In his book The Total Money Makeover, finance adviser Mr Dave Ramsey describes a method for not only getting out of debt, but also then saving up for your children’s college fund and your own retirement fund. In reading his plan, I notice that he doesn’t begin with: take all available money and start paying off your debts. Rather, the first step in his plan is for you to save up $1000 as a short-term emergency fund. The idea behind the plan is that accidents and emergencies happen, and when they do it is best to have some cash on hand so that you do not need to tack out more debt to deal with them. The goal is to eliminate debt, so that also means eliminating possible (that is, emergency) sources of new debt first. This idea of a short-term emergency fund is not unique to Mr Ramsey, but is in fact widespread .
What the system recommended by Mr Ramsey does, in other words, is take into account both the long-term goals and the short-term obstacles, and then it gives solutions for achieving the one and overcoming the others. This seems to me to be sensible advice both for personal/household financial planning and for the larger economic planning on our country’s part, though unfortunately neither the average family nor our country’s government ever seem to take both into consideration . However, since I’m not an economist, this isn’t going to be an economic policy post, nor a financial advice one. For the former I would recommend Thomas Sowell, F.A. Hayek, or Henry Hazlitt, and for the latter Dave Ramsey; but my in-expertise combined with my writer’s block means that drawing all of this out would suck up a little too much time and would yield a poor product in return. On the other hand, there is another topic which I think could use a similar approach and which would involve a bit less time-suckage on my end–even if the end-product is little improved over an economics post.
In thinking over this principle of long-term plans and short-term contingencies, had a bit of an epiphany, at least one for me. It may have been a the kind of epiphany which leads to my realizing something that an ordinary person has long known based on common sense, much like Mr Ramsey’s advice is rather commonsensical. Well, at least there wouldn’t be as much time-suckage in writing such a post, so here goes: this principle which I have said is a financial principle is really a moral principle. We cannot win the spiritual war in our own lives if we lose every battle along the way.
What I mean is this. What is the purpose of life? Well, it’s to know and love God, to serve Him in this life, and ultimately to prepare us to live with God in the next life (see Baltimore Catechism 2, Q6). As a corollary to this, it is also to know and love ourselves and to at least love our neighbors. This, then, is our long-term goal in life: and if it is achieved, the result is that we become saints. But are there short-term obstacles to our becoming saints? Well, of course! We have enemies who will stop at nothing to prevent us from becoming holy men and women; and the greatest enemies we have are the devil and our own concupiscence. None desire more that we fail to become saints than the devil; and nothing holds us back more than our own tendencies toward sin. The former works against our long-term goal of becoming saintly, the latter also creates any number of short-term obstacles: the temptations to sin, which at times are quite overwhelming.
Thus, if we want to work with God’s grace to become saints, if we want to to our part to to overcome our sins, we need to bear in mind that the process is lifelong, but that life is lived in the here and now. We won’t shed our vices overnight, but neither will we ever overcome them if we don’t try to begin resisting them now, today; we cannot inculcate any virtues in a week, but if each week we say to ourselves, “I’ll start next week,” we won’t be able to gain them in a lifetime. We need to work both in the short-term and in the long-term.
In the short term, we are called to resist our sins, but in the long-term we must begin to build up immunity to those sins. In the short term, this may mean avoiding “fatal attractions,” that is, avoiding even things which might tempt us to sin. There is a story about a man who fell into adultery. He did this because he would walk down the street which passed by the adulteress’ house on his way home from work. The first few times, He merely passed by her house, knowing that the woman who lived there was a temptress and a seductress; then one day he stopped by to talk to her because she was outside. She invited him in, and he went forth like a lamb to slaughter, and was soon ensnared in her web. We might say that he was foolish to set foot inside of her house; in reality, he was foolish to even walk down her street to begin with.
There are three parts of our fallen nature which work against us every time. They are curiosity , forgetfulness, and a sort of pride that we can withstand temptation. All three are at play in this little story. The man was curious–was there really an adulteress, was she really a seductress, did she really live on that street, were things he’d been told about her true?–and this got the better of him when he thought he’d stroll past her house in the half-hidden hope of meeting her. If he hadn’t originally any desire to cheat on his wife, he certainly did nonetheless take pride (and unwarranted, as it turned out) in his ability to resist any temptation to this sin. And, in the heat of the moment, he forgot his vows to his wife, forgot how much he loved her, forgot his faithfulness to her.
In the short term, we have to contend with these three bits of fallen humanity, that is, against curiosity, forgetfulness, and pride. I sometimes wonder if these three things are also the beginnings of every addiction–from drugs to alcohol abuse to pornography to gambling to the occult–they start with some curiosity, continue with a forgetfulness in which we remember the highs but forget the lows, and are strengthened by a pride which wants to test our willpower’s bounds. This last point may be in testing our ability to “resist” some drug “in small amounts”, for example; or, on the other hand, in engaging in a seemingly innocuous activity which may make us crave the thing we are addicted to by, for example, reminding us of something we experience when on our “high.”
Meanwhile, in the long term we have to recognize each sin as a sin, and recognizing what things tempt us into sinning so that we can avoid–not merely resist, but avoid–these temptations and these sins. It means developing in ourselves habits to counter any tendencies which lead to sins. Do you suffer from pride? Develop humility by working to serve “the least of these,” and do it so that fewer people can see you doing it–only your Father in heaven needs to know. Do you suffer form lust? Pray for the grace of true chastity–not just abstinence, but actual positive chastity–and develop that virtue in yourself. Practice custody of the eyes, which means not only not entering the brothel but also not looking at pornography, and even averting your eyes from the modestly clad woman who might for some reason be tempting against this sin.
This also applies towards venial sins. In the short-term, we must not “trick” ourselves into knowingly committing even a venial sin just because it’s a “minor” sin and not a “major” one. It also means not allowing a “minor” sin which we’ve already committed to be repeated. After all, the minor sins can quickly lead to the major ones. In the long-term, it means educating ourselves against even minor sins, inculcating virtues to oppose even these, asking for God’s grace against even these “little” sins; and it most especially means not letting even the venial sins becomes engrained habit. After all, as Chesterton notes in The Innocence of Father Brown, “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”
And with all sins, it means in the short term repenting of them, and receiving the graces available from the sacraments, both Confession and Communion. This is especially true of the big sins, the grave and mortal sins; but it can be and often is also true of the venial sins (which are not obligatory to bring up during confession). But it also means not giving up hope, not losing faith that God will help us to free us of our sins, not falling into despair when we fail, even if we fail again and again. “Providence moves slowly; the devil always hurries.” We will not, even with resolute wills, overcome a sin in a single night; it may indeed take an entire lifetime, as God’s grace sometimes works slowly, and since we often even resist it with our presumption, that is we sometimes delude ourselves into believing that we don’t need God’s grace. Yes, we must do our part, do everything we can to cooperate with God’s grace: but sometimes He allows us to fall again–even into a mortal sin–so that we will not fall into the even more deadly sin of pride, of believing that whatever victory we win is ours alone and not God’s.
As with a financial makeover, so with a spiritual makeover: not only should we pay off our debts–that is, break out of sin and vice–but we should also save up for the future–that is, we should inculcate virtues which counter these vices, make some effort to spend our time doing good and not merely avoiding evil. This means first and foremost asking God for our daily bread, for the graces we need now to get out of sins, to resist vice and avoid temptation; but also asking for the strength to be virtuous, holy people, to develop those virtues which counter sin, those habits which counter vice. In means continuing in hope–which also come from God–and not in either despair or presumption.
 For his part, Mr Ramsey says that little if anything in his book is unique to his book. It is all common financial sense (at least amongst financial experts), but it is a formula which works, and it is also a formula that so few people follow that he thinks just getting the message out there is the first and most important thing.
 Often both the government and the average family take neither into consideration.
 Curiosity means more the allure of the forbidden than honest intellectual curiosity. The former is a sort of perversion of the latter. It’s a bad curiosity which wants only to satisfy idle questions and not questions about the deeper meaning of life, or about how the world works.