A few months ago while on a business trip to the US, I decided to visit a national park after work. Three colleagues and I drove to the park, paid the $10 entrance fee, and drove deep into the bush along a winding 10-kilometre-long road that led deeper into the reserve. The carpark at the end was deserted except for one other car that pulled in just as we collected our belongings, locked our two purses in the boot and prepared to trek to the 15-metre-high observation tower, where the sign boasted viewings of wild horses and bison.
Once at the tower, we pulled out our binoculars and focused on the dark shapes roaming the far reaches of the prairie. Soon after, a family—appearing to be a mother with three sons ranging in age from about 10 to 16—arrived in their car.
The mother said nothing, seating herself in a shadowed area out of view. Volunteering to share my binoculars with the older boy, I chatted excitedly about seeing wild horses in Florida. He returned the conversation amiably, thanking me for the use of the binoculars and getting a firsthand view of the dark steeds in the distance.
Then, almost as quickly as they had arrived, the family disappeared. As we were to soon discover, so had our purses. Opening the boot, it took a while for us to process what had just happened. My small dark bag containing my driver’s licence, credit cards and a $10 note was gone. Helen’s purse with her driver’s licence, credit cards and $100 in cash was nowhere to be found.
The park suddenly became a dark, menacing place. Immediately we drove to the entrance and reported the crime. The park ranger was stunned. Nothing like that had ever happened before at his park, he said. A police officer arrived and took down our information, including a description of the car and the family we met at the tower. For the next two hours, we went into a frenzy, calling home, informing our families and closing credit card accounts.
Somewhere within that window of time we received our first clue. My card had been used to make a purchase of $7.48 at a roadside cafe. Video footage at the store revealed the same car that had pulled up beside us at the park. The culprits were the mother and her three sons, including the boy who had chatted so politely and accepted my offer to look through my binoculars.
A flood of emotions swept through me. Seven dollars and forty-eight cents in a greasy spoon cafe! If you really needed the money, lady, why did you stop for a sugar-laden can of drink? Why didn’t you at least feed your family?
Cold reality hit me next. We could have been knocked off that 15-metre tower! That kid could have grabbed those $200 binoculars and made a run for it. The bottom line was that we had been violated. We had extended a hand of kindness and had been betrayed. Robbed. Victimised. It took months to recover all that we’d lost. And I will never feel safe in similar surroundings again.
For a while, I was smug in my categorisation. Bad people in the world steal, rob and plunder. The rest of us hold our heads high, do our best to forgive and struggle to understand. However, unsettling questions gradually began to interrupt my thoughts. Is taking a purse from someone’s boot the only way to steal? Is it possible that all of us are guilty, in some way or another, of treading on God’s eighth commandment?
Probably. Here are nine less obvious ways of ignoring God’s injunction, “Thou shalt not steal.” Read further to see if any apply to you.
1. Copyright infringement
Scanning the internet for original pictures, grabbing copy and using it as if it is your own; accessing others’ material without giving due credit—all of this qualifies as stealing intellectual property. While a typed paragraph may not seem as concrete as a purse, stealing is stealing, nonetheless.
2. Cheating on taxes
“Do I really have to report those under-the-table tips? After all, the government doesn’t need to know everything about me! Even if I did report it, others would be getting away with far more than me. Why should I be the one to pay all the money?”
If you ever find yourself asking such questions, stop the flow. You’re getting dangerously close to forcing entry into a locked car boot. The “purse” inside is not worth it. The can of gingerbeer will all too soon taste flat.
3. Stealing joy
“Look at her. She thinks she’s so great! Just because her son won a scholarship doesn’t make her any better than me. I know how to take her down a peg or two in my own subtle way. I’m not going to even acknowledge the news.”
The irony here is that the robbery is twofold. You not only take away another’s own rich experience of joy, you rob yourself of the joy of sharing in it. Happiness is replaced by bitterness. Friendship is broken. Two individuals are left bereft.
4. Taking what isn’t yours
I will never forget the day my dad found 10 $20 notes all folded together right in plain view on the footpath. He had just started a business. Our family was low on funds but high on love. There was no question about what Dad would do. How excited we all were when he reported that the police had located the owner of the money in our small town. The man visited us beaming, leaving Dad with one of the $20 notes for his honesty. The day remains as a high point in my childhood memories.
I can’t help but contrast this with the experience of a family who visited us recently. The children arrived with new bangles hanging from their wrists while their family excitedly told us, “We don’t know who was supposed to get this box, but it came to our apartment!”
They made no effort to try and find the real owner, possibly their next door neighbour in the apartment block.
It came to us, they reasoned, so it’s ours. That’s no excuse for keeping something that doesn’t belong to you.
5. Keeping the change
Have you ever counted your change and realised the checkout operator had made a mistake? “This is my lucky day! She accidently gave me change from 20, not 10! Her fault, not mine. Let’s go before she realises.”
While you may not realise it or think about it, someone is accountable for that money at the end of the day. In essence, by remaining mute you just robbed a worker of her pay, a family of rent money, a mother of cash for groceries.
6. Stealing answers
I was shocked recently when speaking with a group of high school students about their study habits. They told me how each day they split up the homework between them, each one doing just parts of it, then combining their answers, they submitted them as thinly disguised individual answers. Various creative means had been invented to cheat on tests. One girl wrote the answers on her leg just above the knee. “The teacher wouldn’t think to ask me to lift my skirt or he would be fired!” she laughed.
Another entered large amounts of information from the textbook into his mobile phone, which he hid in his desk mobile intermittently viewed when the teacher was looking at the other side of the room. Two other students sat close to one another, and each one had studied half the material, so they whispered the answers to each other.
When I suggested that such actions were dishonest, the students protested, “But we have to do it. Everyone else does it! If we don’t, it won’t be fair. We’ll be the only ones flunking!”
No matter who else might be doing it, cheating on a test is still stealing. The height of irony is the victim of the robbery. That, of course, would be yourself.
7. Altering the clock at work
Have you ever “forgotten” to “clock out” of work during your full lunch hour? Or “punched in” before actually finishing your lunch break? Or submitted a time sheet that didn’t exactly reflect the actual hours you worked?
I spoke to someone recently who told me about people at her company who are privately recognised among co-workers as continually stretching the limits, dishonestly claiming work hours while sitting around in the staff room.
8. Robbing God of our tithes and offerings
The Bible is quite forthright on this one. “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings” (Malachi 3:8), God enquires.
Are you having a tight month? That’s all the more reason to give! Once again, by trying to take things into your own hands, you not only rob God but deprive yourself of the blessings only He can give. “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it’ ” (verse 10).
9. Stealing time best spent with God
This last one probably accounts for everything I’ve outlined so far. When we’re too rushed to spend time with God, we make ourselves vulnerable for all the other kinds of robbery. “Let me just steal a few more moments of sleep. Let me just take a little time to watch my favourite show.” When our relationship with God becomes compromised, we forget to listen to our conscience. The purse in the boot beckons. We step closer to taking what isn’t ours.
If any of these nine points have made you the slightest bit uncomfortable, the Spirit of God is doing His work. God commands us to keep all of His commandments, including the eighth one that says, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), however that presents itself.