There is $US247 trillion in debt around the world, according to a report from the Institute of International Finance. This figure is about three times greater than the total size of the global economy. In the year 2000, that global debt was $87 trillion, so it has nearly tripled since then. It is becoming apparent that the economic growth of the past two decades has been built on debt. Individuals, businesses and governments have all borrowed heavily to finance what is believed to be “economic growth” and wealth. However, the reality is that deficit spending is not growth and debt is certainly not wealth.
The question is often asked, “Who is lending the money for all of this borrowing?” It’s a very good question, and the answer is quite complex. First of all, the modern financial and banking system has the ability to “create money” that it can lend out to borrowers. This banking system relies partly on savers and businesses who have their money on deposit, but financial regulations allow the banks to lend many times more money than they have in deposits. At times it seems like this magical money-generating machine has no limits and can create credit indefinitely. But what we are seeing unfold today reflects the reality that this system does in fact have limits.
Governments also borrow money, mostly from their citizens or perhaps other nations, in the form of bonds. Or at times they make promises to pay later, like pensions, from future tax revenues. Governments rely on tax to repay their loans, but with virtually every government and every politician using deficit spending (borrowing) to finance campaign promises and get elected, the burden of these debts eventually falls on the backs of the taxpayer. The evidence of the looming end of this “credit cycle”, when the limits of borrowing are reached, is that it becomes more expensive to borrow money. Or in other words, interest rates begin to rise. Up until this year’s trade war with China, US interest rates were steadily increasing. The impact was being felt in every country around the world, because the rising US interest rate is reflected in a stronger US dollar, which means a higher cost of doing business around the world. This globally interconnected world is beneficial to all parties when it’s healthy and growing, but when the supply of money decreases or gets more expensive or both, the decline drags everyone down with it. We rise and fall together.
Does the Bible have anything to say about debt? Well, there are certainly wise sayings. The apostle Paul tells us to “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (Romans 13:8). God promised the Israelites that, under His blessings, they would “lend to many nations but . . . borrow from none” (Deuteronomy 15:6). But, beyond just sage advice to ancient peoples, does the Bible say anything in prophecy about all of the debt we are amassing today and what might happen in the near future?
We could turn to the book of Habakkuk, where the prophet is warning the king of Babylon about a debt crisis. Habakkuk describes a proud nation that has an insatiable appetite for possessions and seeks to conquer the world. The prophet warns, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own” (Habakkuk 2:6, ESV*). This is a fitting description of our modern society, which prizes the accumulation of material goods. But why are these possessions not truly his own? The prophet answers, saying that this individual “loads himself with pledges” (that is, debt). While we’re in debt to the bank or credit card company, our possessions are not truly our own. Too many of us in our on-demand world have lost the virtue of saving and waiting for a purchase.
Habakkuk asks the all-important question, “For how long?” And then he provides this warning: “Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them” (Habakkuk 2:7). A stern warning not just for the avaricious king of Babylon, but for all of us caught in a debt trap. How long until our day of reckoning? Until our spending and debts catch up with us?
Are we reading too much into the words of this obscure Hebrew prophet? Well, we should note that while Habakkuk was writing to the king of Babylon, his empire didn’t succumb to a debt crisis. Habakkuk writes at the beginning of the passage that this warning is for the future, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie” (Habakkuk 2:3). Bible prophecy uses the concept and imagery of Babylon, an historical nation, to represent future regimes that repress God’s people. Perhaps Habakkuk was writing for a future audience; about a future Babylon representing a metaphorical repressive financial regime ruling over the world, trapping us in a materialistic state.
And Babylon, a name that originated from the Tower of Babel (meaning “confusion”), may also be an apt metaphor for the condition of the last-days church called Laodicea (see Revelation 3:14–22). It’s a church filled with people who think they are rich when in fact they are poor, and don’t realise their true condition. So many of us live in nice houses, drive around in shiny new vehicles and look like a typical middle-class family. But when we consider our debts and obligations, we are really insolvent—our real financial worth is less than zero. We work harder every day to try to maintain a status quo that seems to be slipping through our fingers. Furthermore, we are in deficit when it comes to real quality relationships, and outright bankrupt when looking for meaning in our lives.
But, it’s not just the church that is captive to this economic malaise of debt; the entire world seems to be in the same trap. Is there a solution, or are we all destined to eke out an existence hoping blindly that the status quo can be maintained? Is there a better way to live? Jesus said, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). While we might think He was just talking about life in heaven, a closer inspection indicates that He was actually talking about a more abundant life in this world. But how is that possible for those of us who were not born into a wealthy family, or have not been fortunate enough to strike it rich? Did Jesus really mean that we could have a good life here and now? And if so, how is that possible in this debt-driven, materialistic world?
If we look at legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, we would think that there are some basic needs that we need to fulfill first in order to get to the next level of development or satisfaction. We need the basic necessities of food or shelter just to live. Next, we need social acceptance and accomplishments to feel valued. Yet Christ said that when we are poor, we are rich; when we are weak, we are strong; and when the world rejects us, He rewards us (see Matthew 5:1–12, 2 Corinthians 12:9). He completely turned the world’s expectations upside down. He invites us into a relationship with Him—to reject the world’s priorities. And He contends that this will fulfill our deepest needs.
Greater than this world
There is something inherent in each of us that seeks the spiritual, the divine. There is a part of us that can only be filled by something greater than ourselves and greater than this world. There is a need for a sharing relationship between us and God—without it, we can never be whole.But when we have it, the things of this world seem to pale in comparison. When we have the Spirit of God inside us, we can be fulfilled, have health (including mental health), have real friendships and have true purpose. Life . . . abundantly.
And, of course, no matter how eloquently I try to describe this wonderful relationship with God and a fulfilled life, I’ll fall short. It’s not until we meet a person who has that joy in their life—that abundance—that we can begin to see and experience what Jesus was talking about. Someone, for example, who may look like they are not rich in the things of this world, but have a wider smile that any billionaire. Someone who is gracious and generous, like they own the whole world, because deep inside, they know they do. These are people who know that they are heirs—joint heirs with Jesus as the King of the universe!
You haven’t met a Christian like that? I apologise. That is the greatest failure of the Christian church—not living and representing the joy it is to walk with Jesus. Our failure as Christ’s ambassadors is in seeking fulfillment in the things of this world when God offers us real peace, joy, love and purpose in life.
As the world devolves around us—economically, politically, ecologically, morally—I hope you will meet a true Christian who lives the abundant life that Jesus promised, so you can be inspired and encouraged to know that it is real and He is real. Or perhaps you will find an entire church that has been aroused from their state of Laodicean slumber and is a living example of the growing kingdom that Jesus announced 2000 years ago. Or perhaps you can be that person, who will show the world what Jesus meant when He said that He came to give life. No longer a debtor, but a generous giver of the blessing of the abundant life.
Tim Aka has a background in business finance and manages the investment portfolio for the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.
* Bible verses in this article are used with permission from the English Standard Version (2001, Crossway).