I’m in debt. How much should I give?

Here are three ways to look for ways to give, even when you're in debt.

John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Ushers David Brian (left) and Alex Mayhem collect the offering at the Peoples Baptist Church in Boston in this 2005 file photo. When you're in debt, is it right to try to find ways to give?

One very common question I get in workshops and through e-mail is how much to give while trying to get out of debt.

Before answering the question, it’s important to understand biblical teaching on generosity. The tithe, or 10 percent of one’s income, is the historical biblical starting point of generosity. The first example of tithing can be found in the book of Genesis which was well before introduction of the Mosaic Law. By the same token, since every positive New Testament example of generosity goes beyond 10 percent (read about Zacchaeus in Luke 19 and the poor widow Luke 12), it’s fair to say that the tithe is not the intended stopping point of biblical generosity.

When it comes to giving while in debt, one issue to consider is whether the person asking the question is in such dire straights that they literally cannot provide for their family while giving at the level of a tithe.

I have met people whose finances have been so devastated by a divorce, an extended period of unemployment, medical problems, or other issues that they truly could not afford to give. In those cases, they should be on the receiving end of other people’s generosity until they get back on their feet.

The more common situation, though, is one where someone has taken on a load of debt through lifestyle spending or unwise investing. They now recognize their mistakes, want to get out of debt, and figure they could be out of debt much faster if they gave less for a while. For anyone in that situation, here are three ideas to pray and think about.

3 Ideas to Pray About

First, before deciding to give less than a tithe, consider all other options for freeing up money to put toward your debts.

Proverbs 3:27-28 says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’—when you now have it with you.”

A good paraphrase of those verses is: “How serious are you?” Could you accelerate the payoff of your debts while still tithing if you went from a two-car household to a one-car household? What about going without your cable television subscription or even your home Internet connection? Or how about a temporary fast from buying new clothes? Take a hard look at every single line item in your budget.

When I read the depth and breadth of biblical teaching on generosity, starting with God’s instruction to make generosity our highest financial priority (Proverbs 3:9) and including the example made of the Macedonians, who in their “extreme poverty” pleaded for “the privilege of sharing” (2 Corinthians 8:2-4), it seems only right that other areas of lifestyle spending would be reconsidered before reconsidering the tithe.

My second suggestion is to pray for discernment . I have met numerous people who continued to give at least 10 percent while they were deeply in debt simply because they sensed that was what God was encouraging them to do.

Most recently, a couple told me their story of starting their marriage with $50,000 of debt and continuing to tithe during the six and a half years it took them to pay it all off. The woman acknowledged that it wasn’t always easy.

“Sometimes I would see our year-end giving statement, and I would say, ‘Gee, we could have gotten out of debt so much faster if we had put that money toward our debts.’” But they will never forget sending in their last debt payment. “It was amazing,” she said. “We felt like it was a hard road we had traveled, but we did it, and we did it in a God-honoring way.”

I have also met people who have sensed God’s grace, feeling very much at peace with the idea of giving less than a full tithe for a season, which brings me to my third suggestion.

If you do decide to give less than a full tithe, at very least give an amount that constitutes a choice gift. That admittedly subjective standard goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. The spirit of biblical generosity is to give a meaningful gift—a costly gift, not a token gift.

Matt is the author of two personal finance books published by NavPress: Money, Purpose, Joy and Money Strategies for Tough Times. He blogs at Matt About Money.(The articles on this site are for entertainment purposes and should not be taken as financial advice. Please contact a financial professional for specific advice regarding your situation.)

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