Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” wrote William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming,” and like a prophetic pronouncement, his words, written in 1919, aptly describe the fragmentation of our present age. Core values have been abandoned, and around us we see abundant evidence that people are now bereft of a center of goodness. Yet, despite the apparent cultural decadence and the world’s preoccupation with the provocative and the unseemly, we Christians are called to live with intentional integrity.
What is integrity? The American Heritage Dictionary calls it “rigid adherence to a code or standard of value.” But such a definition casts the term in a negative light, suggesting mindless compulsion or coercion. Other dictionary sources that associate the word with moral uprightness are closer to its true meaning. For us Christians, integrity means having character that holds firmly together under all circumstances; it is wholeness and soundness within. When the temptation is strong to do the questionable, to walk in unrighteous paths, our center holds, and the values we hold close prevent our lives from falling apart. Integrity at the center of our decision-making faculty helps us choose right above wrong, good over evil. It keeps us honest with ourselves and with our fellow human beings.
In our contemporary world one person’s values are said to be as good as another’s, and people hesitate to commit to a belief that absolutes still exist. In an essay titled “The Opening of the American Mind,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., says, “Relativism is the American way.” The pervasive mind-set today is that everyone’s values, no matter how bizarre, are relevant and acceptable. It is felt that each person is different, and differences must be respected. Over the obviously black-and-white areas of behavior society has cast a mantle of tolerance that allows everyone to remain comfortable and satisfied.
At every turn popular culture stacks the deck against integrity. You may not buy dirty magazines, but the raunchiness is right there before your eyes at the checkout counter at your local supermarket. You may prefer songs with uplifting lyrics, classical motifs even, but the songs boomed from the stereo of a car idling at the stoplight can make you feel that your ears need to be rinsed after the onslaught of vulgar lyrics. In both language and dress it’s the crude that catches the fancy and gets featured in the popular print media. Whatever doesn’t tease and titillate doesn’t pass muster for commercial advertising. All of this is considered enlightened and mature living, but the Christian knows differently and avoids being trapped by it.
Those who walk in integrity walk in freedom from the shackles of the contemporary lifestyle. Integrity holds to the truth that there are standards and that we are all accountable for our actions. Men and women in Christ walk not as the “Gentiles walk,” as the apostle Paul counsels (see Eph. 4:17). Their lives go beyond outward conformity to a religious creed and center on inner commitment. When faced with a moral dilemma, people of integrity choose to adhere to what they know to be right rather than what is accepted. Their “unbending integrity will shine forth like pure gold,” Ellen White asserts.1 The grace of Christ applied to the life gives the Christian clean living from the inside out.
The disintegration of moral values is evident in every place. Take, for example, the recent action of the principal and vice principal of one elementary school in the southern region of the United States where the test scores were low. Investigation revealed that after the students took the standardized tests, the two administrators sat in the school library and erased the wrong answers of a number of students and replaced them with the correct ones in order for the school to receive a passing grade. These two supposed role models flunked the integrity test.
Integrity is counterculture. It affirms that there are things true, honest, just, and pure (Phil. 4:8), worth pursuing and preserving, no matter what is preached to the contrary as the norm. So for the man and woman whose lives are centered in Christ, instead of things falling apart they come together in wholeness of living.
Walking the Walk
We could learn a lot about integrity from the young man Daniel. He and his companions were taken captive into Babylon but had the good fortune to find favor with the king. They were given special privileges and training that would fit them to occupy leadership positions later in the kingdom. Others looking on may have envied them, perhaps even seeing them as celebrities, living the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Daniel and his friends could have let their privileged position go to their heads to the point where when confronted with eating and drinking contrary to their upbringing and beliefs, they would have said, “Look, this is the culture. We’ll have to go along with what they do here.” But this didn’t happen. “Daniel purposed in his heart” (Dan. 1:8, KJV) that he would do what was right. Integrity holds firm in the face of pressure to conform. It comes to the forefront and bolsters courageous action when we are tempted to compromise.
Another example of an individual with nonnegotiable standards was Joseph. Some may have become weary of hearing about his little episode in Potiphar’s house, but it’s reassuring that even after millennia of the story being told, nothing has come to light to discredit his character. Joseph’s words in the face of great temptation to commit an immoral act can be taken as the template for living with integrity. He asked, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). He had what Ellen White calls “steadfast integrity”2 that shields us from the tendency to compartmentalize our lives, and that prevents us from living with two faces.
A rash of recent news reports has dramatized the spectacle of people caught living behind a facade of public correctness as a cover for inner decay (stories about Tiger Woods and John Edwards come to mind). Jesus likened such lives to “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). Are we Christians capable of such deceptive living? Yes, indeed. The Sabbath suit or dress can cover the “dead men’s bones” in the heart.
Faithful in the Little Things
We expect integrity from people when they are faced with major issues, but it also involves “faithful, conscientious attention to the little things.”3 When you make a promise, keep it. When you make a pledge, honor it. If you borrow money, pay it back. Many Christians mistakenly think that money lent to them is a gift from a benevolent heavenly Father. If you borrow church property for use at home, return it—unbroken. Too many things are “lost” from the church. Why do utensils disappear from the kitchen or hymnals from the racks? When we are faithful in “that which is least” (Luke 16:10), we create a basis for integrity to take hold and thrive.
When I worked as a supervisor of instruction in a public school system, I mentioned to one of my colleagues that I needed a correction tape for my personal typewriter (obviously this was a long time ago). She went to the office supply room and brought back a correction tape and insisted that I take it. I told her I couldn’t. We went back and forth about the tape, she pushing it toward me and I pushing it back, until I finally told her I would place the tape in my desk drawer, where I could find it when I needed to use it at the office. She wasn’t quite satisfied with my decision, but she left off insisting.
Sometimes we look at our young people and think that they have not internalized the values that would make them demonstrate integrity, but integrity can show up early and in unlooked-for ways. A young man in an English class in a public college displayed the integrity that the moment demanded. He was part of a panel discussing a research article on the effects of cohabitation on families. To hear two of the young women on the panel speak, one would think that cohabitation before marriage was just another lifestyle option. They unabashedly admitted that they were in cohabitating relationships and that everything was working out just fine between them and their significant others. One even noted that her mother lived in that relationship as well.
The lone fellow on the panel changed the tone of the discussion when he said, “I don’t believe in cohabitation. I think a couple should be married before living together. If a guy and a girl love and respect each other, they should get married first before sleeping together.” And he credited his Christian faith for his belief.
His was the last word. The others had no comeback for that. The young man could have reasoned that it was the young women’s choice to do as they pleased, and he would have appeared modern and nonjudgmental, but he chose to go against the prevailing view when that view was incompatible with his Christian beliefs. He demonstrated integrity.
Today, when everyone seems to be doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6), Christians are called to walk in integrity, to choose wholeness, to have our inner lives centered on right-doing. Walking in integrity now is an imperative for us as we get ready to walk in that city where nothing that offends or defiles will enter. We must walk in integrity here to walk in purest light there.
1 Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 438.
2 Ibid., p. 547.
3 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 574.
Judith P. Nembhard is a former college and university professor and administrator living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This article was published March 10, 2011.