As we start 2021, the global pandemic continues to rage its economic fallout continues to be felt by families worldwide. Some were in a tenuous financial situation before the pandemic, and their situation has become worse. Others have found themselves there because of the pandemic (job and income loss, medical bills, etc.). In any case, I wanted to share this guest post with you from a fellow blogger and financial coach, Kati Hyer.
Kati is a young mother who, along with her husband, was dealing with a mountain of debt. As I have written about many times, a lack of financial margin during your earning years can prevent you from saving and giving. Consequently, saving for their future was the farthest thing from their minds. Kati will be the first to tell you she is sharing this "message" from her "mess."
She and her husband married in college and borrowed a forehead-smacking amount of student loans in college, too, so they learned about personal finance the hard way: by paying off $154,000 while raising four small kids.
I found Kati's story inspiring and compelling, and I appreciate her heart to assist others. I trust you find this article helpful and encouraging, no matter what financial challenge you are dealing with. You can read her blog and view her podcasts at katihyer.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.– Chris Cagle
Can I really pay off all this debt?
This question is a precursor to the others pressing behind it. "Will these creditors ever stop calling?" "Will these bills ever get caught up?" "Will we ever stop fighting over money?"
People voice these questions when they feel hopeless. Chances are, you or someone you know is asking these types of questions. That's because in America today, eight out of ten families in our neighborhoods are living paycheck to paycheck. The average car payment is $568 a month. The second leading cause of divorce is fighting over money – and after 2020, financial troubles are greater than ever before for hundreds of thousands of people. They are desperate.
I know the feeling. It was 2014, and I was standing at the altar at church, hot tears streaming down my cheeks. In my prayers, I was begging God to rescue us. We had $154,000 in student loans looming over us, a baby and one on the way, and just $7.00 in our checking account. We were broke, ashamed, and overwhelmed. Like so many couples today, we were desperate.
If you have ever felt that way, the Bible is chockablock with stories of God rescuing desperate people in miraculous ways. The good news is His word says he has plans for a hope and future for us, too, and we can take lessons from these stories and apply them to our own lives. Here's one of my favorite examples found in the second book of Kings, chapter 4.
Elisha was a prophet and wonder-worker in ancient Israel. One of his students died, living behind the student's widow and two sons. The widow came to Elisha in one of these moments of pure desperation. As it turns out, she and her husband were in a lot of debt. After his death, the bankers of ancient Israel called their loans, but the widow couldn't pay them back. According to the custom of that day, if she couldn't pay her debts in cash, she'd pay in hard labor, so her debtors were going to take her two young sons as slaves. She was in a panic. We pick up her story once she has rushed to the Prophet's home and told him of her family's impending ruin.
"Tell me, what do you have?" Elisha asked our desperate friend.
"Nothing, nothing but a jar of olive oil," she responds. Can you imagine the empty pantry? I can.
"Go, ask every one of your neighbors and friends for their empty jars. Don't ask for just a few. Then go inside the house and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side."
She does as Elisha asks. In their home, with the door shut, the sons and the mother are working tirelessly together. They brought the jars to her, and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she says to her son, 'Bring me another one."
The son responds, "We're all out." The KJV version reads, "Then the oil stayed."
She went and told the man of God, and he said, "Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what remains."
Incredible. A wife fresh in the middle of her grief starts off her day in pure desperation, thinking this might be the last day she sees her sons, and ends it with God's miracle. The oil is enough not only to pay off their debts, but it's enough for the three of them to live on after. Haven't you been in situations where you needed this kind of miracle?
The three key things in the story of the widow and her miracle
"That's nice for her, but I wish I could have a financial miracle, too!' You say. "I'd like to wake up tomorrow with a raise, my mortgage paid off, and a pile of lottery winnings. That would be miraculous!" But the widow doesn't wake up one day to see a house filled with oil. She wakes up to a scary reality and does three things that change her future that we too can do: She leans into her faith, leans into community, and she leans into work.
The widow's faith sent her back to the source, the Prophet Elisha. We can go to the source by praying and seeking the Father. In her case, and sometimes in ours, the Father shows us what we really have and what God will use.
The Widow goes to the prophet, and in her desperation, all the woman could see was the symbol of her poverty – a small jar of oil. (In his response, he houses it to make her wealth.) In his response, Elisha reminds her of what she does have: Go to your friends, your neighbors, and go to your house with your sons. She had much more than just a small flask of oil. She has resources, family, and community. Remember the scriptures:
"What do you have?" He asks her.
'Nothing but a flask of oil," she responds.
"Borrow as many jars as you can from your friends and neighbors, then go back to your house with your sons and pour out the oil."
Sometimes in our prayers, God will reveal new things to us that we couldn't have seen on our own. This is why it is so important to be a part of a church, grow in a small group, and spend time in the word. We need the word of God to be a light to our feet (Psalm 119:105).
The widow goes to Elisha, the man of God, for help; through Christ, we can speak directly to the father through prayer. So pray! In Ephesians 3:20, we are told that God can do exceedingly abundantly above more than we could ever ask or even imagine, so start asking Him. We can ask confidently for help, blessings, growth, and answers to problems because we know God wants to give us great gifts (Matthew 7:11). Know too that God's ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9) and ask yourself, how can we know his ways if we aren't seeking his voice? We also know that we must seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33) For a financial miracle, you have to go to the source first!
The second lesson we can apply to our own lives from the story of the woman and the jars of oil is the importance of community. The widow found guidance from Elisha, her sons worked with her, and where the jars came from. Her friends and neighbors. God worked a miracle for her through the combined support of her pastor, her family, her friends, and her neighbors.
When we live in real community with others, sharing our burdens and being honest about what's truly going on in our lives, God can work through them. I have heard stories of people who gifted a car to a young couple working out of their debt. I have seen entire houses furnished with second-hand furniture when the family couldn't afford any. We've all seen examples of neighbors helping neighbors when a tree falls after a storm. What about in our careers? They say it's not what you know but… that's right, who you know. These life connections are critical.
Sometimes it's difficult to admit you're working on a financial goal. But the widow in this story is an example to us. She wanted her sons' freedom more than she wanted to keep her embarrassment hidden. Remember she didn't just have a flask of oil on her credit card – She had to knock on the door of one of the nation's leaders and say she's in so much debt that her creditors were going to take her two sons as slaves. Then as she followed Elisha's instructions, she ended up having to tell her friends and neighbors what had happened.
Her public vulnerability pays off. Look what happened! She got the many jars from the friends and neighbors, and her sons helped her pour the oil. That's how God chooses to work his miracles: Through others.
What does that look like for you? You may need to tell your friends you're working to pay off your student loans, and you'll see them at the cross country reunion the year after this. You may need to ask your family for prayers, references for a new job, or career advice (Proverbs 15:22). It may be that you tell your coworkers that you are trying to hit a retirement goal, and eating out isn't an option anymore, but would they like to do a potluck lunch once a month instead?
Finally, if you don't see yourself as the woman who needed the miracle in this scripture, you may be the friends and neighbors supporting the person in your life who does need a miracle. Either way, the lesson is the importance of community.
3. Work: she filled the jars until they were entirely used up.
As soon as she receives the instructions from Elisha, our desperate heroine leaps into action.
When you hear wisdom, be obedient, and the scriptures are nothing if not abundantly full of wisdom on how to live our lives and act financially. The Bible says to work like crazy if you're in debt to pay it all off. "If you have signed surety my son, be as the gazelle in the hand of the hunter and the bird in the hand of the fowler.' (Proverbs 6:1-7) The answer to paycheck-to-paycheck living isn't to pray for payday's speedy arrival; it's to earn an income, live on less than you make and, have a plan for every dollar you make. (Luke 14:28, Proverbs 21:5). Finally, in Thessalonians, we are taught, "Work not, eat not."
Rabbi Daniel Lapin says that part of the reason that modern Jews tend to prosper financially (in 2010, 30% of the Forbes 100 were Jewish peopleAnd 5 of the ten richest Americans are Jewish) is because they are taught culturally that God is most pleased when we spend our time being obsessed with serving God's children. Put it another way: money comes from work, and work is serving others, bringing value to others, and helping others.
Elisha says, go do this, she does, then the miracle happens. She doesn't just wake up with a bunch of pots full of oil. She has to seek out the pots, fill them all, then go to the market and sell them.
What are the pots you're asking for? Those oil flasks can symbolize opportunities for us today, like texting your friends, not for empty kitchenware, but "Do you know anyone hiring? Do you know any lawns that need to be mowed? Can I do your taxes, or provide photography, or Uber, or fix your computer, or… , or… , or…."
Sometimes the work component in the miracle is finding ways to earn more money. Sometimes it's the mental work of doing a budget. Sometimes the work is getting organized, finding every bill to your name, and calling your creditors to get on a payment plan. God takes care even of the sparrows, but we have to remember they don't sit in the nest waiting for the hand of God to pile birdseed in it. We have to do the work.
Can I really pay off all this debt?
Suppose you're facing a desperate situation financially, and you don't know where to turn. In that case, the widow and her jar of oil can be an empowering, encouraging example for us to follow. Her story teaches us to lean into our faith, seek the source, lean into our community, and lean into work.
We didn't know what we would do that day when we stood at the altar and begged God to rescue us from financial ruin. But he did! We prayed for deliverance and provision, and we asked for prayer at church and in our small groups. Our community was so important to us as we encouraged each other, swapped babysitting with other couples so we could go to work, and enjoyed free outings like backyard bonfires, game nights, and potluck dinners. And we juggled raising our four little kids while working two, three, sometimes four extra jobs in our journey, paying off our six figures of student loans.
God is a God of miracles. He did a miracle for the widow. We totaled up our debt payoff, and after interest, penalties, and fees, God allowed us to pay off what amounted to nearly $200,000. A miracle indeed! He can do miracles for you, too. As you lean into your faith, your community, and your work, remember Jeremiah 29:11 "I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans for a hope and a future."