Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Keeping good credit is important. Anyone who wants to be trusted with a car loan, a mortgage, starting a new business enterprise, and lowering the interest rates on current loans knows the value of good credit. I do realize that some people are entirely against having debt, but a credit score also impacts employment: it’s not uncommon to have a “hard hit” credit check when getting a new job or seeking a promotion that requires financial evaluation.
Knowing this, and attempting to plan a bit for our future, I was checking my credit score and that of my wife recently. Hers was better than mine. What it evidently means is that, if applied, she would have a better chance of being approved for a better interest rate than I would, perhaps would qualify for loans and card types with perks that I wouldn’t, might get a job I wouldn’t if that were a key requirement, and would be trusted with a larger loan than I would—a merit for her continual financial excellence, dependability, and decision making.
For whatever reason, that merit-based system of trust and reward got me to thinking: the spiritual life is somewhat analogous to a credit score.
It’s not a perfect analogy, granted, God is not a creditor. Credit scores examine past performance and are used to determine the amount of risk associated with prospective loans. The higher the risk, the more interest. Those loans are not themselves rewards but things that are meant to be paid back with interest. So God is not some cosmic creditor: he doesn’t evaluate how much spiritual interest we owe.
Although imperfect as a matter of “interest,” it does gain traction in the principles of merit. There are abundant references to merit in the Bible, and several of Jesus’ parables outline the heavenly principles of reward.
Romans 2:6-8: For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
Galatians 6:7-9: Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
Luke 16:10-11: He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?
The parable of the talents is a prime example of merit in the spiritual life. In Matthew’s Gospel, the master provides “talents” (currency) to three servants in differing amounts “each according to his ability” (25:15). The master comes back to “settle accounts” and approves of those who have multiplied their loans, but admonishes the one who did nothing with it, prompting the reader that “to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (25:29).
In this parable, God demonstrates that he practices a sort of risk management as well: if trust is deserved through proven performance, trust is given. The key, still, is that the trust is given—for money or for governance—for the service of the master. It’s a lesson in stewardship: everything we have on earth can be used for multiplication for the master—God in our case—or it can be ignored to unproductiveness, selfishly buried by neglect.
Paying back our interest
Back to “interest” in the sense of a loan, there is a sense in which he is a creditor in the Bible. In the parable of the talents the master expects to collect interest on the talents: “at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Matt. 25:27). Where inadequate but not altogether defaulted performance is concerned, then, Purgatory can perhaps be like a corporeal interest one can accrue over time. About Purgatory, the Catechism says:
All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect (1030-1031).
We also know that experiences in Purgatory will differ for each person who undergoes the purification. The Church’s teaching on indulgences indicates this.
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. . . . This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin (CCC 1471-1472).
What are those who don’t have the best credit, spiritually speaking, to do? We can always seek the graces available through indulgences and give alms to lessen our temporal punishment, and the Church also teaches about those who can act as loan guarantors: the prayers of the faithful for the dead. “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC 1032).
What happens in the particular judgment and final judgment?
When our particular day comes, God will serve us our eternal retribution in the “Particular Judgment”: entrance to heaven through purification or immediate reward, or everlasting damnation (CCC 1022). In essence: did we do well with our talents and benefit the kingdom, or did we completely default on our loan? “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” says St. John of the Cross.
But every credit score can be analyzed and this is what we know as the “Last Judgment”:
In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man's relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life (CCC 1039).
As a facet of our identity, credit scores are exceedingly private. We might guess well, but we never can be sure of someone’s exact score and only the creditors know the precise figures and formulas. In the spiritual life, things aren’t so different: those who appear to have it all together might doubt or could harbor heresy, and those who society rejects might be the most perfect among us. There is, too, the ability for us to deceive ourselves and think we know better than our creditor, leaning on our own metrics or merit (Prov. 3:5). In any case, our score, and that of everyone else will eventually be known in the Last Judgment.
How can you keep your credit score in perfect condition? Start with an exhaustive examination of conscience. Then, make the most of the sacraments, especially these two: reconciliation and the Eucharist. The sacraments provide sanctifying grace, which is a “stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love” (CCC 2000). If we are to be judged by what we have “done or failed to do during [our] earthly life,” then we surely must avoid sin and increase our good works so that we may be trusted with more heaven.
And as for our heavenly reward, note that merit is, itself, an analogy. Humans cannot presently conceptualize what heavenly rewards will be like, so we use the analogy of earthly rewards.