Thousands of years ago, Roman centurions would inspect each legionnaire every morning. The soldiers would thump their breastplates over their hearts – the most vital part of the breastplate. As each soldier struck their armor, they would shout "integritas", which means being whole and unbroken. Their commanding officer listened not only to their words but also to the sound the armor made when struck, for solid armor rings differently than flawed armor.
Sometimes this seemed like make-work to the soldiers, but the centurion knew that the integritas of their armor protected their vital organs. It protected their heart. When they lost their integrity, they would lose their life.
I don’t know if that’s historically accurate or not, but it gets across what integritas was all about.
Integrity: The Sunday School Edition
So first, the Sunday School edition. We’re going to examine the foundational truths that will guide us in our thinking about integrity.
God can't stand deceivers, but oh how he relishes integrity. (Proverbs 11:20, the Message)
God relishes integrity. That’s a pretty straightforward statement. So what is integrity?
Integrity has three components that blend into one another. Picture a Venn diagram—integrity is the overlap of these three things.
1) Telling the Truth
2) Keeping Your Word
3) Walking the Talk
So when someone has integrity, it means that they tell the truth, keep their commitments, and practice what they preach.
Integrity is considered by many people to be the absolute foundation of character. That’s not to say it’s all of character. In fact, it encompasses only two of the nine components of the fruit of the spirit (faithfulness and self-control). But most of us would agree that integrity is pretty close to the core of what character is all about—that it provides the infrastructure necessary for the rest of character to develop. For example, integrity does not automatically imply that you possess inner peace, but lasting inner peace is not possible without integrity.
You can see the interplay of integrity with the rest of character in Psalm 15.
1 LORD , who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
2 He whose walk is blameless
and who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from his heart
3 and has no slander on his tongue,
who does his neighbor no wrong
and casts no slur on his fellowman,
4 who despises a vile man
but honors those who fear the LORD ,
who keeps his oath
even when it hurts,
5 who lends his money without usury
and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things
will never be shaken.
Integrity gives rise to the sort of life that dwells with God. There’s an alternative, however. We can live lives of dishonesty, broken promises, and hypocrisy. We might even get away with it, at least in the short run. But in the long run, it always catches up with us.
A defect in integrity, left to fester, will evolve. Cheating on tests will become cheating on taxes, maybe even cheating on your spouse. Not practicing what you preach will become not believing what you preach. Not keeping your promises will become not meaning what you say.
And it doesn’t only evolve—it spreads. We try to compartmentalize our lives. School here, friendships here, faith here, sports here. We tell ourselves that what we do in one doesn’t affect the others.
Imagine a mesh bag – it’s composed of many cells, isolated from one another. Yet when you grab one node and pull, what happens? You distort the whole bag. You cannot pull on one without also pulling on the others.
The Titanic was meant to be unsinkable. It was designed with 15 separate watertight bulkheads that would protect the ship from sinking in case there was a breach of hull integrity – one-fifteenth of the ship would fill with water and the remainder would stay dry and afloat. But when the iceberg hit, containment was impossible. The lack of integrity doomed the whole ship.
We must strive for integrity in all areas of life: telling the truth, keeping our word, and practicing what we preach.
The alternative is frightening.
1Meanwhile, the crowds grew until thousands were milling about and crushing each other. Jesus turned first to his disciples and warned them, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees--beware of their hypocrisy. 2The time is coming when everything will be revealed; all that is secret will be made public. 3Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear! (Luke 12:1-3, NLT)
Integrity: The Collegiate Edition
Now for the second movement: the collegiate edition.
We’ve said that integrity has three components: telling the truth, keeping your word, and practicing what you preach. So let’s ask some pointed questions about each component.
Is deception always wrong? Clearly not.
If you’re playing basketball and fake left then go right, that was an act of deception. Was it sin? No—not at all. You see, people playing basketball do not have a reasonable expectation of being told the truth. It’s the nature of the game.
And that’s what it comes down to—does the other person have a reasonable expectation of hearing the truth from me? In almost every situation in life the answer is yes.
Are you allowed to throw a surprise birthday party for your friend? Yes—they have a reasonable expectation of being deceived about their birthday party.
Are you allowed to lie to the Nazis when they come to your door looking for Jews? Yes—they’ve put you into an impossible situation and although they might have an expectation that you will tell the truth, it is not a reasonable one.
Like Rahab with the Hebrew spies, deceive to save lives. After all, she made it into the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 for that very act of deception.
Some people take this idea and pretend that the exceptions make the principle irrelevant, but in 99.99% of all human interactions, we should tell the truth. But every once in a while a situation crops up which requires a footnote. But those situations do not overturn the general rule.
The Bible clearly teaches us not to lie. Look, for example, at Leviticus 19:11: “‘You must not steal, you must not tell lies, and you must not deal falsely with your fellow citizen.” (NET)
Contrary to popular opinion, however, the fundamental prohibition against dishonesty is not one of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments tell us “do not bear false witness.” In other words, never ever, ever lie when it matters. Specifically, don’t lie in a court of law where your misrepresentation of the facts could get someone innocent punished or killed or prevent someone guilty from being punished or killed.
In summary, on occasion deception is permissible, and a good rule of thumb is that it depends on whether or not the other person has a reasonable expectation of truthfulness from you. Sports and games of most sorts are specifically exempted.
What if I’ve made a bad commitment? Maybe I promised to sleep with my boyfriend.
In other words, if part of integrity is keeping my word and I’ve committed to do something sinful, which sin is worse—breaking my word or doing the original sin? Both courses seem to lack integrity.
By promising to do something sinful, you’ve already sinned. On the one hand, if you keep your promise you’ll have committed two sins – the promise to sin plus the fulfillment of your sinful promise. Breaking your commitment to sin, on the other hand, isn’t a new sin – it’s part of the original sin of promising to do something wrong. And so if you break your word then you are still only guilty of having made an evil promise.
Since I can’t ever practice what I preach, should I scale back on my preaching?
In other words, if God hates hypocrisy so much then perhaps the best way to avoid hypocrisy is simply by not claiming much. No one ever accuses a dog of being a hypocrite – it would be nonsensical. A dog never fails to live up to its words because it has no words to live up to.
And since hypocrisy is so bad, maybe we should follow the dog’s example. Just don’t say anything about morality, then no one can judge us for failing to abide by our words. This is a real problem on the college scene—the typical campus is overrun with Christians who would rather say nothing than to espouse an ideal that they have not lived up to.
That’s a mistake, and it’s based upon a misunderstanding of hypocrisy. The apostle Paul expresses a more mature view in Philippians 3.
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Philippians 3:12-16, NIV
Paul has just finished talking some pretty big talk, and then he explains in an aside—“by the way, I haven’t been able to achieve this high standard yet. I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all anyone can do. At least I’m moving in the right direction.”
Paul would have been a hypocrite had he advocated one thing, done another, and not admitted that there was discrepancy between the two. But to advocate a high goal and then to fall short of it is not hypocrisy – it’s fallibility. It’s a fundamentally different flaw.
And so don’t shy away from speaking truthfully about your goals in life. But also be willing to truthfully admit that you have not yet attained them.
Integrity has three components: truthfulness, faithfulness, and performance. Like a trellis for vines, these form the infrastructure in which the rest of our character grows. And they must be pervasive in our lives – we must be truthful about our performance at work as well as truthful about our behavior in relationships. We must be faithful when given a task as well as faithful when paying our bills. We must make choices on the basis of our convictions whether we’re surrounded by Christians with videocameras or we’re alone in a locked room.
Or else we lack integritas, and we will die like a Roman soldier who did not tend to the armor that guarded his heart.