Am I Still A Good Person if I Can’t Pay the Bills?
My husband wouldn’t want me telling you this, but I’m sitting here waiting for water to heat up on the stove so my girls can take a bath. Because the water heater broke last week and we don’t have money to fix it. It joins the washer, dryer, 6 car tires, van, sedan, kindle, 3 DVD players, dishwasher, computer and 4 kitchen chairs that have broken in the last year. The upside is that we don’t have to worry too much about paying our past due gas bill for a while longer. Which is good because we don’t have money for that either.
But my husband wouldn’t want me telling you all this because also like many of you, he is ashamed of having money problems*. Because of course, good, decent, hardworking people don’t have money problems. I mean, we’re happy to provide immoral lay-abouts with a bit of help so they don’t starve and make us feel bad. Or go feral and take all our stuff – not that we look down on them, mind you.
But for me and mine, we pay our bills on time and keep the house in good repair and provide our kids with good educational opportunities (more than one kid I know learned to read while playing Pokemon video games after all). Not that we think we’re better than anyone else. But that’s just the sort of people we are. Good people blessed with good lives.
Because that’s how it works. Except a lot of you reading right now know from experience that’s not really how it works – even if you wouldn’t actually admit to a couple thousand people that you’re heating water on the stove because you can’t replace the water heater. Or pay the gas bill. That would be too embarrassing.
Problem is 25% of homes are in some stage of the foreclosure process right now. 1 in 5 working Americans are working part-time because they can’t find full-time work. The length of unemployment for those who have lost jobs is longer than since the Great Depression. Wages have been stagnant for the last 30 years and even the advantage of having a college degree is shrinking. I’m not the only one who can’t afford to replace my water heater.
More and more people are going to have to actually deal with the discomfort of being one of “those people”. Which if we do it right means more and more of us are going to have the glorious opportunity to overcome with our unhealthy attitudes about money. OK – “glorious opportunity” is pure snark, but as a culture we really we do have a problem with money and we truly will be the better for dealing with it. Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to do that until we’re forced to. I know. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty.
Over the weekend I heard “Letter To My Dissatisfied Daughter” on the radio. It was written by a woman to her teen daughter begging for respect rather than condemnation after several years of unemployment for both her and her husband. She speaks about the shame of not being able to take her places or let her do the things other teens are doing. And of the shame she experienced while having to fight for welfare benefits and ask grandma for $20 for gas. Her daughter sounds like a brat, but I can totally relate to this woman. I suspect that more than a few of you can as well.
When we experience money problems and have to say no to the normal things our kids want because we can’t afford them, we do tend to feel shame. And seeking government assistance is fine for other people who can’t do better, but not for people like us. Culturally, we have a very strong life script that we have an obligation to provide our kids with a decent (read materially abundant) life and that people who fail financially aren’t just failures monetarily, but as human beings as well.
We insist that we know that money isn’t everything and that we don’t really look down on those who are struggling. But when our turn comes the reality of what we think in our heart of hearts comes crashing down on us. The reality is that we do judge lives and worth according to financial measures. It’s something we don’t have to really wrestle with when this means that we feel just a wee bit smug and secure because we have good lives to affirm our status as good people. But when we can’t pay our own bills or provide our kids with a new pair of headphones when they lose or break their old ones, we don’t just accept it as part of life; we feel shame about ourselves and our lives. It’s an un-Christian, un-Godly standard that many of us are now getting the chance to wrestle with.
When we’re financially OK, we tell ourselves that we’re OK because we work hard. But a poor African farmer works hard too. So does the waitress at Denny’s. So do a lot of people who are failing financially. Heck, there are a lot of people who can only dream of having the ability to work hard due to illness, injury and disability.
We tell ourselves that we’re OK because we made good choices, but a lot of people who are fabulously rich have made awful choices. And a lot of people who made bad choices did so when they were too young or damaged to do better. And a lot of people made normal choices that just turn out badly. (The last time we took out a car loan, it was for a small amount, for a short time and we ended up locking the car in the garage to keep the repo man from taking it before the loan was paid off due to the third job loss in four years. My husband’s an accountant. It’s hardly a line of work with a lot of instability.)
As the bible says, “God makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the good and the evil alike.” When we are blessed financially, we are blessed. When we are not blessed financially, we are blessed. There’s no morality to financial well being per se. The challenge for our times is to let go of our insecurities and the sense of worth we are getting from money.
For a lot of people, it’s not just the money – it’s the willingness to work that we hang onto as a marker of ourselves as decent human beings. I once had a temporary job cleaning port-a-poties and that didn’t phase me in the least. Turned my stomach a bit while I was doing it. But not only did it not make me feel bad about myself, I’ll brag about having done it now. Now having to go to a food shelf? That took gumption and lots of deep breaths.
Hard work and a lack of pretension are good things, of course. But as Christians, if we really believe that we are called to be humble servants to the “least of these”, we need to be open to sometimes being the “least of these” ourselves. If we can’t accept this – if having to take food stamps or seek help is a threat to our sense of ourselves as decent people, then we need to face the fact that we have an identity which is built on a lot of things other than ourselves as children of God.
The reality is that God may allow us to learn what it’s like to be among the least of these for our own good. When we accept and understand ourselves as the least of these, then our service becomes less top-down and much more compassionate service between equals. I think that’s how God wants us to serve.
It is humbling to become the least of these, but isn’t that what Christ did for us? He went from being God to knowing the joys of the stomach flu. If he can do it, then we’ll be OK with our much less dramatic humbling.