That’s Not Really Stealing, Is It?

Several years ago, I got a phone call from Mark.  It was one of those phone calls that you just know is about to deliver bad news before much, if anything, is said.  Sure enough, through an odd sequence of events, he had discovered that one of his employees had been embezzling large amounts from a client.  

He was sick. I was sick.  We never would have suspected something like this from her, and now Mark had the responsibility to notify the client that had been impacted.  We later found out that there was a prior history of this behavior which demonstrated that this was a heart issue not an impulse behavior because of undesirable or difficult life circumstances.

It’s easy to identify embezzlement as stealing, but there are other actions that qualify while being much less obvious.  Let’s take a look at some of the Scriptures that deal with stealing and then we’ll dive into life application of those less obvious ways we might be stealing without realizing it.

What the Bible says about Stealing

Do not steal.  It’s one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19, Mark 10:19, et al), and there are numerous examples of discipline because this command was not followed.  I’ve listed a few below.

  • There is the story of Achan.  The Israelite army suffered defeat, and Achan, his family, and all he owned were killed because he stole from God. (Joshua 6:18-19, 7:1,10-26)
  • How about Jonah?  He was going to steal the ability to be reconciled with God from all the people of Ninevah by not going and prophesying, which was ultimately delivering the message which resulted in repentance, as God instructed him.  (Jonah 1:1-7)
  • One could be crucified for stealing just as the two thieves that hung on either side of Christ. (Matthew 27:38)
  • Then there were the money changers and merchants in the Temple who were robbing people. (Mark 11:15-17)

Stealing is a heart issue

Stealing was, and is, a serious offense.  The Bible says theft is a heart issue. Theft, amongst other offenses, comes out of our heart and can dishonor a person. The person with a right heart seeks to not offend a neighbor; to love their neighbor as them self (Matthew 15:19 and Romans 13:9-10).  In other words, to “look to the interest of others” as quoted in Philippians 2:3-4, see below.

Paul offers instructions for those that are in the habit of stealing.  “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).  

What constitutes stealing?  Generally, an accepted definition is that stealing is taking anything that belongs to another by force or deceit; taking something not rightfully yours without any intent to return it.  We’ll look at stealing in the context of this definition; however, consider that stealing can also happen in the context of omission or refusal to acknowledge talents and gifts.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others
more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his
own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:3-4 ESV

So, what is stealing?

Stealing is easy to identify when we think in terms of physical items:  a candy bar, money, property, etc. It goes beyond that, though. How about intellectual property, plagiarism, time, someone’s reputation, opportunity?  The list could go on.

I’ve held a strong stance on stealing opportunity, especially in the context of operating in one’s calling and spiritual gifting, for quite some time now.  It’s just one of those things that gets me fired up!

Too many American churches have deemed branding and packaging or image and convenience  higher priority than training up the body of Christ. Does that surprise you? I see the tainting of this attitude and value  across denominations and church sizes, whether they are  large, multi or satellite campus churches, or small churches.  And, sadly, when I was less mature in my Christian walk, I perpetrated it, but it’s wrong.

We tend to like control…even in our churches.  We like to control the schedule because of our specific agenda, the next service start time, or even getting people out on time for the afternoon football game, or lunch (you know that friendly competition to get your congregation to the restaurants before the official “rush”).  We control who can serve in which roles, based on gender rather than spiritual maturity and qualifications.

Stealing by design

The problem is, while we’re busy controlling all these variables, we have the audacity to pray and ask the Lord to have His way, to meet with us, to pour out His Spirit.  These are all things that I believe God wants to do, and yet the unspoken part of that prayer is so limiting.

Too often, what we are really praying is more in line with something like this.  “Heavenly Father come meet with us, but please, show up only during this brief scheduled time.” “Holy Spirit, pour out your Spirit, but don’t interrupt the planned service, and don’t do anything that might draw attention or make anyone uncomfortable.”  “Jesus, make me more like you, but don’t ask me to give up my influence or place of position that I enjoy so that I can instead wash feet, and please, Jesus, please, don’t replace me with the younger/older generation!”

How pious and selfish!  God designed the Church to be a complementary body, not a family filled with selfish sibling rivalry.  When we feel insecure or threatened, we can rob someone of an opportunity to grow and serve. They may not be mature enough to be in a leadership role, but that doesn’t mean we should exclude them simply because we’ve been doing it longer or we can do it “better.”  We shouldn’t exclude them because that “office” we hold has become our identity (AKA an idol) and we just don’t want to give it up. We are to edify each other and sharpen each other with teachings of the faith and with our spiritual gifts.

Stealing from God

The budding preacher or evangelist that is never given time in the pulpit to preach, and thereby learn by doing, is greatly handicapped.  The instrumentalist or vocalist that is deemed less desirable because they are older or have less “stage presence” is denied an opportunity to lead others in worship.  In more charismatic churches, we do not typically provide a safe space for those with the gift of prophecy or interpretation because someone might get it wrong, but we’ve taken away the place for them to learn to get it right.  Worship flags, prophetic art, dance…all of these expressions need to be celebrated and safeguarded. There are appropriate boundaries in corporate worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). Hiding them, however, is not a safeguard; it’s denial of an opportunity to learn how to use one’s gifting.  

If we take this a step further, we are not only stealing from the individual(s), but we are stealing from The Creator that delights in His children and receives their praise and worship.  Let’s take that ripple effect even further.  How about the fact that we can steal the blessing God intended for those around the individual to receive?  We can steal by being silent and not sharing God’s truth. Remember Jonah? We can also steal by silencing someone God appointed and wants to use to impact others.

Remember, God looks not at the outward appearance but at the heart.  We need to be very careful not to let discernment turn into practice of personal bias or unholy judgment.  So, when you consider stealing in a broader sense, have you stolen from someone? If so, ask God to forgive you and to show you how to seek restoration, and prepare your heart to be willing to give someone else an opportunity.

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