Over the past seven years I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve covered about a dozen countries, several of them multiple times. I’ve been to Ethiopia three times, South Sudan four times, and Kenya about ten or so. I’ve stayed in cities, towns, villages, and some places so remote that when you try to enter it into Google earth, you get nothing. The great thing about being a missionary is that whenever possible, I’m either staying with the locals, or at least somewhere very nearby. I’ve seen all kinds of living conditions, from a family of six living in a 3 meter by 3 meter room, to relatively affluent people living in modern houses with soft furniture and satellite television. Having seen all that, what I’ve learned is that poverty and wealth have very little to do with income.
I learned this week that the average individual, non-mortgage debt in the United States right now is $37,000. That’s the average of every person, not every family. One in ten have non-mortgage debt over $100,000. That is a staggering figure. Now I realize that for some people this is medical debt, and there’s not much that can be done about that. But for a lot of people, it’s just lifestyle debt; the desire to attain some fictitious standard that we’ve either been told we need to achieve, or that we’ve decided we owe to ourselves. It’s the latter that’s the most insidious thing. As we tell ourselves and our children that we can be and have anything we want, we seek to self-glorify ourselves through things. It is the end product of the hyper-individualistic American mindset. In the land where the winner is the one who accumulates, and the king is the one who accumulates more than anyone else, is it any wonder that we see success as having the most stuff?
Here’s the cruel irony. The inevitable end-product to individualistic self-glorification is that we eventually become a slave to someone else. Don’t believe me? Which of the following two people is richer? An Ethiopian who makes enough money to put a simple roof over his head, feed his wife and children, and is content with his life, or an American making $75,000 a year with a mortgage that is going to take 30 years to pay off, student loans that don’t disappear even if he goes bankrupt, two car loans, and a year’s income worth of credit card debt? Who sleeps better? What good is having stuff if at any moment the bank can call in all my loans? Who has better security, if such a thing exists?
I write this today not as a condemning measure, but because for many of us, our paradigm is that this is the way it has to be. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, and in fact most of the world does not do it this way. Wealth is not just having a lot of things, it is also not having the things you don’t need. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
For those of us who have chosen to make missions our lifestyle, this is doubly important. Hebrews 12:1 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I can’t think of a bigger encumbrance than $37,000 of consumer debt. How can we be a servant of God, when we are already a slave to the bank? How can we give our time when our time is already spoken for to pay for our debts? Simple living is a virtue. I want to challenge us to learn from the African who lives simply, but enjoys his family and every blessing that God gives him. It’s not too late.