debt reduction, build a financial plan, and shoot toward 10-10-80 within the next six months. Interestingly, over the next couple of years we saw couples escape their plastic prisons and actually become able to give ten percent to God and save ten percent. And most became free to give joyfully and generously when mission needs and disasters like 9-11 arose.

The Terry and Jane story had a happy ending. Yours can too. There are plenty of joy stories out there: stories of escape from plastic prison into the generosity of financial freedom, stories of self-respect coming when couples trust God to be enough, stories of peace and fulfillment settling over those who choose to walk out onto the promises of God, and to live a cut above a consumer culture.New Wineskins

Lynn Anderson is an author, well-known speaker, and founder of the San Antonio based Hope Network Ministries, a ministry dedicated to coaching, mentoring and equipping church leaders.

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