Melinda and Tim Inman had known this day would be difficult, but they hadn't expected such a large crowd in the courtroom. More than 50 other people were waiting for the judge to call their names.
There was no exchange of polite conversation. Just being in bankruptcy court belied a secret so personal that few seemed comfortable with small talk. When the Inmans' turn came, Tim walked to the front, then turned and faced the onlookers. He answered the judge's questions: Are you Timothy Inman? Is this your correct address? Are these the debts in question?
Then the judge addressed the crowd: Are there creditors present who wish to present a claim against these debts? No one answered. When the judge was satisfied, Tim stepped down. He and Melinda hurried from the room, glad to escape the awkward scrutiny of strangers. It was now official: They had filed for bankruptcy.
How Could This Happen?
"You feel ashamed," Melinda says, recalling the scene in the courtroom three years ago. "It's a blow to your ego," says Tim. "Bankruptcy implies irresponsibility, that you couldn't take care of your family. You don't want to be known as a failure."
But the Inmans weren't failures. Tim had started a new job as postmaster in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Before their recent move there, the Inmans had lived for 17 years in Manhattan, Kansas, where Tim worked as a postal supervisor. Melinda homeschooled their five children and managed the household. In 1989 Tim completed his college degree while working full-time.
Although he had a good job and they budgeted carefully, the cost of raising a large family put a growing strain on the Inmans' finances. Mortgage payments, groceries, upkeep on their van, the perpetual needs of the children, college loans: It all added up to less and less money at the end of each month. They debated whether Melinda should get a job, but daycare costs were prohibitive; and both Tim and Melinda were reluctant to give up homeschooling.
While seeking advice, the Inmans discovered a series of videotapes made by Christian financial counselors. These videos promised something they had never heard before: that Christians, by tithing and practicing certain other principles, could be assured of freedom from financial difficulty. The Inmans had always given money to their church, but they hadn't made a point of giving a certain percentage of their income. They began to wonder if their failure to tithe was the cause of their financial difficulties. Perhaps God was waiting for them to show their trust in his ability to provide for their family's needs. Desiring to obey God, they began tithing.
Tim took on a second job, working on commission for a financial planning service. He and Melinda were optimistic. They had taken a step of faith, and they waited for the financial security that was promised. But almost immediately they were hit by a wave of medical expenses. Over a period of months, accidents, injuries and other unexpected circumstances forced more than half the family members to seek medical care. The aftermath was a long list of medical bills—ambulance fees, hospital stays, bills from surgeons, anesthesiologists, physical therapists and more. Some expenses were covered by insurance; others weren't. And even the medical care that was covered required a hefty co-payment. "At one point, we were sending money to more than ten doctors and specialists," Melinda says.
At the same time, heavy rains were causing widespread flooding in their town. Water seeped up through the basement floor of their home, weakening the basement walls—which eventually buckled inward.
The Inmans were shocked and confused. After being encouraged to expect financial help from God, they had been swept into a devastating flurry of financial difficulties. The income from Tim's second job went to pay medical bills. When that wasn't enough, they started using their credit card to cover medical expenses.
Then they investigated the cost of repairing their basement. Because the house wasn't located on a flood plain, they hadn't been eligible for flood insurance. Low-interest loans were available to repair flood-damaged homes, but as work was about to begin on the Inmans' basement, new information came out concerning building code restrictions. To bring their home up to current standards, the cost of the repairs would jump from around $10,000 to nearly $40,000. What had been a difficult, but manageable, situation suddenly became a crisis. "Even with a second mortgage, our home was not worth that much," says Tim. "We couldn't qualify for a loan, and we couldn't fix the damage on our own."
Nowhere to Turn
Not knowing what else to do, Tim went to see an attorney. "He told me to declare bankruptcy," says Tim, "but I didn't want to do that." Another option would be to talk with the banker who had made their home loan. Perhaps the bank would forgive the debt and take the house back.
"I swallowed my pride and went to see him," Tim says. The banker was sympathetic, but he wouldn't take a house so seriously devalued by flood damage. If the Inmans turned over the house, the bank would sue them for what they still owed on their mortgage. Ten years of hard work investing in their home had vanished.
Badly shaken, they turned to Christian friends for support. Their church had offered much practical help during their medical and financial ordeals, bringing in meals and even giving them money. But Melinda and Tim sensed people withdrawing from them as they began to talk about the possibility of bankruptcy.
"It scared people," says Melinda. "We didn't fit the paradigm. We were following all the rules, and tithing, and still bad things kept happening to us."
Sometimes well-meaning advice only deepened their feelings of doubt. "Once someone reminded us how another person in our church prayed to sell his house by a certain day, and the house sold on that very day," Tim recalls.
"But we were praying, too," says Melinda. "We started to wonder what was wrong with us—didn't we have as much faith as other people?"
Relentlessly, the emotional stressors multiplied. Tim's father died, which caused him to become increasingly depressed. "I forgot people's names, phone numbers, why I went to the grocery store," he says. "I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. I'd walk in the back of the post office and have to throw up before I could start working."
Then they learned they were expecting their sixth child. Melinda knew how hard Tim was struggling, and she feels God gave her the strength to remain hopeful when everything seemed to be crumbling around them.
"Tim needed me to be optimistic, and it seemed like I was given the ability to see the good in things," she says. Melinda would point out the blessings in their lives—a son who made a deeper commitment to God; a new child on the way; the successful recovery from the many medical problems family members had faced. The Inmans also began meeting several times during the week for coffee or lunch. "We were too embarrassed to talk to anyone else," Tim says, "so we talked to each other."
"We talked about everything that might happen," Melinda says, "all the scenarios, over and over."
"Sometimes we even laughed about it," Tim says. "We'd wish that whatever God was doing, he would hurry and get it over with so we could look back on it and see how much we had grown!"
But the answers weren't forthcoming. Tim felt more and more that bankruptcy might be inevitable. Melinda clung to her belief that God wouldn't allow that to happen.
When a large sales commission that Tim was counting on fell through, he and Melinda decided they had to make a change. He was selected for a postmaster's position in Nebraska, and the family moved after the birth of their baby daughter.
After the move, the Inmans received an offer on their house back in Kansas. "We fasted and prayed that the house would sell," says Tim.
"I begged God," Melinda says. "I don't think I've prayed for anything that hard in my life."
But the contract fell through. And the following month the Inmans filed for bankruptcy.
Poorer but Wiser
During their move to Nebraska, Tim spent some time alone—to heal, to recover from his depression and to search the Bible for help. He was looking for answers to his questions about their decision to tithe and their subsequent bankruptcy. He became convinced that the advice he and Melinda had received was a one-sided portrayal of the rewards of obeying God. In fact, after he stood up in court and declared that he and Melinda were unable to pay their debts, he felt a little more at peace.
But Melinda continued to struggle with doubts. "I thought we had failed as Christians; either God had let us down, or we had let him down," she says. Just as Tim had drawn on Melinda's optimism back in Kansas, now Melinda needed Tim's quiet assurance that God had not rejected them.
"I was lying in bed one night, and I realized I had quit talking to God," she says. "I didn't trust him anymore because I had begged him to sell our house and it didn't sell."
She confided her feelings to Tim, who continued to reassure her. She also told a friend, who encouraged her not to turn her back on God but to turn toward him and then wait. "Tell God you don't trust him anymore," the friend said. "And believe what you know about him from Scripture, even if you can't feel it right now."
Melinda joined a group that was studying the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. She found comfort in the prophet's dialogue with God, and she began to gain insight into her own struggles.
"It was hard for me to see how it could be God's will to let all those things happen—his way of refining my character and making Tim and me closer," she says. "But why should I think God can't allow bad things to happen in my life, when he allowed bad things to happen to so many people in the Old Testament? When I finally understood that, it was like a weight rolled off me."
Slowly, Melinda's optimistic faith returned. Looking back, she and Tim realize they should have researched the initial teaching they received about tithing. "We accepted a legalistic perspective—that if Christians tithed and did certain things, bad things wouldn't happen to them," says Melinda. "But we know now that we can't put God in a box. We don't make God behave in a certain way."
Having learned that giving ten percent won't buy financial security, the Inmans sometimes feel angry about advice that glibly guarantees a prescribed response from God in exchange for obedience or trust. But they concentrate on the bigger issues, such as the overall purpose of obedience in a Christian's life. Melinda found answers in the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, whose choice to obey God placed their lives in jeopardy. "They trusted God, no matter how he responded," she says. "Their attitude was, 'If we die, we die.' They were determined to obey God."
Melinda and Tim now enjoy a freedom that permeates every area of their faith. Their giving is a matter between them and God, and they no longer give based on some prescription for getting something back.
Thanks to Tim's good job and the help of willing bankers, the Inmans once again own a home. And when tough times come along, their history provides a good reminder of God's nearness and support. They are convinced that financial failures don't mean God doesn't love you. "In fact," says Melinda, "this may be God's way of showing that he does love you—by bringing about the things that will conform you to the image of Christ."
Renae Bottom is a freelance journalist. She lives in Nebraska with her husband and two children.
Copyright © by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.