When we read the 8th Commandment, we encounter 4 simple words—"You must not steal." Those words set a standard difficult to meet: God demands 100% honesty, 100% of the time. That’s not easy to do. But that’s the standard this Commandment sets. God is not satisfied with: partial honesty, better-than-most-people honesty, most of the time honest. That beings said, in some ways it is easy to overlook this Commandment. It is even easier to break it.
It will help us get our bearings if we understand why God gave this Commandment:
1. To provide stability in society
2. To teach respect for private property
3. To promote honesty, hard work and generosity.
It may be fairly stated that without this Commandment no society could function. Unless there is a general agreement to respect the property of others and a generally-accepted prohibition against stealing, no society could last long. If you feel free to claim what is mine, and if I feel free to claim what is yours, we will not be able to live together. We will be eyeing each other with suspicion. No family, no city, no country, can long survive where the 8th Commandment is not respected.
Yet stealing is very common. Every day brings us new stories about car theft, white-collar theft, armed robbery, muggings, shoplifting, insurance fraud, income tax evasion, breaking and entering, embezzlement, employee theft, pyramid get-rich-quick schemes, extortion, blackmail, bribery, identity theft, and all the rest of the sophisticated means we use to rip each other off. America has forgotten the 8th Commandment! That’s why you lock your doors at night.
Our tendency is to hear that and say, “Right on, pastor. It’s terrible what’s happening today. Thank God, none of that applies to me. I may be a lot of things, but I’m no thief!” We may think this way because we set the bar so low on this commandment so it’s easy to jump over and think, “I’ve never done anything like shoplifting, so I’m good.” To which only one answer can be given: “Don’t be so sure.” Let me suggest five ways in which even the most pious churchgoer may become a thief.
A. The Time Thief
Time is the most precious commodity in the world. It is the one truly non-renewable resource. Once time is gone it can never be reclaimed, recycled, or repeated. Time flies—whether we use it wisely or whether we waste it. Time waits for no one, stops for no one, slows down for no one. It passes and then, as Isaac Watts wrote, “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” When enough time has passed, we too will be gone.
Who are the time thieves? They are the ones who:
—Show up late for an appointment
—Come late for work/Leave early for home
—Take extra-long breaks
—Watch the clock instead of the job
America has become a nation of time thieves. We routinely promise to be somewhere at a certain time … knowing that we will be late. Often we even plan to be late. Does it matter to us that others have arranged their schedules to fit our promises? Not much! We are late for appointments; late with assignments; late for meetings; late for church services; late to keep our promises. When we are habitually late, we send the following message—“My time is more important than your time and I don’t mind wasting yours.”
Stealing time is wrong because you steal that which can never be recovered. The loss is permanent and no double-time tomorrow can make up for the time you stole today.
Here is a thief who can be found even inside the church. He (or she) is a thief because they steal the reputation of someone else. “Psssst … Have you heard the latest?” “Did you know that so and so are splitting up?” “She never intended to pay the money back.” “He said he was sick but I’ll bet he was just playing golf.” “I’m glad she lost her job. She needed to get some humility.” “Those Richardson kids are the worst children in church. I think the middle one will probably end up in jail … or in Congress … or both.”
Remember this. When we gossip about someone, we’re guilty of stealing their good name. We are guilty of robbery just as much as the mugger who holds us up on the street. And we aren’t any less guilty in God’s eyes. No, we are worse because we do it in God’s house and we do it to God’s children—our brothers and sisters in Christ. If any other evidence needs to be mentioned, remember that gossip is listed in Romans 1 as one mark of a depraved life. God lists it in the same sentence with murder.
C. The Defrauding Thief
This is the person who steals the purity and innocence of another person. It applies to the man who steals the affection of another man’s wife. It applies to the teenager who leads his friends into immorality. It applies to parents who laugh when their children misbehave. It applies to boyfriends and girlfriends who tempt their dates into going too far. It applies to adults who use their friendships to introduce people to degrading habits, impure activities and unwholesome associations.
It especially applies to those in leadership who carelessly use their example in a way that becomes a stumbling block to others. How many young people have started drinking because they first saw their parents drink, or their Sunday School teacher drink? How many now attend R-rated movies and laugh at the nudity, chuckle at the profanity, and lust after the promiscuity … how many do it now because some influential person led them down the wrong path?
How terrible will be the judgment of those who carelessly use their influence to entice others to evil! Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). Those who use their influence, their relationships, their speech, their position in life, their charming, persuasive personalities, their “liberty,” to lead others away from God deserve what is coming to them! Remember, Jesus said “it would be better” for them to die by drowning. That means whatever will happen to such defrauding thieves must be horrible beyond belief.
D. The Careless Thief
This thief may seem small indeed after the one just mentioned, yet far more of us are likely to be careless than to deliberately defraud others. The careless thief is the one who borrows and does not return, who borrows and does not pay back. He promises to do so but does not.
Why is this so critical? I think we have an answer in the OT teaching concerning just weights and measurements. The Old Testament, in five separate places, warns against “unjust weights and measurements.” God hated that practice and promised to judge those who rigged their weights in order to cheat others. It reminds me of the architect who spent hours and hours poring over the tiny details of his blueprints. Why, he was asked, was he spending such an inordinate amount of time on the details? He replied, “Because God is in the details.”
How true. God is in the details of life. The seemingly small things add up. Jesus said, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities” (Luke 16:10). Don’t talk about your walk with God; don’t rhapsodize about your quiet times, don’t babble about your worship, don’t brag about your holiness. Show it by your life! The proof is confirmed by being consistent in the “small” things. God is in the details! And if God isn’t in the details of our life, those who watch may legitimately wonder if God is really in our life at all.
E. The God-Robbing Thief
Malachi 3:8-10 introduces us to this nefarious character: “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ’How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the store-house, that there may be food in my house. ‘Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much that you will not have room enough for it.’”
The God-Robbing thief can also be found in church on Sunday morning! That’s right. The God-robber is the one who refuses to give to God that which belongs to Him. He is the man who knows God personally, realizes that his blessings come from God, and still refuses to give to God. Instead, he hoards his money, hugs his profit, holds his loot, hangs on to his prosperity. When the plate is passed, he reluctantly throws in a five or a ten, but his heart is not in it. That man is a God-Robber!
Is there a way out of the stealing trap? Can a thief really change his ways? The answer is yes. God’s word shows us a three-step plan in Ephesians 4:28: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”
Step 1. Honesty—"He who has been stealing must steal no longer”
Step 2. Industry—"Doing something useful with his hands”
Step 3. Charity—"That he may have something to share”
The problem with stealing is that it is by nature entirely selfish. We steal in order to “get.” Stealing will come to an end only when “getters” become “givers.” It’s really very simple: Stop stealing; Start working; Give instead of taking.
Someone categorized this issue in this way: “What’s yours is mine and I will take it”—the heart of a thief. “What’s mine is mine and I will keep it”—the heart of a materialist. “What’s mine is yours and I will share it”—the heart of a Christian.
At the heart of stealing is a deep lack of faith in God. We steal because we think we do not have enough. We steal because we think we deserve what others have. We steal because we want what we have not earned. We steal because we fear the future. But underneath all those sinful motivations is a deep distrust in God. We steal because we think God will not take care of us. We steal because we feel like we can’t sit around and wait for God to meet our needs.
Years ago there was a man named Maxey Jarman, founder of the Genesco shoe chain. Over the years Mr. Jarman supported many worthy causes. He freely and generously gave his money to benefit God’s work in many places. But the day came when his company collapsed, and with it, his personal fortune. Someone asked him, “Mr. Jarman, don’t you regret giving all that money away? Think what a difference it would make if you had it all back.” To which he replied, “Oh no, I don’t regret any of the money I gave away. After all, I only lost what I kept for myself.” What a fantastic perspective on life. “I only lost what I kept for myself.”
The great tragedy of life is that it takes a tragedy for so many people to discover that truth. It is only when we lose it all that we realize it was never ours to begin with. Therein lies the ultimate folly of stealing. The thief steals that which does not belong to him, but he cannot keep the thing that he steals. In the end someone else will own it or use it. No one keeps anything forever!
Life itself is not ours to keep. The life we live is not “ours.” It belongs to God who has given it to us as a loan. Eventually we will have to give it back to Him. Seen in that light, stealing is extremely short-sighted, foolish and self-defeating.
I end where I began. The 8th C tells me that God demands 100% honesty, 100% of the time. God doesn’t grade on a curve. It doesn’t matter if I am more honest than my neighbor. What God wants from me is a personal commitment to total honesty in all my relationships and in every part of my life. I may not like that—and to be truthful—I am challenged by that high standard because it’s so easy to cut corners, to make excuses, and to justify attitudes and actions that betray how little we trust in God.
Can a thief be saved? I know one who was. The last person Jesus forgave was a thief. Think about that. While He was hanging on the cross, Jesus said to the thief hanging by His side, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus said those remarkable words—not to a good man or to a religious man—but to a thief who was paying the ultimate price for his thievery.