Integrity: The Ultimate Virtue
January 1, 1995
I want to begin this sermon by giving you a verse of Scripture that is hard to know where it fits. It is Proverbs 24:26. It seems to fit well on the first Sunday of the new year. It says, “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” What does that mean? What is the relationship between an honest answer and a kiss on the lips. I think it is three things.
1. Just as it is relatively rare to be kissed on the lips, even so it is relatively rare to hear a true and honest answer.
2. Just as the kiss on the lips means more than the kiss on the cheek, even so an honest answer is a mark of true sincerity.
3. Just as a kiss on the lips can be and should be deeply satisfying to the soul, even so an honest answer is satisfying to the soul.
I was reading Proverbs, literally thumbing through it, and came across that verse. It seemed to me to say so much to us that we need to think about. An honest answer is as rare, as sincere and as satisfying as a kiss on the lips.
If you look in the the dictionary for the word integrity, what you will find is almost always a definition that includes the word “wholeness,” because the very word integrity itself has the idea of that which is whole-hearted, that which is completely honest, whole, complete and true. I actually did a little study in the Bible to see how many times the word integrity comes up. I am going to read you several verses.
The first is a reference to King David’s integrity. It is found in Psalm 78:72. “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; and with skillful hands he led them.” That text is telling us that the thing that made David’s reign as king so wonderful was that he was a man who performed his task of leadership with integrity.
I Kings 9:4-5 is what the Lord said to Solomon, who followed his father, David. “As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever.” God told Solomon that he values integrity so much, that if he would be a man of integrity as David was, what God did for him, he would do for Solomon, and even more than that, and establish him on his throne forever.
I Chronicles 29:17 is what David said, “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.” That tells us two things. First, that God does indeed search the human heart. Second, what God is looking for inside the human heart is this quality of integrity.
Nehemiah 7:2 says, “I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.” That is an unusual phrase.
Proverbs 10:9 says, “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.” The man of integrity has security in his life, whereas the man of crooked paths is going to be uncovered.
Proverbs 11:3 says, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” Notice the comparison between the man of integrity and the unfaithful who are destroyed by duplicity. What is integrity? It is wholeness of purpose, total honesty, a whole-hearted, blameless approach to life. It is the opposite of those unfaithful, unreliable people who say one thing and then do another.
Proverbs 13:6 says, “Righteousness guards the man of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.” We are being told that the man of integrity is kept straight by God.
Proverbs 29:10 says, “Bloodthirsty men hate a man of integrity and seek to kill the upright.” That is a warning that if you decide to live according to integrity, not everybody will like the way you are living. Integrity will bring you protection from God, but it does not mean that you will have an easy road in the world.
Matthew 22:16 is a comment by the Pharisees who are talking to Jesus. “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity.” That is important because that testimony comes from the Pharisees, who basically were trying to trap him. This is a testimony even by his enemies—even his enemies had to say that Jesus was a man of integrity. “You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” Integrity means that you tell the truth, and aren’t unduly swayed by human opinion.
Integrity is a combination of three things: honesty, dependability, and purity of motive.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday we went down to visit my brother Andy in Florence, Alabama. Andy asked me if I would like to go see a mansion built by a man who was a general for Andrew Jackson. I did, so he took our family out to a place called Cyprus Forks, which is about 12 miles west of Florence. There is a beautiful mansion that is mostly burned down. The columns are still remaining. The mansion is about 150 years old, built by General James Jackson (no relation) who was a general serving under General Andrew Jackson. Andy showed us around the remains of the mansion, then said he wanted to show us the cemetery. We crossed the road, way out in the country. Nobody else was living out there at all. We walked through the woods and down the dirt road until we arrived at the cemetery. It is the cemetery of the James Jackson family. Most of the graves in there are 150-160 years olds. There I saw the monument to General James Jackson, but I also saw the monuments to his sons who were buried in the graveyard. One caught my eye. It was one of the sons who served during the Civil War and who died about the time the Civil War was coming to an end. Underneath his name they had this sentence: A man of unquestioned integrity. What a phrase to put on your tombstone! A man whose integrity was so strong that during his life and even after his death, no one could call his integrity into question at all.
4 Marks of Integrity
1. Integrity means telling the truth even when it hurts.
Proverbs 12:17 says, “A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies.”
Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” The first mark of integrity is that you tell the truth even when it hurts you.
Not long ago I had a discussion with a man who is living far away from here. This is a man who is undergoing a difficult and bloody, bitter divorce. The facts of it do not matter for my story. As I listened to his story, I could not say for sure who was right and who was wrong. It seems that in those situations there is plenty of guilty to pass around on both sides. As we talked about his upcoming divorce proceedings, this man told me that some things had been uncovered that he hoped would not come out in court. He said, “If I get up there, I will deny it.” He would get on the stand and tell a lie because the truth would hurt him badly in the divorce proceedings. I looked at him straight in the eye and said, “My friend, whatever you do, tell the truth, even if it hurts you. Remember, you can always get your money back, but you can’t get your integrity back.” You can’t. Once that is gone, you can never really get it back again. If you do, it will take you years. Tell the truth even when it hurts you. Integrity means that you are an honest witness, that what you say is the truth of what actually is.
2. Integrity means keeping a promise when you would rather not.
Psalm 15:1 says, “Who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous.” Then he gives a list of what it means to be righteous. Psalm 15:4 says, “He who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” The man of integrity keeps his promise even when he would rather not. He keeps his oath even when it hurts. How do you do that? When you sign a contract, you are making a promise. When you use a credit card, you are making a promise. When you sign up to do something, you are making a promise. When you say you are going to join something, you are making a promise. When you set an appointment, you are making an promise. When you say you are going to teach a class, you are making a promise. When you say you will be there, you are making a promise. And the man of integrity keeps his promises even when he would rather not.
How can we be the kind of people who keep our promises?
A. Watch your words.
B. Make fewer promises.
C. If you can’t, don’t say you can.
D. If you don’t know, say you don’t know.
E. Avoid rash vows.
F. Learn to say no.
3. Integrity means that you confront problems when it would be easier to walk away.
Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” I like the King James much better here. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Sometimes being a man or woman of integrity means that you don’t walk away from a problem. It means you see a problem and you hit it head on, when it would be easier and more convenient and pleasant to just walk away.
A couple of years ago I was talking with one of the women of this church. She had a very interesting statement that stuck in my mind and came back to me as I thought about this sermon. She was talking about somebody else in our congregation that she needed to go talk to. She said this, “Pastor Ray, it is not going to be easy for me to do this because I don’t like doing this kind of thing. It won’t be easy for me to say what needs to be said. But I have now learned that I am old enough to do what I have to do.” Integrity means that you see a problem and hit it head-on.
Norman Schwartzkopf, the great general of the Persian Gulf War, gave this response when asked what was his secret of leadership. “I never walk past a problem. I never see something going wrong and forget about it. I always stop and confront it right there.”
Integrity means that you see a problem and you deal with it when it comes up.
I remember something I was told by a fellow pastor who has been in his church in the Chicago area for 27-28 years now, and has built one of the great churches of the Chicago area. We were together one night and I asked him how he survived 25 years in a church. He said, “I learned years ago when I was just starting out in the ministry that my tendency was when I see a problem, it is easier to just walk away. I discovered that I had to fight that tendency. I discovered through hard experience that the first price you pay is always the cheapest.” What that means is that the first price you pay in handling human relational conflicts is always the cheapest. The reason that we don’t want to get involved in solving problems that we see around us is that we think that if we just wait, they will solve themselves. That is rarely the case. We think the price will go down if we wait. I have discovered that this pastor friend is right. It applies to marriage problems. It applies to parent-child problems. It applies to relationships of any kind within the family, at work, in the church. Integrity means that you see a problem and you deal with it when it comes up. Problems never get better when you ignore them. You may think you love someone too much to say anything. No, if you really love them,. you would speak the truth. You would speak it in love, but you will speak the truth they need to hear. Integrity does not ignore the problems of life.
3. Integrity means forgiving when you’d rather hold a grudge.
Some of us have come into the new year with some bitterness over things that have happened in the past. Maybe as you look at the holiday season, you feel that you have been mistreated. May I remind you of two truths. First, you are to forgive because God has already forgiven you. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Second, you are to forgive because you promised God you would forgive. Every time you pray the Lord’s Prayer you are promising to forgive. “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.”
You are to forgive because bitterness destroys, while forgiveness sets you free.
You are to forgive because forgiveness sets you free to minister to those who have hurt you. As long as you hold a grudge, you are chained to the past. As long as you are angry about the way you have been treated, you are still living back in the past.
I was having a conversation with somebody two or three weeks ago. A statement stuck in my mind. Out of the blue, she said, “I have decided to forgive him.” That, my friend, is a Christian statement. Integrity chooses to forgive. Integrity means forgiving when you’d rather hold a grudge.
It is always good to think about how you want the year to go. This year we ought to be people of unquestioned integrity. We ought to be people of honesty, truthfulness, dependability, people of truly pure motives. That means telling the truth even when it hurts. That means keeping your promises when you’d rather not. That means confronting problems when it would be easier to walk away. That means forgiving others when you’d rather hold a grudge.
As we stand on the brink of a new year, we know that our Lord Jesus Christ was and is a man of unquestioned integrity. If you are going to follow him this year, you are going to walk in integrity, you are going to live in integrity, you’re going to be honest, truthful, dependable. The good news is this: integrity may seem hard, but through Jesus Christ, it is really easy. Dishonesty may seem easy, but for the Christian it is always hard. Jesus Christ can give you the power to be a person of unquestioned integrity this year. Honesty, facing your problems, paying the price, forgiving others, keeping your promises.
It’s going to be a great year. Let’s go through it as men and women committed to the ultimate virtue: the virtue of integrity.
Our Heavenly Father, we thank you for a brand new year. Please help us as we move through it. Lord, without you we can do nothing, but through your power all things are possible. So help us to be truthful, honest, open, and straightforward in all of our relationships. Help us to be men and women who walk before you with integrity of heart this year. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.