Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need (Ephesians 4:28).
In the midst of various exhortations regarding the righteous life– proper speaking, not being angry, a lack of bitterness and filled with tenderheartedness– Paul has an exhortation to those who formerly lived by stealing.
Stealing has been a challenge in society for as long as society has existed. There is the obvious forms of stealing– taking things from others without proper payment– but there are many other forms. Asserting that work was done that was not done at all or not done properly, personal use of resources that were not designed to be used personally, and dishonest “labor.” Stealing is not limited to the poorer classes; “white collar” stealing may be more complicated and subtle but no less damaging, as we have soberly learned in recent years. All kinds of justifications are given for stealing, everything from stealing to feed children to stealing to inflict vengeance on a corrupt company or system.
Nevertheless, stealing is not acceptable in any form. Those who steal, Paul says, should steal no more.
Instead, such a one is to labor. He is to work with his hands in some good way. Dutiful employment is expected out of believers. In so doing they will have what they need in order to survive. Manual labor is certainly valuable and good, but it would be distorting Paul’s purpose in the passage to mandate that all believers must engage in manual labor. Nevertheless, the work that believers do should provide a beneficial service for those who pay for it. It should go without saying that services that lead people into sin or jobs that provide no benefit or meaningful service to humanity are inconsistent with Christ’s purposes and for the Christian life.
Yet God does not expect the ex-thief here to support only himself. He is to work diligently, not just to have something for himself, but also something for others who are in need.
Perhaps Paul has some kind of penance in mind for the ex-thief here: since he took from others, depriving people of what was theirs, it is right and appropriate for him to now be a blessing to others, in some sense “giving back” to society.
Nevertheless, there is value in understanding what Paul says here as a general principle of work for all believers. What is true for the worker who is a former thief stands true for workers with no such background. Believers, after all, are to do what they can to assist those in need (Galatians 2:10, 6:10)! Therefore, just as it is true that believers are to work, believers must also consider their wages as not just destined for themselves and their own benefit but also find ways to give part to those in need.
This principle is opposed to our society’s values, particularly as they were expressed in the years before the “Great Recession.” We were encouraged to spend our money on all kinds of things. When our incomes were not enough to cover everything we were spending, we were encouraged to use credit and to continue to spend. Marketers and others who profited on sales attempted to persuade us that we deserved the things we were buying and that it was what we should be doing.
What has been the end of all these things? We still have all kinds of things, but may have lost the house in which we stored them. Everywhere we look we see people in economic difficulty and distress– perhaps even in our own mirror! We have learned the hard way that we should not over-extend ourselves on credit and other such things.
But our trouble is still there: now much of our “excess” income is going to cover the indebtedness of the past. People’s needs are still dire, but far too many are stuck in the same paradigm. They have been told that their paycheck is their money, and they find ways to spend all of it.
It should be well known that God tests us. He wants to see how suitable we are as stewards– are we able to handle the responsibilities that come with His blessings (cf. Matthew 25:14-31)? Do we really believe that everything we have comes from Him (James 1:17)? If it is His, what right do we have to claim over it? Perhaps God blesses us with resources beyond our needs to see what we will do with it– whether we will spend it all on our own desires, or whether we will share the blessing with others who are not so fortunate.
If that is the case, how well are we doing in that test? Do we consider our paycheck “all ours,” or have we decided to follow God’s principle of work, that we do our jobs to earn our living not just for our own benefit but also to provide benefits for others? When we have “a little extra,” do we then turn to find some way of spending it on ourselves, or do we also consider how we could help some others in need?
Jesus, Paul, and the other Apostles lived their lives to provide benefits for others. The path of Christ is the path of service (Romans 12:1). Let us find ways of being benefits to others with the resources with which God has blessed us!
Ethan R. Longhenry