The Paradox of Spiritual Debt
by Ray DeGraw
[Over the next few Sundays we are publishing a series from Ray that will focus on the Sermon on the Mount, analyzing each characteristic of godliness found in Matthew 5-7. Series begins here.]
Debt is an interesting thing.
On one hand, it allows us to acquire things we don’t have but need. On the other hand, it allows us to acquire things we don’t need but want. On one hand, our needs are bought and paid for – fully and completely – sometimes with little or no regard for our ability to reimburse our benefactor. On the other hand, our wants are purchased on credit – financed with an interest rate that can be difficult or even impossible to repay. On both hands, debt has a significant impact on how we see ourselves and the world around us. This paradox (debt as a provider of both the necessary and unnecessary – as natural and chosen – as freeing and enslaving) is fascinating in relation to spiritual poverty.
Being in debt is defined as owing for something that is possessed now but will be paid in full at a later date, or lost if payment is not made. It occurs when someone who has insufficient money to purchase something borrows from one who has sufficient money to make the purchase, and generally includes an agreement to pay interest for that purchase. This means that the buyer ends up paying more – often substantially more – for the item purchased than the original, cash cost.
What are the spiritual implications of this situation?
Being poor in spirit commonly is defined as being humble: recognizing our inability to make adequate payments to purchase our salvation. It includes having to turn to one (Jesus) who possesses enough to make up the difference of what we cannot pay, combining with our own infinitesimally small contribution to satisfy an infinite price. In this way, we recognize that we are unavoidably indebted to God, that we incurred a debt when we accepted Jehovah’s offer in the pre-existence to be our Savior and Redeemer – both titles that describe our inherent spiritual debt.
What we often fail to understand is that no matter how much spiritual capital we possess – even if we are prophets, visionaries, seers, and orators extraordinaire – our contribution added to His contribution equals not one penny more than the spiritual capital of a serial killer added to His contribution. It is not our contribution that makes the payment complete, that redeems our debt; it is the combining of ours with His.
There is one interesting twist to this formula – and it is in this twist that the paradox of spiritual debt arises – where the irrational numbers of grace appear.
We are told very clearly that all that is required is all that we are able to give. The exact phrase is:
I have employed a common linguistic tactic to highlight the meaning of this sentence, as such: “(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved.” This stresses that our own efforts will never be enough – that no matter what we do, we still need His grace. However, it also says that we are required to give our all – that nothing less will suffice.
This is where debt enters the pictures. We are told to realize that we can add nothing to the grace of God that will earn our salvation; we also are told, however, that we cannot subtract from our offering without affecting the results of that grace.
What is the point of this distinction?
Going back to the financial analysis, worldly debt forces us to give money to someone who is already relatively rich (and getting richer from the payments of the poor), which means that we are unable to give that money to those who need it: to our fellow poor. It means that we lengthen the course of our poverty and put our agency (in how we use our resources) in the hands of people who only extend the credit that binds our potential to do good specifically in order to raise themselves above us and keep us bound as long and as tightly as possible.
Rather than being poor voluntarily in order to alleviate destitution in others, we are poor by the explicit intentions of those who are dedicated to encouraging continued relative poverty and, in some cases, actual destitution. In summary, debt makes us complicit in the separation and polarization of mankind, in furthering the disunity of our fellow (wo)man.
Spiritually, there are two kinds of debt: 1) that which cannot be avoided by anyone as a simple and natural consequence of the Fall; 2) that which can be avoided but which we incur through the exercise of our agency.
The first type of debt (that which is unavoidable) is what the atonement covers without reservation and without condition (our inherited tempers, our addictive tendencies, our insecurities, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, etc.) This is the debt that we must recognize in order to see our natural and equal poverty and petition the Almighty for the application of His grace.
The redemption of this debt frees us to focus on taking our limited resources and providing them for the work of the Redeemer, sharing our spiritual capacities with fellow debtors, helping them recognize their own purchased state, so they also can share their spiritual capital with their fellow debtors, repeated ad infinitum in an ever-increasing and widening circle of influence, moving a community toward the unity that defines Zion. It is a state of communal sharing of what has been redeemed – what naturally is owed to the Redeemer – but which is placed by Him in His infinite, communal account from which all may draw. It manifests itself in a spirit of sharing, of caring for others enough to forgo individual wants in the pursuit of collective needs.
The second kind of spiritual debt is that which can be avoided – that which we acquire through the conscious choices we make – that which subtracts from our all and keeps us from offering that all to Him. Such debt can be redeemed, but it requires our repentance: the changing of our hearts and the elimination of those choices that cause us to incur those debts. This type of debt puts us in bondage to one who exacts interest, to whom we can end up paying over and over and over again, with no end of payments in sight and with no access to a communal account from which we can draw for support.
This eventually leaves us spiritually destitute: unable to provide even the basic spiritual necessities for ourselves and our loved ones and, just as importantly, unable to participate in God’s work and glory of raising, empowering, enabling, and ennobling His children. Rather than being partakers in the combined distribution of His grace, we become unable to focus on Him and His will and become consumed in our own misery and deprivation. It manifests itself in an attempt spiritually to keep up with the Joneses – to be more spiritual than others – and the result is that we become proud, condescending, dismissive, and judgmental.
Thus, we are told to recognize our unavoidable spiritual poverty – in fact, to become poor in spirit – but we are commanded just as forcefully to avoid spiritual destitution by avoiding choices that consume our spiritual capital and bind us to he who is interested only in gaining power and glory through our enslavement. We are to recognize our natural, involuntary indebtedness to participate in His work and glory while simultaneously avoiding intentional, voluntary spiritual debt that keeps us from being able to do so.
I welcome any thoughts that hit you as you read this post.