When I was in elementary school (I think it was the fourth grade), I had an experience that opened my eyes to the importance of integrity. If you would have asked me at that age what the word “integrity” means, I’m sure I would have had no idea, but this event helped me to realize the concept, even if I didn’t understand the vocabulary. Although I don’t recall all the details, it became one of those defining moments of childhood that was seared into my memory.
Another child in my grade (he was not even someone who was part of my close group of friends) got in trouble for something and was sent to the principal’s office. I don’t remember what he was accused of doing, but I do remember getting called to the principal’s office shortly after he was. I was terrified, assuming that I must have done something wrong, but I had no idea what I might have done. When I got to the office, I was escorted in, where I saw the other student sitting in a chair. When he saw me, he turned and looked at the principal and said, “Please ask Jeff, he doesn’t lie, he always tells the truth!”
As it turns out, he had been accused of something that he had not done, and although I was simply another classmate, he chose to put his life in my hands, so to speak, because he trusted my integrity. And the principal trusted me too! It seems that, as an elementary student, I had developed a reputation of honesty among my peers and my teachers. In my heart, I knew – even at that age – that I could lie as well as anyone and that I often made bad choices, but it was also a revelation to me that my choices of honesty at school had impacted how others viewed me and trusted me. I played that event over in my mind many times during the next months, amazed at the realization of how important it was to have integrity.
But some heads are harder than others (mine in particular), and sin nature still gets in the way, so this was not a “one and done” lesson for me. A couple of years later, I was in a convenience store with some friends, and took a candy bar from the shelf and put it in my pocket. I did not have any money to pay for it, but I really wanted it and I was certain no one saw me. We left the store and walked across the road to the church where my father was the pastor, and when we walked inside, my dad called me into his office. He asked me if I had anything to tell him, and I said no. He had me empty my pockets, and when he saw the candy bar, I told him I had bought it at the store. What I didn’t know was that the store clerk, who knew my dad, had seen me take the candy bar and had called my dad. I was caught and didn’t know it, and I lied. I remember flashing back in my memory to my fourth grade experience of honesty, and realizing that it’s pretty easy to lie, but that integrity takes work, and I had failed the test of integrity.
The Bible has a lot to say about integrity. Sometimes it’s called honesty, sometimes uprightness, sometimes blamelessness, sometimes righteousness. There are numerous verses in Proverbs that speak to it directly, there are many illustrations of it (both positive and negative) lived out in the lives of Bible characters. Jesus Himself is the personification of it (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”). Therefore I don’t think anyone would dispute that it is a necessary character trait for any Christian. I do think, though, that it may help us to see a picture of what it actually is.
Several months ago, I was visiting the church where I had grown up, and attending a small group class that my dad was teaching. He happened to be teaching on integrity. His outline listed a number of verses, among them the following:
- I Chronicles 29:17 – I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.
- Proverbs 10:9 – Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.
- Proverbs 11:5-6 – The righteousness of the blameless makes their paths straight, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness. The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires.
- Proverbs 20:7 – The righteous lead blameless lives; blessed are their children after them.
- Proverbs 28:6 – Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.
As he was teaching, I started searching online on my phone for the specific meanings of the Hebrew words in those verses, and I discovered something that I found to be very interesting. It seemed that all of the words in those verses that were related to integrity appeared to come from variations on one of two different Hebrew root words: yashar and tamam. I looked up the meanings of those two words and learned that yashar means straight, even, level, correct, or upright, and that tamam means complete, whole, entire, or completeness. In combination, they give the idea of something that is completely and totally true and upright, not warped, and without falsehood.
So think about those meanings: straight and level, whole and complete. That sounds like a good description of integrity. The opposite would be crooked and uneven or wobbly, fractured and incomplete. Then think about those ideas in the context of integrity: not telling the whole story, giving a half-truth, intentionally misleading, using or providing faulty information, sending someone down a wrong path – these are all things that reflect a lack of integrity. And they are all things that don’t belong in the character of a godly leader. This is the crux of ethics in leadership – maintaining integrity in all circumstances. It’s difficult, especially in high-pressure environments, but necessary as a representative of Jesus Christ. You have a responsibility and an opportunity to model integrity, and in so doing you will become a trusted leader that others are willing to follow. As a Christian leader, you don’t have a choice: live with integrity.