Among the podcasts to which I subscribe is NPR’s excellent Planet Money, a program which was born out of the Great Recession and guides listeners through the intricacies of the global financial system, both past and present. Sounds really boring, I know, but it isn’t, and has been very helpful to this New Yorker, living in a finance town with no finance knowledge or experience. And it’s great for sermon illustrations, as you will soon see…

A recent episode caught my attention – “History Is a Battle between Creditors and Debtors” – in which the hosts discuss how the kind of tension that exists between say, Greece and the Euro-Zone, or the US and China, or you and Capitol One, has always been a major factor in world history. The earliest financial records we have of any kind, dating back thousands of year, are records of debt.

When I saw the title of the podcast, my first thought was how true it was, how the battle between creditor and debtor applies not just to the physical realm, but the spiritual one as well, how the history of humanity’s interaction with the divine is defined by how we cope (or don’t cope) with the deficit of righteousness which we have always felt.

The program went on to say that there are really only four strategies for dealing with debt, and as they described these strategies, I began to see powerful parallels between how human debtors and creditors relate to one another and how we relate to God.

One of the strategies for getting out of debt is currency manipulation. That is, changing the value of the money so that the amount owed, in absolute terms, goes down. I won’t go into this too much, for fear of boring you, but it struck me that this tactic of “changing the terms” is fairly analogous, in the Christian life, to devaluing the law, trying to make it more doable. Jesus didn’t really mean “you must be perfect“, did he? He was just speaking hyperbolically, to be sure… “‘Perfect’ is a mistranslation, the real word is ‘complete'”, right? And on and on. We try to manipulate the terms of our indebtedness to God, thinking that the debt will be easier to pay if it isn’t quite so severe. I don’t think God is buying it.

The second strategy is growth. That is to say, if I (as a person or a country) can grow, can make more money, then I can pay off my debt more quickly. This is the strategy that America used to pay off its debts after World War 2, and it worked really well, but apparently that was the exception, not the rule, as it is very difficult for countries to pay off their debts through growth. From a spiritual perspective, the growth program corresponds to the “do more, try harder, be better” mode of thought that is so pervasive throughout the church and, indeed, all of society. The basic idea is that if I work really hard, if I grow really righteous, if I do a lot of good, then I can somehow make up for all of my sins. Of course, this never works, and leads only to greater despair.

The third strategy is default: saying, simply and bluntly, “screw you, I won’t pay” to your creditors, to those to whom your debt is owed. This is the strategy adopted by atheists, agnostics and antinomians (law-and-sin-deniers). At some point, it becomes much easier to deny that the creditor (God) and/or the debt (sin) exist than to deal with the enormity of the amount owed. Better to not think about God at all than to stare your wretchedness in the face.

Of course, there is a fourth and final strategy, one which costs the creditor everything and the debtor nothing: forgiveness. Not surprisingly, it is the strategy least often used but also most effective, most freeing. The creditor (God) simply lets the debt (sin) go, taking the hit himself (cross) with no action from those who rightfully owe him. This is Christianity, and it is the only hope for people like us who carry a debt so huge we could never hope to repay it.