When I arrived home with my family one evening late last week, I found a phone message from a sweet lady named Sue, whom I had never met before. In the message, she indicated that she was a regular reader of this column and proceeded to give me some encouraging feedback. She concluded her message with a special request for a future column; she asked that I share some thoughts on why people should not cheat and steal, even though it is Christmas time and there may be a lot of things that they might want very much.
As I thought about it, the truth of the matter seemed clear in that many of the folks who are in fact stealing and cheating don’t need the excuse of needing Christmas presents for their children since such behavior is a year-round phenomenon. But such nasty behaviors seem to exponentially increase during the holiday shopping season possibly because “opportunity” increases a great deal. It seems to be the season for people stealing purses, scamming store return policies, breaking into cars, and assaulting other shoppers who are competing for the same items to purchase.
For example, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, as I was waiting to pay for some orange juice, a weary cashier at one local store sadly described for me how a “Black Friday” shopper had been taken to jail after he had come to blows over bath towels. Really? Was a cheap bath towel worth going to jail for? Was it worth assaulting someone else? Was it worth getting angry about in the first place?
As a personal “for instance”, a delivery service dropped a box off on our porch on the day after “Cyber Monday”. My children, quietly working on school assignments, could see the delivery man through the window as he left the package on a bench. A few seconds after he left, an unknown van pulled into the driveway and a stranger warily crept up onto the porch. He began examining the package left behind, I assume to see if it was worth pinching from our porch. A cacophony of barking dogs broke out and then one of the boys spoke, apparently loud enough for the man to realize that there was someone at home after all. The interloper quickly left, our package abandoned: maybe he felt that a box of office supplies (which was clearly indicated on the box’s exterior) was not the high-falootin’ cyber deal for which he was hoping. Needless to say, studies at our house were temporarily derailed as a result, but we at least still had our printer ink.
It so happens that we, although perhaps not really characterized by either of the aforementioned examples, may be inadvertently implicated in lying, cheating and stealing ourselves! After all, what are the implications of getting things ridiculously cheap? Is it possible that companies who lure us into their stores may be involved directly or indirectly in oppressive practices such as lying, cheating, and stealing themselves? It would seem so. They steal (and we share in it) when they contract goods from workers who are not paid a fair wage. Children are lied to in West Africa to harvest cocoa beans. The harvest of what makes good chocolate, according to the Payson Center of Tulane University, has involved child slave labor for several years now (and, yes, some of your favorite brands are indirectly connected with this). Children are sexually exploited when they model for the “hottest” brands in the nude. Christmas tree lights may be mass produced in part by oppressed Believers in places where the Church is suppressed. It could be that our craving for big, fancy, flavorful, and cheap is our portal into the very things we most abhor in human nature and Christmas is the season in which it is most active.
The thoughts that Sue shared in her phone call seem very appropriate when considered against the backdrop of such instances of ugliness that color our world. On the one hand, we love to see and hear that Christmas is invoking acts of good will, self-sacrifice, and gracious generosity. On the other, we seem to see a lot of things we would rather not be seeing and the effects of our sinful nature run unrestrained.
Even if sins could be categorized as “really bad sins,” “pretty bad sins,” and “not so bad sins” (they can’t, in case you wondered) and we tolerated in our own conduct only the “not so bad sin” of misplacing our priorities on “stuff”, we seem to know that the behaviors generated by such attitudes aren’t right. That’s why folks love the holiday classic movies and specials that poetically underscore the point for us.
Everyone generally agrees, for instance, that our society is overly materialistic, yet we go out and shop like crazy people just to get the best deals we can for things we either don’t need or the newest version of something we already have. Perhaps we think of the vice of greed as being all right if we’re not “cheating” or “stealing”. But we are cheating and stealing when we allow our drive for things to go unrestrained and fail to participate in the opportunities that God will give us to demonstrate love and care for other human beings.
We are even cheating and stealing from ourselves. In the material sense, we do so by going beyond “necessary” debt. If “necessary” debt (and I’m using the term “necessary” in a generous manner) is “borrowing” from the future, then it stands to reason that “unnecessary” (frivolous) debt is “stealing” from our own future. It is especially a kind of stealing if we are accruing debt to the point that we cannot pay it back. Bankruptcy, as a result of undisciplined spending is, after all, a legal way of not having to pay back someone else’s money; it is therefore stealing.
But more than that, we are stealing from ourselves a special kind of joy and delight imparted to us from God when we cooperate with Him and allow Him to express His love through us. Instead of settling for the temporary substitute of happiness that we think having more or better “stuff” is, we set our goals on a higher and more lasting joy that only comes in living out the divine nature as Christ Jesus comes alive in us.
And ultimately, when we set our minds on what is less than loving God and loving others, we rob God Himself of the glory He deserves, because we quell His presence within us, stifle His love expressed through us, and hinder His will for us and those with whom are lives are entwined.
While it’s altogether a fitting thing to give gifts to one another as expressions of our love, Sue was quite “on the mark” when she expressed her concern about the trends of today. I just wonder if you and I are also as concerned as we ought to be about how “out of hand” our mad passions to get more for less can become.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect….. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:1-2, 9 ESV).