As soon as he saw the broken window on the passenger side of the car, he felt sick. The feeling came not merely from knowing he would have to replace the car window, but more from fear that years of work might be lost. In a moment his fear was confirmed; someone had stolen his briefcase.
He was a professor, a colleague of mine. Arriving later than expected for a speaking engagement in a large city, he had parked on a small side street some distance from the lecture hall. To avoid carrying his heavily loaded attaché case, he had removed his lecture notes and left the battered case on the car seat. Because it looked so worn and contained little of material value, he had thought it would be safe, but he was wrong.
I was touched later when he shared his disappointment and sorrow at the loss. That old briefcase contained the results of hundreds of miles of travel, the fruits of a few thousand dollars in grant money, the product of months of careful research, analysis, study, pondering, and writing. The book-length paper in the briefcase had no material value to anyone else, but what the thief probably threw away in disgust was part of a human being’s life.
Often that is the way it is with theft—more is stolen than material goods. Victims lose possessions that represent bits of their lives, as well as being robbed of peace, when someone breaks the eighth commandment.
God’s charge to Israel in this commandment is direct and forceful in the Hebrew language: lo tegnav, “you shall not steal.” Tegnav comes from the root word ganav, which means “to be a thief” or “to steal.” This word, by implication, suggests deceit and stealth. The Septuagint—the Greek version of the Old Testament—translated the Hebrew with the Greek klepto, from which we get kleptomaniac. Klepto, like the Hebrew ganav, carries the idea of taking secretly and craftily that which rightfully belongs to another. Embezzlement and misappropriation serve as good examples of this form of theft. Terms like deceive, cheat, and bewitched by flattery all fit the methodology of the thief.
But what about taking items by force? Closely related to the Hebrew ganav is gazal, “to rob.” This word stresses confrontation and the use of violence or the threat of harm as the principal means of theft. God commanded, “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him” (Lev. 19:13). Thus, for the Lord, stealing also includes robbing, looting, plundering, and other unlawful seizures.
The Bible emphasizes that stealing belongs to the set of sins that includes murder, adultery, and false swearing. All of these are directly related, and theft is the common link; murder is unlawful taking of life, adultery concerns the taking of virtue, and false swearing usually is involved in the taking of reputation, property, or goods.
The sentence “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:15) includes no object. Its prohibition is broad and unconditional: you shall not steal anything. In an era when slavery was commonly practiced, the Lord designed the law to protect not only possessions but also people from being unlawfully seized (see Ex. 21:16).1
The breadth of the commandment implies also that a person must not rob another through neglect. Indeed, it is taught in the Bible that negligence is an accessory crime. The true disciple of Christ must act as a good neighbor even to a stranger (see Deut. 22:1–4), and must assist another in need even when this may be difficult (see Prov. 24:10–12). One scholar, reviewing those three verses in Proverbs, commented: “It is the hireling, not the true shepherd who will plead bad conditions (Prov. 24:10), hopeless tasks (Prov. 24:11) and pardonable ignorance (Prov. 24:12); love is not so lightly quieted—nor is the God of love.”2 In a discussion of sins of omission, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, added his witness: “Not only shall we not steal, but we shall protect others’ possessions.”3
A close examination of the eighth commandment suggests three principles that help us understand why stealing is both a sin and a crime. First, the commandment establishes the right to private ownership of property, thus protecting a necessary area of responsibility in life. President Ezra Taft Benson taught:
“No liberty is possible unless a man is protected in his title to his legal holdings and property and can be indemnified by the law for its loss or destruction. Remove this right and man is reduced to serfdom. Former United States Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland said it this way: ‘To give [man] liberty but take from him the property which is the fruit and badge of his liberty, is to still leave him a slave.’ (Address to the New York Bar Association, 21 Jan. 1921.)”4
God enthroned his children when he gave to them, through Adam, dominion over the earth. In doing so, he granted to them freedom to produce and enjoy the fruit of their individual labors. The emphasis is on one’s own labor; Adam learned “to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow,” not by the sweat of someone else’s, “and Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him” (Moses 5:1; emphasis added).
Second, the eighth commandment shows us that the source of the right to private ownership of property is neither mortals nor the state, but God. All commandments originate in him. He, as the sovereign Lord, creator of heaven and earth, sets the laws that govern his kingdom (see D&C 88:34–42). The earth belongs to him, and he has determined that humankind will share in it. However, each must do so according to the Lord’s divine laws.
Third, anyone who steals acts against God. Since all divine law originates in him, any offense against that law is an offense against him. Thus, the breaking of any earthly laws based on his commandments—laws focusing on individuals, family, property, capital, labor, state, or church—is an act against our Father. King David realized this and declared, in reference to his having stolen another man’s wife and then having him killed, “Against thee … have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (Ps. 51:4).5
Stealing is a sin against our Heavenly Father even when motivated by need and poverty. The act dishonors God (see Prov. 30:9). Conversely, the honest man who chooses not to steal, even under stressful circumstances, shows trust in God. He is conscious of his covenant relationship with the Lord and chooses to sustain it.
A student once shared a story with me that brought home this point about honesty. While he was growing up, his father’s business had failed. Working hard, his father developed a new business that promised eventual returns but provided scant income for the family in the beginning. The student’s mother had gone to work too. This was distressing for the family, especially for the father, but he promised that it would be for a short time only. Within a year, the business had improved enough that the mother was able to quit working, and still later the family became quite comfortable.
When my student, a business major, began working for his father, he learned that his parents had paid off all the debts from the earlier business failure, even though the debts had been canceled under bankruptcy laws. His father had begun paying on them as soon as he started the new business, and this was also the reason his mother had gone to work. When my young friend questioned the wisdom of paying debts that had been legally canceled, his father explained that although he realized that many honest people are unable to pay legally cancelled debts, he felt that his situation might allow him to pay his debts over a long period. His concern over his unpaid obligations after the failure of his first business forced him and his wife to reexamine their personal commitment to the Lord and to the covenants they had made with him. They felt that morally they owed those debts and that to do anything less than paying them would be stealing. So his father and mother had joined as a team to pay what they felt they owed, and they as well as their family had been blessed.
Stealing violates a prime law of heaven that directs humankind to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animal kingdom under God—that is, according to our Heavenly Father’s dictates. Almost from the beginning of history, rebellious souls have sought to exercise dominion according to their own rules—in short, to steal. They have wanted to take jurisdiction over the earth and its people—to steal from humankind, rob the animal kingdom, and plunder the earth—without the restraining hand of their Creator and Lawgiver. Killing became linked to that great secret, “that I may murder [for the purpose of getting] gain” (Moses 5:31).
The secret combinations and workers of darkness nearly succeeded in Noah’s day. The result was an earth “filled with violence” (Moses 8:28). “And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth” (Gen. 6:12). The Lord sent the Flood and destroyed the wicked “from off the face of the earth” (Gen. 7:4; see also Moses 8:30).
It did not take long for the process to begin again shortly after the Flood. Satanically inspired people invented systems that would assist them in their theft of God’s realm. Through the power of the devil, evil leaders who “sought power to gain power, and to murder, and to plunder” (Ether 8:16) administered evil oaths unto the people, binding them to act together in wickedness. These secrets were passed from one generation to the next. Gadianton epitomizes the process. He was expert “in many words, and also in his craft, to carry on the secret work of murder and of robbery” (Hel. 2:4). This system gradually became the dominant force among the Nephites and contributed directly to the demise of that nation (Hel. 2:13).
The world in the latter days suffers from the same problems and will continue to do so. One of the ironies and tragedies of the last days is that people will go through appalling, self-inflicted destructions and, as John says in the Revelation, they will not repent “of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts” (Rev. 9:21).
Throughout history, the Lord has attempted to teach mankind to subdue the earth and use its riches for good. He called Moses, for example, to establish the laws of a righteous society among the children of Israel. The Lord intended his system to contribute to the full development of every individual; this included securing for each person the material goods that were the reward of labor. But too often people cannot overcome their desires to possess or control the few material goods others have. Well could the prophet Amos say of his people that “they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes,” and in their exaggerated greediness panted after the very dust that clung to the heads of the poor (Amos 2:6–7). And Malachi asked pointedly, “Will a man rob God?” (Mal. 3:8, emphasis added) in speaking of those who did not pay their offerings to the Father who gave them everything.
In our day we are, sadly, all too familiar with those so greedy that they not only refuse to share with others but are willing to take anything from anyone by any means.
If we are wise, we will love people and use things, as our Father intended. Immorality occurs when we love things and use people. The awful idea Satan taught Cain was how to turn human life into property, how to make a child of God less than chattel.
When the Savior came, he established again the higher law of his kingdom: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
“This is the first and great commandment.
“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40). Thus, all the commandments are fulfilled in love.
The New Testament invites the repentant disciple of Christ to live as a new person according to this law of love (see Rom. 6:4; Heb. 10:19–24). This renewal should influence our whole view of our duty toward others and our capacity to serve them and the Lord. Thus Paul urged that he who stole should “steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28).
Moreover, our forsaking of past sins and our desire to follow the Master’s example should make us aware of the need for the highest moral standards in our everyday obligations. President Spencer W. Kimball pointed out that honesty can be taught but not legislated. “‘There ought to be a law,’ many say when corruption raises its ugly head, and our answer is that there are laws—numerous laws which are not enforced; but our further answer is that you cannot legislate goodness and honor and honesty. There must be a return to consciousness of those values.”6 When people practice those values, the power of the Spirit and the force of love can do what the law cannot—overcome the inordinate greed and covetousness that lead to stealing.
On a spring morning some years ago, my wife and I planted a little cherry tree on a sunny corner of our lot. We looked forward to a bountiful harvest eventually. The next morning, however, my wife stepped outside for a few moments and came back with a look of astonishment. “Someone took our tree!” Sure enough, a thief had dug it up, taking most of the peat moss with it and leaving us with an empty hole.
While we did not lose much in terms of money, we lost all of the time involved in preparing the spot, buying the tree, and planting it. Still, we were fortunate compared to others—like the professor mentioned in the beginning of this article—whose losses have been so much more damaging. I have wondered if the person who took that tree gave any thought to the spiritual price he might have to pay for it.
No thief will ever get away with his crime in the end; he is in danger of losing his soul. He violated a commandment of God and in so doing ultimately damaged himself more than anyone else. Our Father has commanded us, through his Son: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The Greek word translated as “perfect” means to be whole or complete. It certainly involves having integrity.
Our Father in Heaven is complete; he has full integrity. We, as his children, have the potential to become as he is. But anything we do that does not shape a godlike nature within us violates what we are, our real selves—our eternal kinship to our Heavenly Father. Stealing, like any other willful violation of his commandments, keeps one from working toward being whole, or “perfect.”
The thief overlooks his divine potential, as well as all of the blessings awaiting the obedient, and forfeits them for mortal gain. Unless he repents, he robs himself of eternal life.
This article may be the basis for a family discussion or individual consideration:
What is the cost of stealing to our society, and what may we as individuals do to help solve the problem?
How does stealing hurt the one who steals?
Is there anything I am doing—or something I am failing to do—that robs God or those around me?