This past week marked 15 years since my wife and I bought our house—14 years longer than we planned to stay, 14 years longer than we could afford to stay.
We’re now planning to sell our house and move closer to the center of our city, near the Christian schools our boys attend. I’ve been working each weekend, painting rooms and fixing small problems, giving me time to ponder how God has used this house to reveal His providence and to grow us in our reliance on Him.
We bought this house nine months after getting married. It was 2005, the housing market was booming, and people said if we’d been married more than 10 minutes without buying a house, we were throwing our rent money down the drain. (Note to newlyweds: This is bad advice. Don’t listen to it.)
We did something common at that time—we borrowed 100% of the value of our new house, using an interest-only mortgage and home-equity loan—both with adjustable rates. Even at the low teaser rates, we could not afford the monthly payments. But we were also advised by people we trusted that stretching to buy a bit more house than we could afford was a good idea “because housing prices have been going up for 25 years.” I had set aside a few thousand dollars, which I planned to draw from to help make our payments for a year before we sold the house for an even higher price.
Trouble was, the housing market stopped rising. One month before we put it on the market in 2006, prices started to fall. We had it listed, on and off, for nearly two years. We had lots of showings, but since we had little ability to lower the price, we got no viable offers.
I was terrified of foreclosure. Foreclosure meant failure. And failure wasn’t part of my identity—or my view of God. As the oldest son from a Christian family who always got straight A's, I had unconsciously developed the idea that if I did everything right, followed all the rules, sought out advice, and prayed a lot before making a decision, then surely God would make my way successful. Or, if things went wrong, God would surely get me out of the situation.
But God’s grace, I had to learn, doesn’t usually work that way. He can rescue us from bad situations, of course. But more often, God gives grace to carry us through a hardship. This is how God’s providence usually appears in our lives.
The second lesson I had to learn was this: Christian faith doesn’t mean always doing the right thing, but always relying on God. Somewhere while growing up and singing “The wise man built his house upon the rock,” I had misunderstood the lesson of Jesus in his parable about the wise and foolish men building houses. The parable, which concludes the Sermon on the Mount, reads like this:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matt. 7:24-25)
Somehow, I had concluded that the rock in this story was my habit of doing Christ’s words. That wasn’t what saved me from my sins, of course—I had studied enough Reformed theology to be sure of that. But when it came to everyday living, it seemed that being wise meant hearing Christ’s words and doing them. But that was only half right.
Now I see that while God wants our obedience and does, indeed, bless it, He doesn’t want us to trust our obedience. He wants us to trust Him. Christ is the rock, not our obedience. True wisdom means trusting Him—even to provide our basic needs. As He said a bit earlier in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26)
The third lesson I had to learn is that God’s providence is always there—but it shows up in surprising ways.
In 2006, the newspaper I worked for sent me to cover our governor’s trade mission to Asia. I earned a bunch of overtime pay on that trip, which helped us keep paying our mortgage. On that trip, I spent a lot of time talking with the governor’s Secretary of Commerce—a Jewish man who owned a business newspaper in our city. Shortly after the trip, he offered me a job. That higher level of pay from 2006 became my new base salary in 2007.
Then in 2008 came the financial crisis and the Great Recession—which in a divine paradox, God used to keep us in our house. Our adjustable-rate mortgage had a rate locked in for three years and was due to reset in September 2008. For the two years or so leading up to that, rates were higher than the rate we were paying—meaning the reset would increase our monthly payments, likely forcing us into foreclosure.
But the Lehman Brothers collapse on Sept. 14, 2008, sent mortgage rates down, leaving our rate unchanged. In subsequent years our mortgage rate kept falling, helping us save hundreds of dollars each month. God promises to protect the house when the floods come, but sometimes he uses the flood itself—in this case the Great Recession—to protect us.
His providence kept showing up. I was asked to do a special writing project in 2009, which ended up paying me several thousand dollars. Then in 2010, I promptly spent all that money (and then some) to fix water damage and mold in our house—which we discovered were the main cause of my wife’s debilitating headaches.
Two years later, the rain and wind literally struck our house, blowing out a window and downing a tree in our front yard. I had no money to fix either. But a fellow church member offered to help financially and my father-in-law installed a new window. My next-door neighbor loaned me his chainsaw and, after watching a YouTube video, I cut down the tree without killing myself or damaging my neighbors’ houses. That bit of providence bordered on the miraculous.
A few years after that, the floods literally came up, as another huge rainstorm caused our sump pump to fail and our basement to flood. But we tore out our basement carpet and found a way to stain the concrete floor, and kept going.
Eventually, we paid down our mortgage enough to get rid of the home-equity loan and refinanced to a fixed-rate mortgage. And today, with the housing market booming again, we likely will sell our house for substantially more than we paid for it. So perhaps the original idea for buying this house will work out after all.
But the true lesson I’ve learned isn’t about finance. It’s about faith. It’s summed up well by Paul in Galatians 2:20: “The life I now live in the flesh (which includes housing markets, mortgage payments, leaking roofs and flooding basements, and all the rest of physical and financial life) I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”