I was 7 years old when my friend dared me to buy a pack of Sweet Tarts using a fake hollow nickel. In my neighborhood you couldn’t turn down a dare, so with trepidation, I made my way to the local market. I picked out the Sweet Tarts, put the hollow nickel on the counter and bolted out the door.
For years thereafter, I avoided walking past that store because I was afraid police would arrest me and put me in jail. When the store eventually went out of business, I was convinced it was my fault.
I learned my lesson: honesty pays.
Let’s move to the present. Not long ago my friend and I got talking about our jobs. She spoke glowingly about her successful small business and how much she loves her work. Leaning forward in a conspiratorial manner, she confided that best of all, she loves the fact that her work involves stealing.
In fact, every transaction involves stealing. My friend said this with quite a bit of pride. After all, it means more money for her.
So far, you’re thinking, “That’s not right. Stealing is not right.” Right?
Do you still feel this way when I tell you that the “person” being stolen from is the United States government?
You see, my friend earns her money “under the table.” In other words, it’s an all-cash business. Without any records to track sales, there are no taxes to pay.
Do you still think it’s wrong?
I am appalled at the number of people who know that stealing is immoral, and yet see nothing wrong with stealing from the government. They argue that the government takes too much of our money already, and besides, the government will never miss it.
I am particularly bothered when dishonesty is carried out by those who claim to honor the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not steal” is a non-negotiable commandment. There are no asterisks that allow dishonesty in cases where truth would be too costly.
I once told a friend that my least favorite Bible verse is Romans 13:1, which says, “Obey civil authorities.” This is the verse that requires us to drive the speed limit, tell the truth to auditors and, yes, pay all required taxes.
I don’t like it any more than you do, but we are obliged to obey laws of the land unless a law requires us to do something that’s wrong in the eyes of God. There are no asterisks.
In addition to cheating the government, many people justify stealing from big business. Not long ago, a devout Catholic described how he uses a friend’s Netflix access code to avoid incurring his own monthly fees. In plain terms, he is stealing from Netflix. He justifies it by telling himself that there are no tangible products changing hands. It’s not like shoplifting.
Oh, really? Are you sure? Doesn’t a company have a right to earn a profit, even when the product is intangible? Doesn’t an artist or songwriter have a right to make a living that isn’t stolen when we illegally copy music or buy a bootleg version?
A more obvious form of dishonesty is lying. Oh, sure, we all know it’s wrong to tell big whopper lies, but most people consider a little white lie to be harmless. Sometimes we even defend it on the grounds that we are sparing another’s feelings.
I hate to be the one to break this news, but there is no such thing as a little white lie. A lie is a lie is a lie. If it’s not the truth, it’s a lie.
This doesn’t mean we have to blurt out hurtful truths. If Mabel is wearing an ugly dress and she asks if you like it, it is not necessary to state how dreadful she looks.
I’m more concerned with the lies we tell in order to get what we want. “Tell her I’m not here,” we whisper when we don’t wish to speak to the person on the telephone. Call out sick when you’re at the beach. Return a used item of clothing to the store but claim that it’s unworn. Use your mother’s handicapped tag to get a better parking space. Accept wages paid under the table. Pad your travel expenses when submitting them for reimbursement.
These are all deceptions. Dishonesty in word is lying; dishonesty in deed is stealing.
And if we’re serious about following Christ, there is no place for dishonesty. “The Lord hates cheating and delights in honesty,” we read in Proverbs.
I learned this the hard way. Be smarter than me.*
* No asterisks.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.