As soon as my colleague saw his car’s broken window, he felt sick. The feeling came not merely from knowing he would have to replace the window, but more from fear that years of work might be lost. In a moment his fear was confirmed; someone had stolen his briefcase.
Arriving later than expected for a speaking engagement in a large city, this professor 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. Unfortunately, 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 kilometers of travel, the work 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 a valuable part of another human being’s life.
Often that is the way it is with theft—more is stolen than material goods. When someone breaks the eighth commandment, victims lose not only their peace, but also possessions that represent bits of their lives.
The Meaning of the Eighth Commandment
God’s charge to Israel in this commandment is direct and forceful in the Hebrew language: lo tignov, “you shall not steal.” Tignov comes from the root word ganav, which means “to be a thief” or “to steal.” This word, by implication, suggests deceit and stealth. The Greek version of the Old Testament translated the Hebrew with the Greek klepto. 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 and cheat 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, violence, or the threat of harm. God commanded, “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, 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 the unlawful taking of life, adultery concerns the taking of virtue, and false swearing usually involves 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 his 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, the Bible teaches that negligence is an accessory crime. The true disciple of Christ must be a good neighbor even to a stranger (see Deut. 22:1–4) and must assist another in need even when 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 [verse 10], hopeless tasks [verse 11] and pardonable ignorance [verse 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 Apostles, added his witness: “Not only shall we not steal, but we shall protect others’ possessions.” 3
Three Important Principles
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 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.’” 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. 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 God—not mortals or the state—is the source of the right to private ownership of property. 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 his 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 person who chooses not to steal, even under stressful circumstances, shows trust in God. He is conscious of a covenant relationship with the Lord and chooses to sustain it.
A student once shared a story with me that effectively illustrated this point about honesty. While he was growing up, his father’s business had failed. By 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 only for a short time. Within a year, the business had improved enough that the mother was able to quit working. 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 them as soon as he started the new business. This was also one of the reasons 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 many honest people are unable to pay legally canceled debts, he felt his situation might allow him to pay his debts over a long period. His concern over his unpaid obligations 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 and their family had been blessed.
Stealing and Secret Combinations
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 what Cain referred to as his “great secret, that I may murder and get 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). Consequently, 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 of corruption to begin again shortly after the Flood. Prompted by Satan, 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. In the Book of Mormon, 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 (see 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 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 humankind to use the earth’s 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 system includes securing for each person the material goods that are the reward of labor. But too often people cannot overcome their desires to possess or control the material goods others have. For example, the prophet Amos said of his people, “They sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes,” and in their exaggerated greediness, they panted after the very dust that clung to the heads of the poor (Amos 2:6–7). And in speaking of those who did not pay their offerings to the Father, who gave them everything, Malachi asked pointedly, “Will a man rob God?” (Mal. 3:8, emphasis added).
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.
The Savior’s Higher Law
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).
The New Testament invites the repentant disciples of Christ to live as a new person according to this law of love (see Rom. 6:4; Heb. 10:19–24). This law 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 greed and covetousness that lead to stealing.
The Real Cost
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, leaving us with an empty hole.
While we did not lose much in terms of money, we lost all the time involved in preparing the spot, buying the tree, and planting it. Still, we were fortunate compared to others whose losses have been much more damaging. I have wondered if the person who took that tree gave any thought to the spiritual price he or she might have to pay for it.
In the end, no thief will ever get away with stealing; thieves are in danger of losing their souls. They have violated a commandment of God and in so doing have ultimately damaged themselves 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 and our eternal kinship to our Heavenly Father. Stealing, like any other willful violation of his commandments, keeps us from working toward being whole, or “perfect.”
Thieves discount their divine potential, as well as all the blessings awaiting the obedient, and forfeit them for material gain. Unless they repent, they rob themselves of eternal life.
Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law (1985), 55–56.
Derek Kidner, in Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), 465; see also 464.
The Miracle of Forgiveness (1969), 99.
The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (1988), 608.
See The Institutes of Biblical Law, 10–13.
The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball (1982), 193.