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Could you pay a surprise $400 bill?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Couple reviewing their accounts with a digital tablet (Credit: doble.d via Fotolia)

According to most economists, America has recovered from the Great Recession pretty well. But to what degree have Americans recovered? Is the nation’s economic well-being mirrored by its people? In May, the Federal Reserve released its findings from a 2014 survey measuring the financial well-being of the nation’s citizens. Among other things, they found that 47% of respondents said that they could not cover a surprise $400 expense without taking on some form of debt. While the ability to pay a surprise bill is perhaps not the ultimate measure of economic wellness, it is telling that so many would struggle to add such a relatively small number to their expenses. After all, when was the last time you made an unplanned trip to the doctor or mechanic and walked away with a bill less than $400?

As might be expected, income level plays a significant role in one’s ability to pay such a debt. Only 31% of households whose income is under $40,000 a year would be able to pay the $400 bill without selling something, taking out a loan or adding to their credit card debt. 56% of those making between $40,000 and $100,000 said they would be able to do so while 73% of those making more than $100,000 could handle an unexpected bill of that amount.

While those numbers are not necessarily surprising, it seems telling that there are still 27% of respondents who make more than six figures that would struggle to pay the comparatively small amount of $400. It points to the fact that there is no income level we can reach at which people don’t have the potential to struggle with money.

Charisse Jones of USA Today offers further proof in her recent article “Even millionaires live paycheck to paycheck.” She tells of a recent poll of 1,044 investors taken by MaritzCX in which 1 in 5 respondents with investable assets between $100,000 and $1 million think they have too much debt and are living paycheck to paycheck. Moreover, 1 in 10 with assets between $1 million and $10 million thought the same. 41% are worried that they won’t have enough income to retire comfortably while 30% believe they’ll have to continue working, at least part time, after they retire.

However, the number of investors who weren’t sure if they’d have enough when they retired dropped from 41% to 26% when they were given an up-to-date financial blueprint. Essentially, when they began to understand the plan and realize they could trust those behind it, many developed a much greater sense of peace.

Uncertainty and doubt can be paralyzing emotions, especially when it comes to our finances. Jesus talked about money more than he spoke about heaven and hell combined because he knew it would be an issue that could keep us from God’s will more so than most other temptations. Yet, just as the investors with MaritzCX found greater peace when they understood that there was a plan in place for their future, we too can find peace in God’s promise that he has a plan to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

That passage is often misrepresented and misapplied today but, given a correct understanding, it remains one of the greatest promises in all of scripture. It was originally God’s message to the Israelites exiled in Babylon. However it remains relevant for us and its sentiments are echoed in New Testament passages like Romans 8:28 where Paul teaches that God is working all things together for the good of those who love him. In both verses, the truth that God has a plan to not only get you through your present trials but to redeem them for a greater good is evident.

However, it is the nature of that redemption where misunderstanding often creeps in. In Jeremiah, when God promises that his plans will “prosper” us, the Hebrew word used is shalom. If that word sounds familiar, it is perhaps because it’s been a greeting used by Jews across the millennia and was a vital aspect of Israel’s formation throughout the Old Testament and into the days of the early church. While it can mean many things in Hebrew, ultimately it signifies peace and wholeness. It is the idea that you are well in every sense.

That is vital to our discussion today because when God promises that his will for our lives is to prosper us, that word does not mean financial well-being, at least not exclusively. Yet, that is how it is often used. A quick survey of the disciples and early Christians shows that God’s perfect will for their lives had little to do with wealth. However, no one could argue that they lacked the sort of holistic peace that transcends understanding (Phil. 4:7).

The reason is because they trusted that God’s plan for their lives was best and acted accordingly. That is not to say that we don’t need to be responsible with our finances or to minimize the needs of those who live each day struggling to get by. However, if we let those needs, perceived or real, keep us from God’s shalom, then we have far greater issues.  

God’s perfect plan for your life may or may not mean financial security. However his promises assure us that whatever our level of income, his perfect plan will lead us to know the kind of peace that makes such concerns seem of relatively little consequence when compared with the eternal glory of living according to his will. Do you have that peace today?