It is a rather striking fact that the first sin committed by the human family was a form of theft. Genesis 3:6 says that Eve took the forbidden fruit and Adam was a party to her sin. Also, the first recorded sin against Israel after having entered the land of Canaan was that of stealing. Joshua 7:21 says that Achan stole from among the spoils, a goodly Babylonish garment, a wedge of gold, and 200 shekels of silver. In like manner, the first recorded sin which defiled the early church in New Testament times, was theft. Acts 5:2 explains that Ananias and Sapphira “kept back part of the price of the land” and left a false impression about their transaction.
Many times stealing is one of the first sins committed outwardly by children, and so God’s law concerning stealing should be taught from earliest infancy. Stealing has plagued the human family down through the years. Some of you remember reading about Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher. He walked around in broad daylight with a lantern in his hand. He was searching for an “honest man.”
We live in a day when various forms of robbery and theft are so common that in many places it is not advisable to be on the streets after dark. More of us are becoming accustomed to using locks and keys. Shoplifting is increasing by leaps and bounds. Owners of motels are reporting that more and more towels and pillows, etc. are being stolen by guests who stay in their rooms. Many seem to have no conscience against stealing, and yet the Eighth Commandment clearly says, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15).
1. The Meaning of the Commandment
One who steals, deprives another of property that rightfully belongs to that person. The Eighth Commandment supports the right of the individual to own property, and the Commandment is designed to safeguard that property.
Some claim that Christ and the Bible denounce the possession of property, and that the biblical ideal is socialism or some form of communism—where no one really has the right to claim any possessions as his own. Everything is owned by the state. The Eighth Commandment implies the private ownership of property—for after all, there wouldn’t be anything like stealing from another person if nobody owned anything. Karl Marx himself admitted that the right of private individuals to own property was based on the Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”
God grants each person the right to work and to earn and to save and to own. What we own, of course, must be the fruit of honest work, and we must treat our possessions as a stewardship held in trust under God. We are not free to refuse sharing with others. Yet God in His love permits us to use material possessions. The Bible says, “He hath given us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), but we are responsible to God for how we use them. And thus to steal the property of another, is a sin against God and a crime against society. It is depriving another person of property (which at least in one sense of the word) rightfully belongs to the person. The New Testament expands the scope of the Eighth Commandment by saying, “Let him that stole, steal no more; but rather, let him labor with his hands that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Ephesians 4:28).
2. The Extent of the Sin of Stealing
The Eighth Commandment prohibits theft, dishonesty, cheating, swindling, robbery, and a whole realm of related schemes.
a) Shoplifting, purloining, and petty pilfering. One of the major problems faced by store managers today is the theft of merchandise, both by customers and by employees. Stealing is on the increase world-wide. Libraries suffer the loss of hundreds of books every year. Even Santa Claus (at Christmas time) was caught stealing several years ago. It happened at Levin’s Department Store in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The fat old fellow was slipping merchandise under his suit and walking off with it. He was booked on a shoplifting charge.
Shoplifting contributes to the rise in prices that honest people have to pay for the goods they buy in shops and supermarkets. Department stores in some cities have begun to use an electronic device called a “knogo” which is attached to items of clothing, and if a garment fitted with the tiny device is carried toward the door, the door automatically locks. It is virtually impossible to remove the device without a special tool used by the store clerks.
The new morality sweeping across society teaches that taking things from a poor man is wrong, but stealing from the government or from big businesses or from industries is permissible. As a result, the theft of tools and materials by people who work in stores and factories is a major problem. Many employees are going home from work with much more than their paychecks! The devil tries to get us to rationalize and say, “We are underpaid and overworked anyhow;” or, “The bosses live an easy life at our expense, and so why not take a little that belongs to him?” We are tempted to say, “What little bit is taken from this huge organization won’t be missed anyhow.”
One who is scrupulously honest is going to be in a small minority when he goes out on a job in public works today. Often the young person who goes to work (after being brought up in a good Christian home) finds himself shocked by what he sees going on.
Boys and girls in school are tempted to take small things—another person’s pencil, a pocketbook lying in the hallway, or a tablet from the school supply room. Cheating on a test is stealing. It is getting credit (in the form of a grade) for something you did not really earn. If one yields to the temptation to take small things, he sins against God, and some day he may find it easy to steal large things.
b) Robbing one of his faith is a serious form of theft. If I see a crippled man going down the street (with crutches under his arms), it would be a cruel thing if I knocked those crutches out from under his arms and caused him to fall. Yet when teachers and preachers rob one of his faith, they are taking away his spiritual supports.
Thousands of preachers mislead people by using smooth words, by keeping silent about offensive truths, and sometimes by openly promoting false doctrines. One lady told how her husband had run off with a younger girl several years before, and now she too found a man she believed would make a good husband, and she was considering remarriage. When she was told what the Bible teaches about the subject, she simply said that her pastor had told her that it would be all right to marry again, and she followed the advice of her pastor.
One widow (who had just been separated from her husband by his death) received a letter from her up-to-date minister with some words of “comfort.” Among the many things which he said, were these words: “Everlasting life is probably a myth; nobody knows what happens after death.” But my friends, robbing one of his faith is stealing, and for those crimes many a clergyman is going to give an answer to God. Jesus himself spoke of false shepherds and He called them “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8).
c) Looting in the time of natural disaster is a wicked act. When tornadoes ripped through parts of Indiana a number of years ago, one news reporter explained that a number of dedicated Christian groups came by the busloads and set up shops to help rebuild the destroyed houses and barns. But, he said, “By way of contrast there were the greedy vultures also.” He went on to say that within minutes after the tornado was over, looters were combing through the wreckage. People were going around looking for dead bodies—taking watches off the arms, pulling pocketbooks out of trousers, and stealing anything valuable they could find. One grief-stricken man arrived at the sight of his destroyed home only to see another man walking off with some appliances. Another found his father’s dead body flattened against a tree, while a second man was there searching his pockets, trying to steal his wallet.
Stealing at any time is a sin against God and a crime against society, but to steal from victims of a natural disaster is about as low-down an act of evil that one can ever engage in.
d) Going into debt beyond the ability to repay is stealing. Many steal by living beyond their means and thus making payment of all their obligations almost impossible. One of the most vile forms of robbery is failure to pay our just debts. Here is a man, for example, who is supposed to be a Christian. His grocer is not a Christian. When the Christian man fails to pay his grocery bill, his action becomes a reproach to the cause of Christ. That businessman will never believe that there is anything to Christianity. The outside world doesn’t read the Bible; people of the world read our lives.
We must learn to do without, rather than to saddle ourselves with impossible debt. In this day of relatively easy credit, we must be extremely careful. It is not necessarily a sin to borrow money. Jesus borrowed a boat, a colt, and even a penny. There may be times when we have huge expenses beyond our control (unforeseen sickness or accident or repairs), but when money must be borrowed we should be sure to have sufficient collateral, and we must be extremely diligent about paying off the loan at regular intervals.
e) Failure to give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay is theft. The prevailing trend among employees today is to get as much pay for as little work as possible. It is quite common for people to start work a bit late in the morning, to waste at least some time during the day, to take prolonged lunch hours, and to leave early in the evening if possible. An employee who steals time is just as much a thief as a man who steals a can of paint or a tool from the place where he works.
If we fritter away just 10 minutes of paid time each day, we steal from our employer several hundred dollars a year, even if paid only the minimum wage. Accepting a day’s wage for less than a day’s labor (unless there has been a clear agreement beforehand), is a wicked form of stealing.
f) Selling substandard merchandise for a substantial price is theft. The prophet Amos speaks of those who swallowed up the needy and caused the poor of the land to fall—by using false weights and measures, and by conniving other money-making schemes (Amos 8:4-5). At least five times in the Bible God warns against the use of unjust scales and balances and units of measurement. It may seem unusual that so much space should be taken up in the Scriptures to speak about weights and measures, but God is interested in these things because He knows that meticulous honesty (extreme care about honesty) is a tremendous advertisement for the true faith.
It is kind of proverbial to say, “Honesty is the best policy.” But for the Christian, honesty should be more than a policy; it should be the very heart of his life! Abe Lincoln was known for his meticulous honesty, even to the point that he was nicknamed “Honest Abe.” As a storekeeper in New Salem, Illinois he once overcharged a lad six cents, and later walked many miles to refund the money. That is the kind of scrupulous honesty that should characterize the lives of each one of us.
Life today offers a hundred ways to be dishonest. There are little ways which may not cause us to be put into jail, but nevertheless ways by which we can compromise our honesty and integrity. We are still thinking about the extent of stealing.
Very few Christian people would even think of breaking into a man’s house and carrying off valuables (like an ordinary thief), or sliding merchandise off a counter in a store and taking it without paying for it (like a shoplifter). Very few would slip a man’s wallet out of his pocket and take his money (like a pickpocket). But there are other more deceptive ways to steal than committing armed robbery, or cracking a safe, or snatching a purse. We mention here only a few of the more deceptive ways to steal:
- a) To keep silent when financial errors are made in our favor. If the clerk gives too much change, we should be quick to return it. If we are not given enough change, most of us are ready to say something about it to the storekeeper.
- b) To use paid time on a job to carry on one’s personal business. Some write personal letters on Company time, etc. Unless there is a clear understanding that such use of time is permissible, the employee is stealing. (Even spending time witnessing for Christ, if it keeps a workman from his job, is cheating an employer out of what rightfully belongs to him).
- c) To tell an untruth about one’s age in order to get a ticket at half-fare. This is a tricky form of stealing. To ask for a child’s ticket to get into the zoo, for example, when the child is really of an age that an adult ticket is required, is sinful and wrong.
- d) To damage the property of another and not pay for that damage. If I damage another person’s automobile, and hurriedly drive away without making a report or letting a note, I am dishonest. If I live in a rented house and carelessly damage the property without correcting it, I am guilty of thievery.
- e) To devise means by which a phone call can be made without paying for the call. Sometimes when a person travels far away, when he reaches his destination, he puts in a person-to-person phone call, back home, asking for himself. Of course, he is not there, but the family knows that he has arrived at his destination—and he does not have to pay for the call. This is a sly form of stealing, cheating the Company out of rightful funds.
- f) To falsify income tax returns by failing to report one’s true income is dishonest. To fail to give a due portion of one’s income to financially support the Lord’s work—is stealing. To turn in coupons at a grocery store without buying the items they represent—is dishonest. To steal another’s reputation by careless talk or jealous action—is a form of theft.
Every Christian needs to examine his habits carefully, lest some questionable practice mar his testimony for Christ and the Church.
3. The Remedy for the Sin of Stealing
Stealing is one of the symptoms of inborn sin, and only Jesus can cure the wrong desire. Before one can conquer the sin of stealing, he must experience the new birth, and seek the forgiveness of God, and settle up things with the Lord. Living for Christ day after day will help smother one’s tendencies to steal, and will enable a person to lead an industrious, hard-working life, dedicated to the glory of God and the welfare of others.
Of course, if there has been stealing in your life, it becomes your duty to confess the wrong and make restitution if that is at all possible. Restitution simply means returning or paying for that which was wrongfully taken. Zaccheus was a tax collector down in Jericho who grew rich at his job. He had a dark past; he was greedy about money; but Jesus saved him, and Zaccheus offered to do what the Jewish Law required of one who had stolen. He offered to restore what he had wrongfully taken fourfold (Exodus 22:1; Luke 19:8). Maybe some of us will need to send a check to the Telephone Company. Others may have to reimburse the government with some additional funds. Some may have to go to another individual and restore things that were taken. The only steps that lead to complete forgiveness, are confession and restitution.
A teen-age girl came forward one night during an evangelistic meeting a number of years ago. She had accepted Christ as her Savior, but she had a troubled heart. Some years before—she had told an untruth about her age and entered a cow in a contest, and won first prize. But because she was overage, she really did not deserve the prize, and had really stolen the prize-money from someone else who was within the proper age bracket. She had sought counsel from a number of “Christian” groups and they told her that God had forgiven her and that she should forget all about it. But when she accepted the advice to go back to the proper authority and confess the whole thing—she did it, she had peace. She wrote a brief, but jubilant, letter a few weeks later, saying that now finally her soul was at rest.
Stealing always in the end brings hardship. At the moment one steals, he thinks it is great. Finally he is getting what he thinks he wanted. But forever after, you are left with a continual fear that you may be found out, and so in the long run, you get misery and unhappiness. And so our challenge to each believer is this: Let each of us strive to be meticulously honest, and to live in such a way that everyone can see that we are honest even in the small details of life.
If you have taken what does not belong to you—until you make confession and restitution (if it is at all possible)—your conscience will be troubled and your sin will haunt you. None of us knows what a day will bring forth, and therefore any wrongs should be righted as quickly as possible.
Stealing is a wicked sin. But I must remind you that to reject Jesus Christ (in one sense of the word) is a much greater sin, because to reject Him is to cut off your only hope of eternal salvation. The Bible says, “There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The Ten Commandments were given to show us how sinful we are, how far we fall short of God’s standard, and how much we need God’s help in getting right. Today God says, “If you will come to the foot of the Cross, I will meet you there; if you will open the door of your heart, I will come in and dwell there; if you will simply trust Me, I will see you through.” It is our prayer that many readers will turn over their lives to the Lord, and unite with God’s people, and get away from the old crowd, and make a commitment to start over in life.