Darren and Cynthia (fictional names) had $80,000 in credit card debt, two old paid for vehicles and a house with zero equity that they were trying to sell. Because Darren’s job required him to work sporadic hours, it was difficult for him to find extra work. Cynthia worked a sales job that brought in irregular income. They secured my services to help them with their finances.
These two believed strongly that they should continue to tithe while working on their debt. They also believed vehemently that they should always make all of their payments. The problem was that they did not have enough income to make minimum payments to all creditors, so they would pay all of their creditors and bills with their income then charge their groceries and gasoline to credit cards, thus increasing their debt every month.
I recommended that, instead of continuing to dig a deeper hole each month, they prioritize their finances, meaning they would always make house payments, utility payments, and grocery purchases. They would then make minimum payments to creditors as they were able. Depending on cash flow, some would occasionally go unpaid. We wrote letters and tried to work with creditors who were not getting paid. Some were receptive but others were not. Eventually, when threatened with a law suit, Darren and Cynthia filed bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy, for these Christians, was a traumatic event. Could it have been avoided it Darren and Cynthia had cut back on their tithes? Maybe. Early on, I very tentatively suggested that cutting back on the tithe could be something to consider, but, for them, this was a non-negotiable.
I have since struggled with the issue of tithing while paying off debt, and still have more questions than answers. Following are some of my thoughts.
I do believe that Christians should tithe
Tithing, or giving a tenth of your income to the Lord’s work, has been a basic tenet of Christianity for centuries. The practice, though not emphasized in the New Testament, was clearly taught in the Old Testament. I realize that we are under grace and not law, but it seems to me that Christians, who have been given so much, should give much. I don’t look at the tithe legalistically, but I think it should be a goal of all Christians to give at least 10%.
I also believe that Christians should pay their debts
Scriptures and common sense tell us that when we borrow money we should repay it.
What if these value systems collide?
If Christians can continue to tithe and still pay their debts, I think they should. However, when there isn’t enough money to do both, the issue becomes dicey. Pleasing God in one area (tithing) may necessitate not pleasing him in another area (paying our debts). In effect, doing so means giving God money we robbed from someone else (by not paying them what we owe them). So how does one handle this dilemma? Here are some thoughts:
- Examine your budget for fluff. I once had a client who did not have enough cash flow to tithe and also make minimum debt payments. Although he was paying $1300 a month on two car payments, he chose to cut back on his giving rather than divest himself of one or both cars. The point is that some people CAN continue to tithe while paying debt if they are willing to sacrifice (extra job, no eating out, no vacation, etc.)
- What if there is no fluff? Tough decisions need to be made based on the answer to this question: “In the financial situation I am currently in, how can I best please God?" Of course the answer is dependent on one’s particular theology and life commandments, but I think that the best way to honor God is to do our best at paying our debts while also giving to his kingdom. Realistically, the tithe might need to be temporarily cut back in order to do so. Yes, doing to may create huge guilt, but I question if this person was giving with right motives in the first place…see 2 Co 9:7 “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
- Consider giving more of your time. For some, giving more of their time may be a way to tithe while paying off debt. Volunteer to serve in your local church or other charitable organization.
- If the decision has been made to temporarily decrease your giving, formulate a plan to gradually increase it again. As the debt goes away, have a plan to systematically give more. Each increment may be very small (1% of your income at a time), but each increase should also be a celebration…God does indeed love a cheerful giver.
In summary, I think that Christians should willingly and cheerfully give 10% or more of their income to advance the Kingdom of heaven. I also think they should do their best to pay the debts they owe. If these two values clash, I think the Christian should seek the Lord and ask himself how he can best honor God. There may be times, after thoroughly scrutinizing the budget, when temporarily cutting back on tithing is a solution.