The Key to Beating Debt Isn't Budgets or Paychecks and It's 100% in Your Control


Today hundreds of thousands of people will wake to the burden of severe debt. It is tempting to believe that the solution to debt and the pathway to financial freedom begins with paychecks, budgets, and investments. Educating yourself about money is wise, and a budget can be practically helpful, but it cannot be our starting point. That would be like teaching a little boy to throw a football but not helping him to understand the basic purpose, rules, and fundamentals of the game.

It is both impossible and dangerous to solve personal debt by only talking about money. Like every other issue in our life, debt must be rooted in a distinctly biblical worldview. We must allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to correct our assumptions about debt and shape our spending. Otherwise, we won’t be able to gain ground in the way we understand money, avoid debt, and use our finances to bring glory to God.

Addressing the issue of debt doesn’t begin with money education and budget information; it begins with surrender. You and I will never use money the way it was meant to be used, and we will never break disastrous money habits, if we are not living in light of the fact that life is not about us.

We are God’s idea, we reflect his design, we exist for his purpose, and we have been commissioned to do his will. When it comes to money, you and I weren’t designed to find our own way, to make it up as we go along, or to write our own set of rules.

The world wasn’t first created to be a vehicle for realizing our personal definition of happiness. Money wasn’t created for the sole purpose of bringing into our lives all the things we crave. If we don’t start with surrender, even if we’re not in debt, we will use money in a way that God never intended.

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In this way maybe many of us have more money problems than we realize. We think we’re okay because we are able to pay the price of our pleasures. But we’re not okay, because what shapes our money matters is a spirit of ownership rather than a spirit of surrender. The first step in money sanity is surrendering to the glory of one greater than you.

Debt is not fundamentally an overspending problem; it is a contentment problem. If you carefully read the following words from the apostle Paul to Timothy, you begin to get a clue that the love of money is connected to things significantly bigger than money:

Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6–10)

Paul begins his discussion with contentment because the roots of our problem with money are found there. It’s only when God’s grace has formed in us truly contented hearts that we can live financially restrained lives, not following the rabbit trail of every selfish desire that our wallets can afford.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not wrong to invest in a home for your family or to feed your children well or to take a weeklong sabbath of rest and relaxation somewhere nice with your loved ones. God calls many of us to do those things in love. I’m attempting to get you to examine how much discontent drives the way that you spend your money.

When my heart is committed to and satisfied by the glory of God, my heart is content, and I am thereby freed from the debt-inducing tyranny of hoping that the next big purchase will finally make me content. Spending in pursuit of personal happiness never results in lasting happiness; it only results in the acquiring of debt and all the emotional and spiritual stress that goes with it.

I am writing this not just for you, but also for me. I don’t carry a credit card, but my heart still looks for life where it can’t be found. I am still way too attracted to stuff I don’t need. I am way too skilled at justifying expenditures that should never have been made. And I struggle with these things because I still live with too much allegiance to the kingdom of self.

That’s why I cling so closely to the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s grace carries with it a message of fresh starts and new beginnings. Getters can become givers. Controllers can live lives of surrender. We can climb out of debt. God’s grace opens the door to a whole new relationship with money for each of us, not because we are good and deserve it, but because God is that good, and he offers us grace that is that powerful.

God’s grace offers us the only hope of real change when it comes to our personal finances. There is no mountain of debt so big that God’s grace isn’t bigger. There is no money-problem pit so deep that God’s grace isn’t deeper.

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As we face money problems, we don’t need to panic, we don’t need to be paralyzed by fear, we don’t have to deny reality to get some peace, we don’t have to relieve our consciences by shifting the blame, and we don’t have to cynically abandon hope. We can face our money issues with hope not because we are wise or able, but because God is, and he offers us his forgiving, rescuing, and transforming grace.

Paul Tripp is a pastor and best-selling author. He is author of more than 20 books, including Redeeming Money: How God Reveals and Reorients Our Hearts.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “Debt Is Not a Money Problem”

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Desiring God produces God-centered resources from the ministry of John Piper. Its mission is to produce and distribute resources that spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.