Monday, January 5, 2009

Personal Debt

The Scriptural Injunction

I was reading the account of King Benjamin's speech the other morning, and was struck by this verse:

"And I would that ye should remember, that whosoever among you borroweth of his neighbor should return the thing that he borroweth, according as he doth agree, or else thou shalt commit sin." (Mosiah 4:28)

Several aspects of this instruction jumped out at me.

First, King Benjamin makes it clear that we should return what we borrow in accordance with the agreement we have made.

Second, to not do so is a sin.

And third, the footnote on this verse refers the reader to three topics in the Topical Guide: Borrowing, Debt, and Honesty.

We live in an era in which personal bankruptcy has lost much of its stigma. A common objective seems to be to borrow as much as possible, and when a financial reversal comes (as it invariably does), negotiate with the lender to reduce our debt in way that the lender will accept partial repayment and preserve the our credit score to enable future borrowing.

But the scriptural mandate seems clear. When we fail to pay our obligations "according as [we] doth agree," we "commit sin."

When Martin Harris and Joseph Smith were struggling to pay the debt to the printer for the printing of the Book of Mormon, the Lord gave very simple instructions:

"Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage." (D&C 19:35)

This was hard counsel - Martin had to sell a portion of his farm to pay off the debt. His wife was not happy about it; she ultimately left him. But apparently the Lord takes this business of paying back "according as he doth agree" very seriously. Note that in the revelation to Martin Harris the Lord includes the fact that Martin had "contracted" with the printer.

In the early days of the Church, it seems that the Saints had almost as many challenges meeting their debt obligations as we do today. In 1831 the Lord reminded the elders that "it is said in my laws, or forbidden, to get in debt with thine enemies." (D&C 64:27) In 1834, He again reminded the Saints, "It is my will that you shall pay all your debts." (D&C 104:78)

Faithful members of the Church, sometimes express suprise that we have worked to become debt free, yet none of these people are suprised that we don't smoke. But both commandments - "ye shall pay all your debts" and "tobacco is not for the body" - are contained in the scriptures.

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