Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. (Ephesians 4:28)
“Oh, it’s only a box of envelopes. They’ll never miss them at work. Besides, I’ve got to mail some letters this weekend, and I just don’t have any envelopes around the house.
“What’s the big deal?”
The “big deal” is this: taking something that doesn’t belong to you – stealing – says a great deal about your heart. In fact, even the so-called “harmless” act of taking envelopes that aren’t yours identifies you with this sinful, idolatrous, self-centered, hateful world – a camp in which you might not have expected to reside.
That’s why honest work is so important for those of us who name the Name of Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Before you and I examine the heart of a thief (as we study the Eighth Commandment), let’s first define what stealing is.
There really are two aspects to stealing: on one hand, taking what doesn’t belong to you; and on the other, withholding your dues. Thus failing to pay your taxes is as much theft as is making off with someone’s wallet. Either way, you are defrauding another person of what rightfully is his.
But stealing is also defined by offering some examples. You might think of other examples to add to the list, but – for instance – have you ever received too much change at the store yet failed to return it to the cashier? How about sneaking office supplies from work? What about reading a profound statement by another person and not crediting that person with the idea when you make your own presentation?
Stealing takes many forms. It has become popular in some workplaces to observe “casual Fridays;” a friend of mine worked in such an establishment in Mobile. Every Friday about 2 p.m. the workers would drop their projects, stop laboring – and begin to loaf. It’s one thing if your boss allows you to do so, but if he is paying you for your time, not working equates to stealing.
Many of us employ other people to perform manual jobs for us. The Lord doesn’t require you and me to make our workers rich; but are you and I paying them a fair, humane wage?
And when it comes to the church, the Lord views your failure to pay your tithes and offerings as stealing from Him, as He spoke through His prophet Malachi.
You might, and should, identify other forms of theft in your own life. The point, however, is that stealing involves dealing dishonestly and injuriously toward others who, like you, are created in God’s image. This is why Scripture casts theft in such a heinous light.
Having defined stealing, let’s explore the inner anatomy of a thief. It is shocking to discover how rancid the sinful heart can be – and how lawless and worldly you and I can be as we steal from others and from God.
For one, stealing reveals a lot about your understanding of God.
In St. Luke’s gospel, the Lord Jesus told a parable about a man who had such an abundant harvest that he built new storehouses for himself. The man actually trusted in his wealth to cushion him from any danger; it became his god. And so the Lord, in warning you and me against covetousness, anxiety about worldly necessities and the worship of “stuff,” said the man was foolish because he would die and be judged that night – and his possessions could not turn away God’s wrath for his sin. His stuff would perish with him.
Writing to Timothy, St. Paul described the love of money as the root of all sorts of evil: an idolatrous trust in and love for possessions will cause you to fall into all sorts of snares, including thievery. When clothes or boats or golf clubs become your gods, the things you desire and in which you hope and rest, you will do anything to have them – including steal others’ property.
The contented soul rejoices in the Lord Jesus Christ as his treasure. The covetous, idolatrous soul steals in order to feed worthless idols. Stealing – or, by contrast, working hard – illustrates who your God really is.
Stealing also says a lot about your understanding of work.
In Ephesians 4:28, the apostle Paul reflects on the Christ-transformed life by exhorting those who stole (in their pagan, material-worshipping lives before conversion) to stop stealing and to work to exhaustion, so they actually might be able to help those in need. Here Paul merely elaborates on a theme of Scripture: all legitimate work in God’s world is sacred and possesses vital importance.
In the beginning, God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2). Those Hebrew verbs appear later in the Pentateuch as Moses describes the priests’ duties in the tabernacle. Both conceptually and linguistically, then, the Lord pictures work in His house as well as work in the garden as sacred.
The New Testament authors echo this sentiment; Paul himself labored to exhaustion as a missionary and as a tentmaker, and he commended other believers who worked so diligently for the Gospel’s sake. If a person refuses to work, Paul instructs the Thessalonians, then he may not eat. Christians are to be about the business of cultivating God’s earth to His glory where He has called you and me, and this business is holy and serious.
To be sure, the fall and the curse have marred sin. Because of Adam’s sin (and ours in him), you and I have difficult coworkers, unmotivated days, broken equipment and projects gone haywire.
But that doesn’t mean work is no longer sacred or important!
Stealing denies God’s good purposes in giving you and me work to do to His glory. Stealing, and thus not working, fails to reflect the character of the God who created in six days and rested on the seventh. Stealing denies Christ’s power to transform your difficult workplace, and stealing fails to glorify God in cultivating physics, art, language and the fields to His honor.
When you rob your employer of the time and labor he has purchased from you, you are championing laziness and denigrating work: this flies in the face of the God who calls us to labor continually for His glory.
Stealing also reveals your understanding of other people and just what you think of them.
We think again of Paul’s command in Ephesians 4 to the former thief to begin working laboriously and honestly. It’s the end of that verse, though, that is especially provocative: the believer is to work so that he may have enough to give to those in need. This is nothing short of total transformation in Jesus Christ.
When you steal from another person, you are treating that person not as a human created in God’s image but, rather, as a means to an end (your pleasure). Such an action directly violates the sixth commandment as it assaults the image of God in another person, reducing him or her to an object instead of a person to be respected and loved in the Lord. Theft essentially says of the other person, “He is not as important as I,” or, “He exists for my pleasure.”
The diligent, Christ-honoring worker, meanwhile, treats possessions as objects and other people as ends in themselves. The hard worker asks, “How can I lavish the saving grace of God in Christ on someone who is in need?” and “How can I reflect God’s grace and kindness to another person today?”
Your practice of theft speaks pointedly about your God, your worldview and your view of others. What does your life say about you?
I recall as a boy accompanying my mother to the grocery store (as little boys are wont to do) and, on one occasion, being so brazen as to steal a few cookies from a cookie bin (the cookies were sold by weight). When Mama inquired as to where I procured my crumbly treat and I sinfully boasted of my sneaky act, she immediately scolded me and made me confess to the manager while she paid for the cookies.
Despite my shame and grief at the moment, I now look back on that lesson with gratitude. That day I learned about not coveting, about being thankful and content, about putting God first, about working to the glory of the God who gave His Son to make me rich, about treating others with respect and honesty.
Just a little cookie that no one will miss? Thank the Lord, no.
So where are the “cookies” in your life?