A few years ago, I was caught stealing.
The electricity utility company that served my home at that time correctly alleged that my three neighbors and I, for many years, had been bypassing the installed electricity meter and using free electricity to operate our water pumping machine. They cut off our electricity supply and slammed us with a large bill for arrears that we had to quickly settle.
What made the situation worse was that all the four families who lived in that house were deeply religious. I was a serving deacon in my church. Another tenant was a pastor in the largest Christian denomination in Nigeria. The evening devotions of the third family were so loud and lasted so long that they kept everyone else up at night. In the only Muslim family among us, the wife and daughter wore hijabs and took their faith seriously.
In my (dubious) defense, the act of bypassing the meter had occurred before I moved in, and I had lived in the house many years before I discovered what they were up to. But I had known about the “game” at least a year before we got caught and beyond an initial head shaking, I said and did nothing about it.
If you are a Nigerian reading this, you are probably not surprised and may already be saying “Oga, in Nigeria, this is not a big deal!”. Sadly you are probably right. Taking what doesn’t belong to us is no longer considered a moral issue in Nigeria. And this has also affected the Nigerian church! We have allowed the norms and expectations of Nigerian society to be our guide for deciding what is right and wrong.
The problem with this attitude of allowing society to set our moral standards is that society’s standards of right and wrong are ever-changing. For example, a hundred years ago, a man who stole in Nigeria became an outcast, then 50 years ago, we started to say, “as long as he didn’t steal too much”. Nowadays we yawn when we see headlines of government workers stealing millions of naira.
As Christians, we must be bound by the Bible. Hence, we must ask what is the biblical solution to this issue? In Ephesians 4:17-32. Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians with this warning: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do”, that is they who have started to follow the way of the cross must live a radically different life from those around them. He goes on to describe the darkness and ignorance that unbelievers are living in and how Christians must put on the new self.
Then from verse 25, he starts to offer practical advice on how that would play out in real life. My focus is on verse 28, which discusses stealing. The first thing Paul says there is “Let the thief no longer steal”, the word translated thief is the Greek word klepto from which we get the word kleptomaniac. The idea then is of someone who cannot help taking what does not belong to him, someone who is an opportunist and is always looking for what he can take from others. Essentially, Paul is describing the condition we have in Nigeria currently. Paul is saying Christians must not adopt this type of mindset. It doesn’t matter if everyone else is stealing, we must not join them.
Rather than steal, Paul wants Christians to labor, that is to work hard to the point of sweat and exhaustion. The imagery there is of an athlete after a race. The reason for this labor is so that we may have something to share with anyone in need, which is the opposite of the klepto attitude. The motivation given for work is not to accumulate wealth but to have something to share with others. From the biblical perspective, therefore, work is useful and most fulfilling when it enables us to help others.
In summary, Paul is warning us of the danger of simply doing things because everyone else is doing them. That is not how God our Father expects us to live. We must be holy as God is holy. Let us not also forget the warning that Paul gave to the Corinthian church:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
We have been washed, justified, and set apart. May our lives bear fruit that endures unto eternal life.