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.

Published by R-J Heijmen

R-J Heijmen is the Senior Assistant Rector for Education, Stewardship and Student Ministries at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, TX. Previous to that, R-J lived in New York City for 10 years, where he led one of the largest youth ministries in Manhattan and planted a church. He and his wife Jaime have two boys, Jackson, 10 and Spencer 8.

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  1. “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.”

    That’s a great line, R-J, and a great post all the way around.

  2. Hi RJ — so smart, as always. But I must protest that atheists do not see themselves as in default, and being an atheist does not mean that you are not aware of indebtedness. Acceptance of the debt, awareness of the need for gratitude and right behavior can exist without god as the focus! It’s hard for all of us to accept our faulted nature and continue to love, and god plays a role in this for some, but not all.

    Just sayin!

    1. Rebecca –

      Thanks for reading! And super-interesting comment! Can I ask, to whom does the indebtedness apply, if not God? Your fellow man (people:)? And in reference to what standard can we say that we are faulted, if not God’s? Don’t mean to be confrontational (honest), just genuinely interested in your response. Thanks again!

      Lastly, I would also say that the benefit of God, from a Christian perspective at least, is that only He can/will forgive, especially when we don’t deserve it and no one else will. Greece needs Jesus:)

    2. Rebecca, I agree, great comment! Yummy. Here are my thoughts.

      I think we are seeing atheists fall all over themselves these days saying, “HEY! Shut up! We have morals too! We are WAY more moral than all these Christian losers! AND, we’re going to start having ceremonies and fake services and more community, because some parts of religion are good. We may even invent some liturgy. PLUS, unlike all of those morons, we believe in evolution. We just don’t believe in God. Why should theists have all the fun?

      No atheist is going to come out and say, OH YEAH, I don’t care about morals, I don’t believe in God so I can do whatever I want! They are not indebted to God, because they don’t believe in God. But, wherever it came from, just like all of us, they have a sense of justice, and they are indebted to that.

      I also believe that no atheist is going to come out and say, “Not only do I believe in morals, but I’m PERFECT. I’m like Jesus, but better, because I’m not a myth!” You really are not going to find someone of this persuasion. So what do we have? A person with a very keen sense of morals who doesn’t really keep their own morals. They are indebted to their own principles that they hold to but don’t keep. It sounds very familiar actually.

  3. Well, I am sure both of you would win a debate so I’m not going there. I absolutely recognize the value of a Christian perspective! I am so glad I found this website! I enjoy a good sermon!

    I won’t debate, but I will answer that my standard for knowing we are flawed is that we suffer. Because we strive, we are selfish, desiring creatures who forget to live by our principles, we suffer, and we cause suffering. This is both the beauty and the struggle of our life. .

    Indebtedness presumes a gift that must be acknowledged and therefore a giver. And I’m not sure of the answer, except that I’m pretty sure if there were a God, he wouldn’t care much one way or the other about our gratitude. Like a perfect parent, he wouldn’t even expect it, but simply go on loving unconditionally despite the kids’ addiction to foreign oil. It is something we simply feel — probably a left over emanation of that we feel for our parents, an impulse that promotes communal well-being, and while a focus on God nurtures it, there are other ways too.

    I think of the prodigal son who was never not forgiven by his father, no matter what he did. Too bad Greece doesn’t have a father with a spare fatted calf. I also think, of course, of Job, my favorite story of all, who was called out to acknowledge that he could not begin to understand God’s motivations so just knuckle under, buddy (or as I would call it: radical acceptance).

    This is just the way I like to think about it.



  4. Rebecca –

    Super helpful! Thanks so much. And I have NO interest in debate (tried that and it wasn’t any fun:( – just good honest discussion.

    The point you make about God’s unconditional love is a great one. Reminds me a lot of Robert Capon, an Episcopal priest and AMAZING author, now retired and living on LI. God’s unconditional grace for broken people and our radical acceptance of our lot (ala Job), trusting that God knows what He’s doing – sounds about right! And impossible to actually believe/live:) That’s my daily struggle, believe me! Thanks again. Fun to talk about this stuff!

  5. I felt a tugging in my heart to release a huge debt owed to me from a family member….it was a debt owed from 2009. The person has had a series of health challenges and I just simply felt that tugging of the heart to release them of this old debt the same way God has touched others hearts to release me. This article just confirms to me that I did the right thing at the right time. Thank u for a well put together article.

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