By Dave Ramsey
I remember standing in the cold January wind, pumping gas into my Jaguar. I kept lifting my eyes just enough to see inside the little attendant station, praying that the guy inside didn’t call to authorize the gold card I had just flipped onto his counter.
If he makes the call, I’m in trouble, I thought. This is ridiculous. Only in America can I stand here flat broke while pumping gas into a Jaguar.
I was practically shaking—and it wasn’t because of the temperature. I was tired and frustrated. I was scared to death. God was breaking some things loose in my life and I couldn’t help but laugh at the broke kid and his Jag. How in the world did I end up here?
I didn’t grow up as a rich kid. I didn’t grow up as a church kid. I grew up as a business kid. My father had this fantastic entrepreneurial attitude and he taught me about goal setting, hard work, and focused intensity.
I remember going up to him one summer when I was 12 and saying, “Dad, I need some money.”
He replied, “You’re 12 years old. You don’t need money, what you need is a job!”
So, I got to learn about cutting grass that summer. More than that, I learned about setting goals, marketing and determination. I printed up little business cards and built up quite the little enterprise.
The most important business lesson my dad taught me was that money comes from work. Don’t talk to me about what you deserve or what you’re entitled to. No one is going to hand you anything. This has been true since the beginning of time: you’ve got to leave the cave, kill something, and drag it home. Then it’s yours.
That kind of motivation drove me all through my childhood and into college. When I was 22, I graduated, married my beautiful wife, Sharon, and we moved to Nashville to start our life together. We were full of goals, dreams and expectations. We were full of ourselves, really.
We felt invincible, immortal. I had just started buying and selling real estate and learned quickly that I was pretty good at it. By age 26, I had a portfolio worth more than $4 million. I was a kid millionaire—and we were really having fun.
It’s like I had the Midas Touch. Everything I touched turned to gold. We had money, nice cars, exotic vacations, expensive suits and diamonds on our fingers. The thing is, none of it was good enough. I was getting rich, but at the same time, I was becoming more and more aware of how empty I felt inside.
I’ll be honest, this absolutely drove me crazy. I’m a problem-solver, remember? I have to work for what I have. And here was this huge problem that I couldn’t solve, no matter how hard I worked or how much money I made. I was walking around with this hole right through the middle of me and nothing seemed to fill it.
Then one day I was at a business seminar. The guy leading the workshop was a pro, a super-successful businessman and an excellent speaker. He laid out several practical steps for success, but then he hit me with something I wasn’t expecting. He told us that we could do all of those things and still not really win. “To be truly successful,” he said, “you’ve got to know this man named Jesus.”
I didn’t want anything to do with that. I mean, I had never been a church guy. I remembered sitting in a church service one time, years earlier, and seeing a man asleep in the choir loft. I thought, Come on, man. If there really is a God, you’ve got to be more excited about Him than this!
For some reason, though, this speaker’s words haunted me that night. Everything else he had said about business was dead-on. I liked him and trusted his message, but this whole Jesus thing was just a sticking point. The more I thought about his words, however, and the more I thought about that emptiness I had been feeling, the more I became convinced that I needed to check this Jesus out.
I went home and announced to Sharon that we were going to check out some churches immediately. She nearly passed out. She said, “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?”
We stumbled around to a few different churches—some great, some not-so-great—but after a while, we found a wonderful church home. Soon, I realized that Jesus was the only thing that could fill the hole in my heart. So, at the peak of my financial success, I finally met God.
Now, I already said that I was rich at that point. What I didn’t say, however, is that I was also stupid. I wasn’t just regular, run-of-the-mill stupid, either. I was enthusiastically stupid.
My entire net worth was supported by debt. I owed millions and millions of dollars on all of my real estate investments. I had a knack for talking bankers out of unbelievable amounts of money. When I wanted something, I got a loan. When a bank wouldn’t loan me more money, I’d put on my best suit, polish up the Jaguar, and drive over to a new bank to “establish a relationship.”
My whole life was lined up like a row of dominoes. And one day, not too long after I met God, one bank tipped over the first one. One of my short-term loans came due immediately and I had 90 days to come up with $1.2 million—cash. I was able to pull together enough money to pay virtually all of it, but doing so destroyed my business.
Because we were in trouble, other banks started calling their notes, too. The chain reaction continued for two and a half years until I finally waved the white flag and declared bankruptcy. We were left with only our home and the clothes on our backs.
Recently, I was asked in an interview, “How did you bounce back?” I laughed and said, “Well, when you fall that far, you don’t bounce. It’s more of a splat.”
With a toddler, a new baby, and a marriage hanging on by a thread, Sharon and I started to pick up the pieces. I was really hurting and spent a lot of time praying. When everything else was stripped away—my success, self-reliance, money—it was just me and God. And I found that God had some things to teach me ... now that I was ready to listen.
I hate to admit it, but as a new believer, I trusted more in my own ability to make money than I trusted in God. Honestly, there were days when I was mad at God, other days when I was completely stressed about everything, and still other days when I just wept and laid everything out before my heavenly Father. He was teaching me to lean on Him. With everything else pulled out from under me, I found that the only foundation I had left was the one that I needed all along.
Along the way, I started to see that the Bible had something to say about money and business, and that God was actually interested in this stuff. My problem before hadn’t been the money; it was that I didn’t know how to handle the money. God taught me about stewardship—real stewardship, not what we hear so often in many churches today. For the first time, I understood that I was just a manager of God’s resources. Every dollar I had was a dollar that He entrusted to me. That totally changed how I understood money.
The cool thing is that out of the ashes, God brought forth a ministry to set people free from debt and teach them what I was learning—God’s ways of handling money. Now, through radio, television, books, magazines, live events, and classes all over the country, I get to help other people walk the same road that God led me down. Even though I met God on my way up, I really didn’t get to know Him until I was on the way down—and that’s exactly how I needed it to happen.
For me, it was never about “trusting God” versus “trusting money.” Money was never really a power to me. It was a tool. When I held it in my hand, it looked like me. It acted like me. It did what I would do. That means that when I was 26, my money looked pretty selfish. It was focused on flashy jewelry, expensive vacations, and fast cars.
Holding it in my hands now, money looks a lot different. It looks at other people. It is focused on educating families on how to handle their finances, getting people out of debt, and bringing couples together on common goals.
You see, I was always good at making money. When I needed some, I made some. I buckled down, focused all my strength on something, and made it happen. That was that. So, it wasn’t my trust in money that was competing against God—it was my trust in myself.
When I was younger, the guy in the mirror thought he could do anything, solve any problem. That self-reliance had become a big issue in my life. Once God stripped me bare and rebuilt me piece by piece according to His plan, everything else fell into place.
He reminded me that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). He told me, like He told Job, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11). He owns it all. It’s all His. And you know how He taught me that it was all His? He took it away.
If the story had ended there, I still would have praised God for breaking the back of my self-reliance and teaching me to depend on Him. But by walking with me through the fire, by protecting my family during the darkest days, by restoring all that I had lost and more, my Father in heaven taught me something even more powerful: He taught me grace.
Over the past twentysomething years, God’s been working this stuff out in my life. Sometimes that hotheaded, self-reliant young stud tries to pop back out, but God keeps pushing him back down. Sometimes I still catch myself ready to spring into action and run ahead of God, but He pulls me back in. Those are days when I stand up in front of my team, give thanks for all that God has done in and around us, and pray, “God, you know I might be able to do this thing by myself ... but it sure is better when You do it.”
Yeah ... it sure is.
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