From the Pastor’s Study – Honesty and Debt

American history used to be taught to school children not simply to inform them about the past and their place in the world, but also to instruct them about their civic responsibilities. It was also a vehicle for educating young people in virtue.

Admittedly, occasional fanciful events were presented as historical fact to achieve a noble end. One example is the famous story of a young George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” While the father of our country was doubtless very honest, this story is almost certainly fictitious.

Not fictitious are the incidents that led to Abraham Lincoln being nicknamed “Honest Abe.” In his highly regarded biography of the sixteenth president, Benjamin Thomas records that while a young store clerk, Lincoln once walked three miles after his store closed to return six cents he had mistakenly overcharged a customer.

Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, said of her husband, “Mr. Lincoln is almost monomaniacal on the subject of honesty.” His famous political opponent, Senator Stephen Douglas said, “He is as honest as he is shrewd.” Lincoln himself once confessed on the campaign trail, “I am glad of all the support I can get anywhere, if I can get it without practicing any deception to obtain it.”

But again, it was his straightforward dealings with others, not just his truth-telling that earned Lincoln the moniker “Honest Abe.” He once partnered with a man named William Berry who died leaving Lincoln unable to collect what his associate owed him. This left Lincoln with a burden so large he referred to it as “the National Debt.” Although it took him over a decade, Lincoln paid off his obligations in full. His biographer wrote, “That Lincoln paid his debts at all attests his character. Many men in similar circumstances would simply have moved away, left their debts unpaid, and blamed the town for their failure. But Lincoln had no intention of evading his obligations.” Honest Abe, indeed.

Currently the United States national debt exceeds twenty trillion dollars. That is a two with thirteen zeroes after it. Sadly, the government’s habit of spending beyond its income is just a reflection of the fiscal behavior of the nation’s population. The average American household owes over sixteen thousand dollars in credit card debt alone. Student loan debt averages fifty thousand dollars per household, with forty percent expected to default on their loans in the next five years.

Advertisements regularly tell consumers that they do not need to pay off their credit card debts. Politicians promise students that, if elected, their loans will be forgiven. The message is that your debt is somehow someone else’s fault and someone else’s obligation.

Romans 13:8 reads, “Owe no man anything.” Psalm 37:21 says, “The wicked borroweth and payeth not again.” Debt should be avoided if at all possible, and paid off as quickly as possible.

Daniel Defoe, famous as the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote, “He cannot be an honest man who does not pay his debts if he can.”

The apostle Paul confessed in Romans 1:14, “I am a debtor.” His debt was not borrowed money. He had an obligation to share the gospel with others. So do we. He also wrote of a debt every Christian owes and needs to pay, and that is to love one another. (Rom. 13:8) Every child of God owes their neighbor a clear witness and kind deeds. And an honest man always pays his debts if he can.