As I write this article for the Malaysian church, the metaphoric ‘elephant in the room’ is the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic.
Times are tough and, frankly, they may get worse before they get better. Even with the phenomenal advances made by virologists seeking a safe, viable vaccine, of which there are thankfully many candidates, the two main bottlenecks to planetwide immunisation are:
- The logistical nightmare of getting the initial and subsequent booster shots into at least 75% of humanity ASAP; and
- The economic cost of doing so, particularly for poorer nations.
Nonetheless, I know good times will return to our country, continent and world in due course. In the meantime, we need to tough it out. For those who have lost their jobs, I urge you to be willing to take on two or three – possibly menial – part-time positions to keep money flowing in even as you look for a better full-time position. The structural dislocations that are cratering industries like aviation, cinemas and entertainment, hospitality, oil and gas, and tourism won’t reverse themselves quickly. Workers who have been summarily ejected from them should retrain themselves for opportunities opening up in 5G telecommunications, cargo and courier services, green energy, logistics, glove and mask manufacturing, and e-commerce.
As we accept the reality that tough economic times will stay with us for a while, there is a profound biblical lesson that I think each of us should take to heart because of our personal experiences throughout this Great Virus Crisis (GVC):
Lesson: Have you noticed how regular people with regular amounts of debt – owed to regular financial institutions like banks and also on regular financial debt instruments like credit cards – experience irregularly high stress levels when their incomes fall because of their inability to work as usual?
And might you also have observed how certain peculiar, some might say eccentric, individuals with low levels of debt (or no debt at all) have been able to weather this pernicious viral storm with relative equanimity and peace of mind?
If you have perceived a difference between those two groups, perhaps because you belong to one set and have curiously observed the other, you should extract this life lesson from the GVC because it will hold you in good stead long after we have defeated Covid-19 through God’s grace and mercy, and the ingenuity of our scientists.
This life lesson stems from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Its key verse, Romans 13:8, is often used by Christian financial planning teachers and proponents to encourage us to get out of financial debt:
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.”
As with all correct examinations of biblical teaching, context is vital. Therefore, if we focus on the two verses preceding Romans 13:8, we find Paul teaching (first century AD) Christians in Rome guidelines on living as good, contributing citizens of society, including paying their fair share of taxes, fulfilling all financial obligations, AND extending respect and honour to those in authority1.
So, while Romans 13:8 isn’t solely about financial debts, it does include them.
In his book The New Master Your Money, Christian financial planner and author Ron Blue includes a chapter entitled ‘The Dangers of Debt’ in which he unpacks Romans 13:8:
“Anyone who has borrowed money from another person, and especially another Christian, realises the wall that immediately goes up from being in a debtor/lender relationship. Debtors and lenders are not really free to love one another.”
Some of you might disagree with Blue’s interpretation because in your own life you might have lent money to some family members or friends out of affection or even love to help them out of a financial hole or over a financial hump. (I have… many times.) Yet in recent years I have been increasingly prompted by the Holy Spirit to reach out to some people I care for and to give them an outright gift of money instead of extending a loan.
My various lending experiences have taught me that even with the best of intentions, relatively few people ever repay me. My respect for those who do so rises with every repayment they make. In contrast, I have to consciously and proactively decide not to get angry or stay furious at those who do not repay me.
What I’ve described, though, is just half of any lender-borrower dynamic. You see, each time I have borrowed money I have learnt two different lessons:
1. When times are good and incomes are high, our ability to borrow money is greatest. But times don’t always stay good and for most of us our income levels will fluctuate from decade to decade. The more debt I accrue, the more of my present and future income streams must be diverted to repay those strangling loans; and
2. In a world where major economic crises arise every decade or so, two things are certain: first, this viral crisis in front of us will pass eventually and good times will return (they always do) and, second, the more indebted I am, the less I am able to take advantage of the incredible wealth-building opportunities I perceive right in front of me at the low point of each crisis.
Taken together, those disparate lessons give us two valuable perspectives on a Bible proverb that teaches us how anyone who borrows money becomes a servant or, worse yet, a slave to the institution or person who lends2.
Furthermore, the Bible also warns us about signing as a guarantor for someone else’s loans3.
What I discuss below will make me unpopular in some circles. So be it.
1. In Malaysia it is common practice for banks to ask for a guarantor when someone else with less than a sterling credit history tries to borrow money. It is so commonplace that most Malaysians accept it as part and parcel of living in our society, and also as a way of showing tangible love to those who ask us to be their guarantors.
Thankfully, this is one mistake I never made because more than 40 years ago, when I was a teenager reading my Bible, I came across this admonition NOT to sign as guarantor for anything or anyone. I obeyed it.
So much so, when I was in my early 30s and my younger brother asked me to sign as guarantor for a study loan he was offered, I said, “No!” Unsurprisingly that strained our relationship for several years. If you’re wondering, I have never been a guarantor for anyone else’s borrowings, either.
Sadly, I have encountered too many people over the years who regret signing as guarantors for other people’s loans, which were then not repaid properly. Predictably, the guarantor ended up being harassed and even threatened with bankruptcy by the lender when the actual borrower failed to make the loan repayments.
I have mulled over this for decades, and some time ago I figured out a personal finance loophole that is in line with Scripture which permits a person to be a guarantor for someone else’s loan under a unique set of circumstances…
If a family member or close friend wishes to borrow, say, RM50,000 from the bank to buy a car and if – because that person’s financial strength is shaky – a guarantor is required, then in my opinion it would be acceptable for you to agree to be guarantor IF this criterion is met:
You must have your own unencumbered liquid assets that far exceed the amount being borrowed!
Let’s say you have a total of RM150,000 in personal savings in your bank current account, savings account and a series of fixed deposits (FDs). Then I think it would be acceptable for you to guarantee the loan IF you carve out the full amount being borrowed – RM50,000 in this case – and set it aside, apart from the rest of your savings.
You could set up a new FD with that RM50,000 and act as though it is no longer your money by mentally ring-fencing it away from your remaining RM100,000 in savings. You would only consciously add it back to your own wealth AFTER the borrower fully repays the loan (and you have verified that with the bank independently).
This condition of mine for signing as a guarantor is so onerous and triggers so many mental alarm bells that I am hoping you will see the profound wisdom in the Bible’s exhortation NOT to become a guarantor.
2. The Bible teaches us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us4. That lesson taught by Jesus Himself is of such centrality to civilised living nowadays that even non-Christians know it as The Golden Rule.
So, how would we like others to treat us?
First, if we were to borrow money from someone, we would hope they don’t harass us for repayment. Second, if we were to lend money to someone, we would very much like to get repaid.
Therefore, since that is how we would like to be treated as a borrower and as a lender, The Golden Rule guides our ideal, best possible, behaviour in either circumstance.
When we lend money to someone, dare we adopt the approach of not nagging them with requests for repayment? If we can, great! But if we can’t, then it would be best to never lend anyone money.
And when we borrow money, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching, isn’t it clear we should be fantastic paymasters who are never late and always focused on repaying our loans early?
You will realise I am suggesting we act much tougher on ourselves than we do toward others, which by the way is a wise, commendable personal philosophy.
While what I am suggesting here is radical, it seems to me Jesus advocated such behaviour, too. In Luke 6:30, He said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” I believe that verse is 100% relevant to the Golden Rule; you will think so, too, I suspect, once you realise that shiny guideline is just one verse later in Luke 6:31!
So, might I suggest when it comes to borrowing, you try your best to borrow as little as possible, and then to repay what you have borrowed as quickly as possible?
And as for lending, it might be wise for some people to never lend money to others. But if you have the financial ability to do so, consider giving money away with no strings attached. You see, when we lend money to others, we have a tendency to believe they should owe us an endless debt of gratitude. That expectation will poison even the sweetest relationship.
So, the next time someone approaches you, perhaps to borrow RM1,000 to tide him over till his next pay cheque, you might say, “No, I won’t lend you so much, but may I, instead give you some money – say RM100 or RM200 – to help you through this tough time.”
If the person you extend such grace and graciousness to is of worthy character, he will want to repay the money. If that happens, you would be wise and kind to say:
“No, friend I gave you that money. If you like, please look out for an opportunity to help someone else with this money by also giving it away and encouraging that person to ‘pay it forward’.”
To conclude, our planet continues to reel from the damage caused everyday by Covid-19. Millions of people currently in debt will be nudged into bankruptcy or servitude. A little kindness on our part can save a life and bless a family.
1 NIV Romans 13:6-7, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour then honour.”
2 NIV Proverbs 22:7, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”
3 NIV Proverbs 11:15, “He who puts up security for another will surely suffer, but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe.”
4 NIV Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
CFP (Certified Financial Planner) is the CEO of RD WealthCreation Sdn Bhd and a Securities Commission-licensed financial planner with Manulife Asset Management Services Berhad.