Over the past several weeks we have been engaged in some very practical instruction in the letter to the Ephesians. Paul instructs the people in Ephesus (and by extension, all believers) that as followers of Christ we should not live like everyone else. We are to “put off the old self” and live like people who have been given not only new life but also a new heart, outlook, and motivation.
Paul is illustrating this new approach to life with a series of examples. He has told us to put away lies and that we should be people characterized by truthfulness. He said we should be angry but not sin. Simply put we are to be angry for the things which anger God and controlled and understanding at other times because we realize how easy it is for Satan to use anger to lead us into sinful and hurtful practices.
We must always keep in mind that every one of us has a past. No one comes into the Kingdom of God without some kind of baggage. It may be public failures or private struggles. People who expect to find a church where the members of the church don’t have problems don’t understand what the gospel is about. The message of the gospel is that God has come to rescue sinful and lost people. Until we recognize that we don’t deserve salvation we cannot and will not be saved.
We must also remember that no one is going to achieve perfection in this life. That however is not an excuse, just a reality. If we are true believers we should be making progress in the area of godliness. For this to happen we must recognize that we not only have some deeply ingrained bad habits but we are also fighting a crafty and determined adversary. This is serious stuff for serious believers.
This morning Paul gives us another practical command:
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
The eighth commandment states it clearly: “Thou shalt not steal”. Many of the people in the Ephesian Church came out of a very worldly background (much like us). They were used to “appropriating” things for themselves that belonged to another. Paul says that behavior must stop. The Greek word for “stealing” is Klepto. This is where we get our word Kleptomaniac – which is a person who steals small things incessantly.
Several years ago
A paper given at an American Psychological Association symposium on employee theft presented a breakdown on the 8 billion dollars that inventory shortages cost department and chain stores every year. Of these losses, 10 percent were due to clerical error, 30 percent to shoplifting, and a shocking 60 percent (sixteen million dollars a day!) to theft by employees.
I suspect that figure may be even higher now. Think about all the money that is now spent on security cameras, security personnel, and anti-theft devices! Even with all of this theft is on the rise.
Before you conclude that this message doesn’t apply to you. Let’s think about how to define stealing. There are different kinds of stealing.
Overt (Obvious) Theft
• breaking into someone’s home, garage, barn, car and taking something that belongs to another.
• writing bad checks
• using stolen credit cards
• not paying child support
• taking items from a hotel or motel
• plagiarizing someone’s work or making a copy (or using bootlegged copies) of copyrighted software, music, or videos
Covert (Hidden) Theft
• under-reporting your income
• paying people in cash so neither of you has to report it to the government
• making false (or inflated) insurance claims
• taking money for a job you did not do
• refusing to abide by the contract you agreed to
• borrowing money you don’t intend to (or can’t) pay back
• suing others over distorted or spurious losses
• goofing off on the job
• abusing an expense account
• not paying your employees a fair wage
• charging excessive interest
• hiding money in dummy corporations
• leaving work early
• taking money from the company (embezzlement)
• selling something and not recording the sale so you can pocket the cash
• mismanagement of public funds
• using work time to do personal (or even religious) things
• withholding our tithe. In the book of Malachi we are told that those who do not bring their tithe to the temple, are actually “Robbing God”
• not using our spiritual gifts (this handicaps or steals from, the body of Christ)
• not giving God glory or taking credit for God’s work
Some argue that many kinds of theft are victimless crimes, but we all pay because of the theft of others. Those who don’t report their income accurately necessitate more taxes. Spurious lawsuits lead to higher costs of insurance which also gets passed on to others. Stealing from God handicaps the work of God’s people. Stealing is NOT a victimless crime.
Do Something Useful
Why is theft so prevalent? I can think of two reasons. The first is our selfish nature. Have you watched two little kids who are playing? How often do you see a child who is not interested in a particular toy until someone else picks it up to play with it? Immediately you hear those famous words: “Mine!” That attitude doesn’t change over time (unless God does something in us). We become more subtle but the attitude remains the same: we feel we should have what others have.
Not only do we feel we should have what others have, we feel we deserve what others have. As a result we feel entitled to what we have not earned. This is the problem we now face with what are called “entitlements”. People view government aid as benefits to which they are entitled.
The Bible says, “The person who does not work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In other words, lazy people should not be rewarded. There are people who, due to no fault of their own, need extra help. There are those who are survivors of disaster, those who were suddenly laid off by places of business, those who cannot work because of physical or emotional problems, those who don’t have enough to provide healthy things for their children, those who have overwhelming medical bills which they cannot pay; and who cannot work any longer but have no way of paying their own way. These people are the ones we should be trying to help.
There is a second problem: We have failed to appreciate the value of hard work. When Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden he was to “work and keep the garden”. This was before sin ever entered the world. This is significant because it show that fruitful labor was part of God’s perfect plan of creation. After the fall labor became more difficult and tedious but labor is not bad, it is a good thing.
Paul exhorts us to “do something useful so you have something to share with others.” Notice the purpose of work. It is not so we can feel good about ourselves or even so we can indulge ourselves (have more stuff). This tends to be the view that most people have. They want a good job so they can have more and do more. Paul urges us to work hard so that we contribute to the world and help others.
To do this you don’t need a high-salaried or glamorous job. The challenge is to do something “useful” and will contribute to the Kingdom of God in some way. The way we work and the reason we work is an offering to the Lord who made us.
If we understood the value of hard work several things happen.
• We will respect the property of others by not taking what doesn’t belong to us and taking care of and returning things we borrow from another.
• Students, business people, and even Pastors will study, think, read, and write rather than merely pass on the work that someone else has done. We will spend more time on our knees in prayer seeking God’s wisdom and less time running after the latest gimmick that guarantees success.
• We will define ourselves (and others) less by our job title and more by how well we serve the Lord IN our job. In other words we will draw our sense of significance not from what we do, but from whom we serve (the Lord).
• We will continue to work at relationships rather than toss them aside when they become difficult or tiresome. We will do this because we understand that some of the best things come from diligent labor.
• “Retirement” will be seen less as the end of our working life but rather as a time when we can serve the Lord in a different manner than we did before.
• We will see service to the Lord as more than simply dropping a check in the offering and more as a “way of life”.
• We will be less focused on material possessions and more on how we can use what we have to serve others.
One commentator writes,
What a challenging sign of newness of life. No more preoccupation with “building bigger barns,” and accumulating huge estates to leave to our children when we die. No more frantic activity at the expense of what really counts—human tenderness, family love, and togetherness. No more compulsive earning and spending as victims of a consumer society.
The Biblical challenge is to be givers rather than takers.
Where Do We Start?
Paul encourages us to have a mindset that is quite different from the prevalent mindset in our society. How do we get there? Here are a few ideas.
1. Stop stealing. We need to examine our lives. Are we doing things that are actually stealing from others? Are we justifying the misuse of funds, misrepresenting income, cheating our employer? Are we robbing God? Are our priorities askew? Has our job become our life rather than a tool in life? Do we feel that we are entitled to handouts? We must ask these kinds of questions to identify any problem areas. We need to call these things what they are (rather than making excuses) and then take corrective action. You may need to right past wrongs or make some restitution. Do what you need to do to make things right.
2. Work Hard. Whatever it is that you do, do it well. Serve the Lord whether it is doing dishes or running a corporation. Strive to be the best employee, the best boss, the best company there is. Don’t do this out of a sense of competition . . .do it out of a desire to honor the One who has given you forgiveness and new life. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul writes, “You should mind your own business and work with your hands…so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
However, let me caution you: doing many things is not the same as doing things well. Sometimes we can be so committed that we aren’t doing anything well. The old saying is true: quality is more important than quantity. If you feel you can’t do what is important because there are too many “urgent” things then you need to simplify your life. Rather than trying to do everything we should be seeking to do the BEST things.
Also beware of those who will resent your diligence. They may feel you are disrupting the status quo. At this point you need to ask whether you are serving the status quo or serving the Lord. Pursue excellence.
3. Change your attitude toward work. Instead of living for retirement, determine to work and serve the Lord for as long as you are able. Instead of hoarding for the future, use what you have to lead others to Christ. Look at your labor not as a necessary evil but as the area where you have been called to serve the Lord. There is truth to the adage that “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”. Don’t allow the Devil that opportunity1
4. Work to appreciate and give thanks for what you have. One of the ways to combat the attitude of entitlement is to cultivate an attitude of contentment. Contentment is learning to be grateful with what God has provided rather than feeling deprived.
Practically this means instead of wishing you had a different job, be grateful for the job you have. Instead of imagining a different family, celebrate the family you have. Instead of envying the home of another, cherish the character and memories that you have in your home. Instead of grumbling about the task at hand be grateful that you have a practical way in which you can show your love to God.
5. Look for practical ways to be of help to others. We can contribute in many ways without money. We can contribute to society even if we are not working for a paycheck. In fact, much of the help that is needed has little to do with money and more to do with time and a little creativity.
For example, you could
a. Help someone learn a new trade so they can get a job
b. Offer to babysit while someone gets a needed education
c. Read to someone who can no longer read for themselves
d. Help someone with needed repairs.
e. Volunteer as a listener at Awana
f. Take a turn in the Nursery to allow parents to concentrate fully in worship
g. Stop in to just visit with someone who is alone.
h. Drive someone to an appointment or take them shopping.
My mom doesn’t drive. Consequently, getting to appointments, the grocery store and other places is a real problem for her. My Mom has been blessed by a man named Phil. Phil is a Christian who has made it his “job” to offer a service to people like my mom. For a modest fee he comes to get her every Monday and he takes her shopping and then runs errands with her. He sometimes even takes her to Doctors appointments. To Phil this is not just a job, it is his ministry. When Phil tells others what he does, I’m sure it doesn’t sound very glamorous. However, he is making a big difference. He is using what he has to serve others. You don’t have to believe me, ask my mom or my sisters.
Here’s the point: God has designed us to be productive members of His creation. In a sense, He calls us to be His hands, His feet, and His mouth in the world. He didn’t call us to merely sit in churches and have endless meetings. He called us to be willing vessels that He can work through to change the world.
The world places an emphasis on getting all we can for ourselves. Paul challenges us to focus on contributing to society and to others. We do this by engaging in fruitful labor and by working in a way that honors the Lord rather than simply growing our bank account. This work we are given to do is not a burden! It is actually something that will give us a true sense of significance and tremendous satisfaction. It is to be a joyful labor. Let us serve the Lord with gladness.