Young People Ask . . .
“I’m 16 years old and have a very big problem. Lately, I’ve been stealing a lot. I just went to the shopping mall and stole seven pairs of earrings. I’m afraid to tell anyone about my problem. Please help me!”
SO WROTE one distraught teenage girl to a magazine advice column. One writer reported: “An estimated ten billion dollars’ worth of consumer goods are . . . thieved, raided, ripped off, or otherwise stolen from retail stores each year [in the United States]. Teenagers account for nearly half of all shoplifting arrests.”
According to one recent poll, over one third of high school (secondary school) students admit to shoplifting. And according to another poll, conducted by researchers Jane Norman and Myron Harris, “almost all [youths] admit having taken something without paying for it at one time or another.”
Why They Steal
A thief is someone who deliberately takes something belonging to someone else without permission. At times thievery may seem justified by personal need. “I was in a tough situation,” recalls one impoverished youth. “I would go to the back of a [fast food restaurant] and kick open the door and take some chicken. But that’s all. I only did it because I was hungry.”
Says a Bible proverb: “People do not despise a thief just because he commits thievery to fill his soul when he is hungry.” Even so, stealing is morally wrong. The next Bible verse thus showed that even a hungry thief had to “make it good” by payment of a severe penalty.—Proverbs 6:30, 31.
Incredibly, though, only a minority of teenage thieves steal because of any legitimate need. Typical is young Mary Jane who admitted: “Yes, I have shoplifted and it was really weird, because I don’t know why I did it. My parents give me money for everything. I didn’t need anything.”* Seventeen magazine similarly reported: “In a survey conducted by the National Crime Prevention Council, the most common reason given by offenders was that they wanted something for free.” Some youths even justified their sticky fingers by arguing that the stores ‘charged too much’!
For many youths, stealing is simply a means of alleviating boredom. “It was just something to do after school,” explained a former thief named Jeremy. Stealing also seems to serve as a kind of high-risk sport; some seem to love the rush of adrenaline that comes as they stuff a purloined blouse into a purse or slip a compact disc into a knapsack.
Of course, there are far safer ways of fighting boredom than risking a jail sentence. Could it be, then, that more is behind such thrill seeking than a desire for a little fun? Many experts believe that there is. The Ladies’ Home Journal observed that some youths “find it difficult to cope with the pressures of growing up. A fight with their parents, the breakup of a friendship, a low mark on a test, can make them feel out of control; breaking the rules gives them back a sense of power.”
Yes, behind the bravado of a thief may be a lot of hurt and pain. As the Bible puts it, “even in laughter the heart may be in pain.” (Proverbs 14:13) Evidence indicates that repeated shoplifting may be a sign of depression. Some young thieves have even been found to have a history of child abuse. Whatever the cause of the pain, the thrill of stealing may seem to block it out—for a while, at least.* Take, for example, one American youth who gets his fun out of stealing cars and taking them for a wild joyride. “It feels good,” he says. “You get this feeling like you are scared, like you feel high.”
Peers and Their Pressure
The Bible says: “Bad associations spoil useful habits.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) This truth is widely recognized. Writer Denise V. Lang observed: “Rarely does a young person get into trouble all by himself or herself.” Oftentimes, peers will dare one another to steal something. Sad to say, many a youth gives in to the pressure.
“I got involved with a bunch of girls in junior high,” says young Kathy. The price of membership in their exclusive club? Stealing an expensive sweater. “I wanted to be in that club, so I went into a store and got my sweater,” she confesses.
Getting God’s Viewpoint
The prospect of owning things you can’t afford, of enjoying high-risk thrills, or of being accepted by peers may make stealing seem attractive. Nevertheless, one of the Ten Commandments in the Bible is: “You must not steal.” (Exodus 20:15) The apostle Paul wrote that ‘thieves will not inherit God’s kingdom.’ (1 Corinthians 6:10) God’s viewpoint should be of particular concern to youths who have been raised as Christians. How hypocritical it would be to put on the appearance of righteousness and secretly carry on as a thief! The apostle Paul put it this way: “Do you, however, the one teaching someone else, not teach yourself? You, the one preaching ‘Do not steal,’ do you steal?”—Romans 2:21.
The humiliating prospect of being arrested is reason enough to avoid the vice of stealing. After being apprehended, one young thief said: “I wanted to die.” Knowing that Jehovah ‘hates robbery’ is the strongest reason to avoid giving in to the impulse—or pressure—to steal. (Isaiah 61:8) Even if one is able to conceal thievery from store officials, police, and parents, one cannot hide it from Jehovah. Exposure is inevitable.—Isaiah 29:15.
Remember, too, that sin hardens a person. (Hebrews 3:13) Petty thefts tend to escalate to more brazen and reckless acts. Young Roger, for example, started his life of crime by stealing money from his mother’s purse. In time he was knocking elderly women to the ground and stealing their purses!
Fighting the Temptation
Admittedly, if one has begun stealing in secret, quitting may not be easy. “It was kind of an addiction,” admitted one youth. What can help a youth to change his or her ways?
Confess your sin to God. He will “forgive in a large way” those who repent of their wrongs and openly confess to him.—Isaiah 55:7.
Get help. Many readers of this magazine are acquainted with the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in their area. Such ones can seek out the local Christian overseers and request spiritual help and correction. (James 5:14, 15) Parents who have good moral principles can also prove to be a source of help and support. If hurt, pain, or simple boredom is behind the misconduct, talking about things with a compassionate listener may prove very helpful.—Proverbs 12:25.
Make restitution. Under the Mosaic Law, thieves were required to pay back stolen goods with interest. (Leviticus 6:4, 5) Doing similarly not only helps clear one’s conscience but also impresses upon one the hardship stealing causes others. The Bible promises that when a person “pays back the very things taken by robbery, and actually walks in the very statutes of life . . . , he will positively keep living. He will not die.”—Ezekiel 33:15.
Stifle feelings of envy and greed. The last of the Ten Commandments is, “You must not desire . . . anything that belongs to your fellowman.” (Exodus 20:17) If there is something that you really need—or want—but cannot afford, perhaps you can find a way to earn the money to purchase it. The apostle Paul advised: “Let the stealer steal no more, but rather let him do hard work, doing with his hands what is good work.”—Ephesians 4:28.
Watch your associates. “If you are with a friend or a group of friends who do something wrong or commit a crime,” reminds writer Denise Lang, “you will also be considered guilty simply for being at the scene with them.” Have the strength to say no if peers suggest doing something illegal.—Proverbs 1:10-19.
Consider the harm stealing does to others. A thief thinks only of himself. But Jesus counsels us: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) When one learns to care about other people, one is less inclined to do something that could cause others harm.
Think of the consequences to you. (Galatians 6:7) Instead of thinking about how nice it would be to own that shiny trinket or gadget that you cannot afford, think about how embarrassing it would be to be caught and prosecuted; think of the reproach you would bring on your parents and on God himself! You will surely conclude that stealing is not such a good idea after all.
Some of the names have been changed.
We are not discussing kleptomania—a mental disorder characterized by a compulsive urge to steal. Doctors say that kleptomania is rare, afflicting less than 5 percent of known shoplifters. The disorder is often treated with medication.
[Picture on page 18]
Shoplifters often suffer the humiliation of being caught