“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” — C.S. Lewis
We hear the word integrity and our minds jump to big examples of people who had it, and people who don’t. But no one starts off with the huge ethical quandaries.
There are a thousand little dilemmas that we all have to face that determine how we’ll do when it comes to the big ones.
Like those little water cups you get at Panera Bread.
When you go to Panera, after you order your sandwich and soup for $11, if all you want to drink is water, they hand you a little 6 ounce cup that says “Water” on it.
And you go fill it at the soda fountain with water.
Or if you think that integrity is only for the big decisions in life…with any beverage you want.
Some folks at the soda fountain look like it’s their biggest thrill of the week. Looking around furtively with their tiny cup in hand, before putting 5 ounces of sweet stolen soda in it, and drinking it right there on the spot.
Sometimes they look at you, when you’re in line behind them like, “Don’t make me cut you!” And I’m like, “Don’t worry bro! I’m not going to go tell the manager. I know that snitches get stitches.”
Besides, now my water will taste that much better because I’ll get to enjoy the flavor of my own self righteousness as I drink it and think “my integrity is worth more than $2.”
But then I trail off into rabbit trails wondering, “How much is my integrity worth?”
I start at a billion dollars, and then work my way down to a hundred thousand for certain situations, but then I end up depressed because I realize that everybody probably has a price, and that’s why democracy is really at risk, and it goes further downhill from the there.
I wonder if Panera does the whole water cup thing as an ethical experiment?
Maybe there’s a camera above the soda machine that helps them determine who becomes a Mark Felt and who becomes a Bernie Madoff.
Integrity is tough. We get tested all the time. Everyday. We get up in the morning and have the best laid intentions in the world. We are going to be honest. We are going to be kind. We are going to be someone who, when other people look at us they see Jesus through what we say and how we live.
Or, at the very least, they won’t think we’re the worst.
Even though it’s difficult, I think we really want to be people of integrity. We want to be the person Mr. Rogers believed we could be. We want to look in the mirror and feel whole. We want to be the same person at work and at home and with our friends, and we want that to be a person we can feel okay about.
But no matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to get it right.
Our teaching from Jesus today shows us why, and tells us what we can do about it.
Both Matthew and Luke recorded this teaching about integrity, but we’re just going to look at his disciple Matthew remembers it today. Jesus said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
Right in our first verse, Jesus is identifying three components that will be critical to our understanding of integrity. First, he talks about words, the stuff we say (Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’) Then he talks about actions, the stuff we do. (But only the one who DOES.) These two are the things we usually think about when we talk about integrity. Does what we say match what we do? Do we practice what we preach? But then he talks about “the will of my Father in heaven.”
Jesus mentions Actions. Words. and the will of God. And since as Christians we believe that the will of God never contradicts who Jesus is and everything he taught, we’ll just call that circle “Jesus.” Actions, words and Jesus. Three circles. Let’s keep reading:
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’
Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ Matthew 7:22-23
That’s a pretty unique teaching! People who do kind of magic-y things through the name of Jesus don’t really know him and he doesn’t know them either. Now, I don’t pretend to know about prophesy and casting out demons, but it sure seems to me from this verse that those must not be the kinds of actions Jesus really cares about.
These are people who know the right words. They sound very religious and spiritual. Not only were they doing magic-y things but they are invoking Jesus’ name every time they do them. After each example they say that. Did we not prophesy in your name, cast our demons in your name, do deeds of power in your name. They are like “Jesus! We are doing all of these things and we are talking about you all the time! How can we not enter the kingdom?”
But Jesus says, “I never knew you.”
They just made a case that they are talking about Jesus all the time, and Jesus responds, “Wait – who are you?”
Later Jesus says,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? Luke 6:46
So what I hear Jesus teaching here is that it’s not enough for our words to be consistent with our actions.
No, what matters is that our words and actions line up with Jesus. Which for the most part, has more to do with valuing people over things, loving your neighbor as yourself, and loving God above all. We’ll never be perfect, and we don’t need to be. But we are meant to follow Jesus, to do what he would do, and love who he would love, which is everyone.
Our words and actions need to line up with Jesus. With everything he taught. With the values and priorities that we have because he embodies them. That’s what it means to have integrity.
That part in the middle, that’s the sweet spot. That’s integrity. And the goal of following Jesus is that it gets bigger and bigger in our lives.
This is when we start to get uneasy. Because we know we don’t always get this one right.
We hear this teaching about Jesus and we want to have that kind of integrity.
So why don’t we?
Why do followers of Jesus compromise their integrity?
The first reason is simple.
1. To win.
This one is easy to prove. All you have to do is watch football. Do you know that sharp pain you feel when a referee makes a bad call against your team? That sting of outrage?
Have you ever felt that pain when the bad call was against the OTHER team?
You might be able to recognize that it’s a bad call. You might even agree that it’s a bad call and intellectually want it to be reversed. But it doesn’t hurt, does it? Not in the same way.
That’s because when it comes to winning, we are all naturally okay with shortcuts. We can rationalize anything if it means that our team wins.
And this goes way beyond football.
We know that shortcuts in integrity can help us win in our professional and personal lives. A seemingly harmless lie. Cheating once or twice when no one is looking. Using someone else to get ahead and cross that finish line first.
So we compromise our integrity to win.
We also do this:
2. To fit in.
We all want to fit in. We want it so badly we are tempted to do things we know we shouldn’t. This doesn’t need to turn into an afterschool special, but we need to stop blending in to the scenery as Christians. And we really need to stop spiritualizing it when we do. We think, “Well, people know I go to church, so I don’t want them to think my life is different because of that.”
Well, if your life isn’t any different because you go to church, then…why do you go to church?
Or as Jesus teaches us today, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”
There are other reasons we lose our way when it comes to integrity, but these two are the ones that tempt us the most.
So how do we stand up against these temptations? How do we find that sweet spot where our actions and our words line up with Jesus so we can live a life of integrity?
At least not on our own.
There’s good news, though. Because Jesus has more to say:
‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ Matthew 7:24-27
Jesus ends his teaching with a story. Two men build houses. A storm comes up, rain falls, floods come, winds blow, and one house is left standing.
The difference in the two?
The foundation is what made the difference.
You can have integrity. You can have your words and your actions line up so that your life makes sense. But you can’t do that on your own.
Because your life has its own share of storms.
When the winds pick up and the rains come.
When you are tempted to cheat because things are too hard.
When you say “Lord Lord” on Sunday, but on Monday it’s easier to break someone down with your words to win.
When you are with other people and its easier to do what everyone else is doing to fit in.
These things will bring your house crashing down. Not because one mistake can ruin everything. But because one lie, one cheat, one comment, leads to another, and then another. Then suddenly your whole life is starting to crumble.
Sin is sneaky that way.
So you can’t do this in your own, anymore than the man in Jesus’ story could have a house at the end of the storm without having a rock underneath it.
That’s the key to integrity: To have your actions and your words line up with Jesus, make him the foundation of your life.
To have your actions and your words line up with Jesus, make him the foundation of your life.
Do this, and you will have integrity. Not because you are great. But because of the foundation underneath you is.
Because Jesus is there, holding you up.
Because even when you mess it up, Jesus will forgive you and pick you back up and get you back on track.
Because sometimes having your actions match your words will mean saying “I am a sinner, saved by grace.”
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins
More Things Jesus Taught about Integrity:
- Matthew 7:21-27, Luke 6:46-49
- Matthew 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45
- Matthew 5:33-37
- Matthew 5:13-16, Mark 4:21, Luke 8:16, 11:33
- John 8:12
- Mark 9:49-50, Luke 14:34-35