Something For Nothing

 
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There’s a man in the window!”

I don’t ever recall being jerked from sleep so abruptly as when I heard my wife say those words. We were in Mexico City for a brief vacation with our son, David.

On that mild summer evening, we had drifted off to sleep with the window of our guest room open to catch the breeze. It was a third-story window that opened onto an inner courtyard, so it seemed safe enough.

For a few long seconds, I stared at the vague shadow in the window. It can be difficult to know what you are seeing at night. Just as I was about dismiss the idea, the shadow began to move. It was indeed a man—and he was definitely coming in. Now, before going any further, I would like to stop and ask a question: what do you think that person wanted?

It’s not hard to guess he was planning to relieve us of some of our possessions.

But by asking I want to open the issue a bit more and contemplate thievery.

Here is a list of some of the most common kinds of stealing. You will notice that our man in the window has lots of company, people who share his intentions and mentality, most of whom are not nearly as despised as he is by polite society.

1. Theft. This is the first kind that comes to mind when we talk about stealing. Our visitor would fit into this category. The traditional kind of robbery— to take something without the owner’s consent, to borrow something and not return it, to owe something and not pay. That’s theft, plain and simple.

2. Illegal copying. Making a copy that deprives the author, artist and publisher of their right to income, whether it involves printed matter or material in digital or other format.

3. Plagiarism. Presenting another person’s work, ideas or answers as your own.

4. Information manipulation. Achieving personal gain or advantage through lying, exaggerating or telling less than the whole truth.

5. Slander, defamation. Depriving others of their reputation and good name, and the esteem, love and respect they have a right to enjoy.

6. Slacking off on the job. “Goofing off,” being unjustifiably idle on company time, doing less than your best at work, arriving late and leaving early.

7. Waste. Squandering or misusing material or time that belongs to another person.

8. Carelessness. This includes neglect and other forms of irresponsible behaviour that result in loss to another person.

9. Overcharging. Requiring too much for something when the buyer has no other choice but to accept it.

10. Underpayment. Paying less than the fair value for something when the seller or employee is at a disadvantage.

Now, let’s ask again: What do you think the man who crept into our window that night in Mexico City wanted?

He wanted the same thing all the others on this list want: something they have not earned, something that was not theirs and to which they had no right. The robber in our window sought to get something for nothing.

the sweat component

The first biblical rule against stealing appears in Genesis 3:19, after Adam and Eve’s first sin. It declares: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.”

Here is how the apostle Paul puts it: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).

Did you notice that this Bible prescription for stealing has two parts? The first is self-support: “He who steals …

must labour, performing with his own hands what is good.” We are to acquire by exchanging value for value.

God designed the sweat component of life to be a blessing—to bring relief from stress, to add health to the body and peace to the mind.

“Excuse me, please”

After I spoke to the man in the window in a decidedly unwelcoming tone of voice and David made a sound like a banshee, he paused and said very politely in English, “Excuse me, please.”

Whenever I have told this story, people have reacted in amazement: “What! A thief in Mexico City who could speak English?”

But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.

The individuals who engage in this profession are generally not stupid. In fact, a lot of them consider themselves smarter than the rest of us. Why work for minimum wage when you can get more money for less effort?

That’s a good question. In fact, let’s broaden it a bit more. Why should I slave away for hours on a university assignment when it takes five minutes to get one from the internet? What sense does it make to pay $75 for software when my buddy is offering me a free copy? And why not spend my time at work chatting by the water cooler or on the internet? They aren’t paying me what I deserve anyway.

Thomas Jefferson had a different idea.

He said: “The worst day of a man’s life is the day he sits down and plans how he can get something for nothing.”

Jefferson was thinking not of the damage that burglars can do when they crawl in through our windows at night but of the devastating effect this mindset has on those who indulge in it. This is the essential reason for the warning given in the eighth commandment.

The “smart” people who take this path to easy street are making a terrible trade-off. They are bartering away their personal integrity, their values and self-esteem.

the love component

So the first element in the biblical prescription to cure dishonesty is self-support; the second is generosity.

The text says: “[He] must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).

The opposite of stealing is giving— impartially reaching out to others, serving them with love and expecting nothing in return.

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is a perfect illustration of this principle.

Robbers attacked a traveller and seized everything he had. Then they discarded him at the side of the road.

What the good Samaritan did was just the opposite. Whereas the thieves had taken away, the Samaritan gave.

Never mind that he exposed himself to danger or that if circumstances had been reversed, the traveller might not have given him a second glance. There is no hint of him hoping the wounded man would in some way repay him for his efforts. One thing alone moved this man: compassion. Which is another way of saying: love. Because he loved, he gave.

Stealing is not the only expression of selfishness but it is one of the crudest and most direct. But while stealing takes away, love gives. Love is the opposite of selfishness and its remedy.

Although love does not necessarily cure selfishness in the one who is loved, it certainly does in the one who loves.

Without the love component, the sweat component (that is, earning your own way and paying for what you get) is not really a complete cure for the something- for-nothing syndrome. In fact, it can lead us to compare ourselves with others and to harbour pride and greed.

To personal effort and integrity we must add compassion—impartial love that gives of itself in service to others.

stealing from God

The most dangerous kind of something for nothing is the kind we try to bring into our relationship with God.

Now we venture into a treacherous area in which it is easy to get confused, because the Bible says that salvation is a “free gift.” This is the essential message of the gospel. Good works never earned salvation for anyone—and never will.

The trouble comes when some people take this to mean that good works don’t matter. Or that we can have a cafeteriastyle religion, observing commandments we like and considering others abolished by grace. Can we tell people we are saved while continuing to overlook what God has told us in the Ten Commandments or in any other part of the Bible?

John MacArthur answers this question eloquently: “The gospel in vogue today holds forth a false hope to sinners. It promises them they can have eternal life yet continue to live in rebellion against God. Indeed, it encourages people to claim Jesus as Saviour yet defer until later the commitment to obey Him as Lord. It promises salvation from hell but not necessarily freedom from iniquity. It offers false security to people who revel in the sins of the flesh and spurn the way of holiness. By separating faith from faithfulness, it teaches that intellectual assent is a valid and wholehearted obedience to the truth.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace.” Not long before his death at the hands of the Gestapo, he wrote: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Grace is the heart of the gospel. It means we can come to Jesus just as we are, without being good enough.

Incredible as it may seem, the Bible tells us that we can approach God “with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16).

But does this amazing grace mean we can just as boldly go on sinning? In reply to such thinking, Paul asks: “Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1).

Berkley Jones was an embittered and dangerous criminal, considered incorrigible by the penal authorities. But one glorious day Jesus found a place in Berkley’s heart. Not long afterward, someone asked if he ever felt a desire to go back to the life he lived before he met Jesus. To him, this seemed the most absurd question in the world. He compared it to a man drowning in a cesspool being pulled out, then wanting to jump back in, knowing perfectly well it held nothing but rottenness and death.

Why would anyone prefer a cesspool when Jesus offers health and healing?

The answer to “cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer declared, is “Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”