Besides part ten, “thou shalt not murder,” I’ve most been looking forward to this post. When I write anything, often my goal is to flesh out thoughts. This will be that, and if you are reading it, that is a bonus for me.
The seventh commandment says you cannot take other people’s stuff. “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15).
Once again, I start out wondering how there could be a principle behind such a straightforward law. Shouldn’t this be one where God the Father gets to say, “Because I said so!”? It seems like that’s what he wants to do, since this is one of the commandments with zero explanation.
God should get to say whatever he wants, and we should listen. But I am committed to this project of considering his laws as principles, so how is the law of keeping our hands off someone else’s stuff to be applied as a principle to live by? In other words, what does this commandment say about God and about the way he has created the world to work? What does is say about how he has created mankind to relate to one another?
This commandment is tied closely to all the others, especially the commandment prohibiting murder. God does not want us to murder, becuase life is precious. Life is precious because God created it. Existence exists, and the way we must live springs from this fact. A person is a created thing. A created thing has a right to be. And humans especially have a right to be. Continuing to “be” is a key purpose for our efforts in life, and the most fundamental way we glorify our Maker.
This requires us to have the stuff we need to exist.
There is something profound about possessions. Jesus said a man does not get his identity from his possessions. He said it this way, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). Then he told the parable of the rich fool whose land produced abundantly, so he tore down his old barns, built bigger barns, and relaxed. This was foolish, because he died the next day.
Whatever else this means, it means that “life” does not consist in what we have. “Life” is something else. But then, who cares if someone steals our abundance of possessions?
This apparent contradiction is why Christians are confused enough on this point to never save enough, AND/OR never give enough.
A man does not get his identity from his possessions, but possessions do get (part of) their identity from the man or woman who owns them.
This is tied to the principle of stewardship. God stated it again when he told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Gen 9:3).
Everything in the world belonged to the man who lived on it alone with his family. What was the purpose? To live. It was God’s stuff that he gave to Noah to use for life. This is what he gives us our stuff for. When we possess it, we become stewards of it. This means that we become responsible for it. We own it. Our name is on it, but it is for God that our name is on it, because his name is on US. We belong to him.
I believe that this is profound. I own something. My life does not consist of that thing. My life owns that thing. That possession does not own me, but I have put my name on it. I don’t get identity from it, but it gets identity from me. It is not just a car. It is Jeff’s car. It is not just money. It is Jeff’s money to use for Jeff’s life for the glory of God (because Jeff’s money is God’s money, because Jeff belongs to God). If it is going to be given away in generosity, it is going to be given away by me, because I am generous. If it is going to be hoarded, it is because I am stingy, and I am hoarding it.
God will and does hold me accountable for that. And possession and identity are important to God. Stewardship and responsibility are fundamental biblical principles. He does not want someone else to take what belongs to me for the same reason he does not want someone to kill me. This is a part of my life once I put my name on it. I am using it to further my life. Whether it is food for my physical sustenance, or even if it is something for my “spiritual” sustenance, like a piece of art. If it furthers my life according to my biblical values, to take it, is to violate my life as you would by any use of force and violence against me.
We are not to steal, because to steal is to subtract from life, it is to kill. Sometimes it looks explicitly like that. If you took the last scraps from a starving man, he would die because you stole his property.
This still does not mean a man’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions. His life is still something separate and spiritual. Jesus told his parable and made the comment because two brothers were fighting over their parents’ estate. Jesus saw they were greedy for the possessions. He saw that they thought “things” were the key to their value, their identity. The opposite is true.
Now, I think Christ would say, “Do not steal other people’s stuff.” But I also think he would say, “Let them steal yours if they are going to do that, because my Father in heaven will take care of you.” I believe he wants us to trust God that much.
Why? Because there is a fine line between knowing you have responsibility for your stuff, which is to further your life, and being fearful that God will not take care of you, or just plain old loving money and possessions more than God.
Jesus and his Father want us to be free. Money is important, especially if you are trying to raise a family. And I imagine that most Christians feel some guilt about making very much of it, but we shouldn’t. We should make the most we can if we can do it without compromising biblical values and our Christian character. We should live in such a way and think of it in such a way that we could still be happy in God if we lost it all and were made to start again.
We should not be like the man with the bigger barns. What is the point of relaxing for the rest of your life and not being productive? Have you ever seen anyone who did that? I’m thinking of what happened to George Foreman when he first won his title. He retired young to go fishing and hang around drinking beer and spending his money. He nearly died until he became productive again, even gloriously coming out of retirement to box professionally again and sell grills.
Humans aren’t made to be unproductive, even when it seems they no longer need to be.
So What Does This Mean for How We Relate to One Another?
Everyone has a God-given right to his or her life, and they have a God-given right to what possessions they have their name on. It is theirs to dispense with, whether it is sold, or given away. When we relate to others, we relate as traders, value for value. We seek win-win arrangements with everyone from our boss, to our customers, employees, spouses, children, neighbors, and even our rivals. Life is truly not meant to be a zero sum game. The seeming inequalities that exist are an illusion, because abundant life means there is enough for everyone who uses their God given capacity to produce and stewards it appropriately. In our trades we create value and should both win.
When this is not happening, it is because someone is violating reality and righteousness. But for those people, there are ways that God ultimately deals with them and evens the score.
Theft comes down to force, just like murder, and they are in the same category of taking away from a person’s life. I know there is more to say. Feel free to comment if you want to continue the conversation.