Anyone who has spent time in God’s word and been convicted there of sin has experienced his own lack of integrity in the presence of God’s purity. In our day of fluid standards and definitions, integrity seems a tenuous and rare commodity.
The word integrity comes from the Latin, meaning “to make whole; to present something in its entirety.” Anything that is broken, partly true, one-sided, or missing parts lacks integrity, in whole or part.
A chipped teacup lacks integrity; the chip makes it unreliable, and therefore unusable for the purpose it was made. For years I carried a hole in my heart from emotional wounds; they weren’t visible, but the behavior stemming from them made me unreliable, and I knew I was not living up to my calling as a Christian.
Decaying cultural practices may have subverted integrity on a sweeping scale, but God’s people are not excused from its practice. But how can we practice what we don’t really understand clearly?
Integrity Is Wholeness
Often the virtue is defined solely in terms of honesty or trustworthiness, and such a limited definition tends to make integrity easier to “work around.” If one is asked if she likes a friend’s dress, for instance, isn’t it considered impolite to answer in any way that is not somehow affirmative even if the answer is a resounding “no”?
And how many people consider speeding or “borrowing” sticky notes from the office a lack of integrity? Honesty and trustworthiness also tend to be fluid concepts these days and therefore don’t automatically motivate the practice of integrity.
The Catholic dictionary defines integrity as “wholeness of character without duplicity or internal conflict of interests.” Jesus proclaimed Nathaniel’s integrity by exclaiming he was “without guile” (John 1:47). Reflecting on this verse, St. Augustine said, “It is guile when we say one thing and think another. How then was there no guile in him? Because, if he was as a sinner, he confessed his sin; whereas if a man, being a sinner, pretends to be righteous, there is guile in his mouth.”
And now we seem to be getting to the heart of what integrity means. To confess one’s sin is to be whole again, to possess integrity. It seems that guile somehow proceeds from a certain lack of wholeness, a denial of the fullness of something. In the Bible, this fullness is one’s purpose in God, and a deficit of purpose in God inexorably draws him in.
No, But You Did!
Abraham is seventy-five when he receives his call from God to be the father of nations (Genesis 12:4), but he waits for the son of the promise with Sarah, his wife, for twenty-four years. A mysterious visitor arrives and designates the time of fulfillment within the year. Sarah, who is eavesdropping, laughs to herself at the absurdity of two withered reproductive systems producing children.
“The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.’” (Genesis 18:13-14).
What happens next is both funny and terrifying for the fact that we sometimes share Sarah’s automatic response. Out of fear—perhaps of being found listening, maybe for the exposure of her derision and doubt, possibly out of worry she would be punished and the promise revoked—Sarah denies that she laughed.
And here is the deficit of integrity that draws God to it: doubt. The fact that the Lord confronted and corrected her tells us it was not humor or excitement that provoked her laugh, but doubt. Sarah cannot receive from the Lord what she doubts he can or will do.
Sarah might have invited God directly into her fear and doubt and avoided its expression and exposure. But she hid instead, like Adam and Eve behind their fig leaves, and so he says to her with absolute finality the words that inherently accomplish her conviction, “No, but you did laugh!” (Genesis 18:15).
Notice that Sarah’s doubt caused further lack of integrity in her actions—she doubted, then mocked God’s word with laughter, then lied when confronted.
Anything hidden indicates lack of integrity, and what is hidden or denied reveals itself in our behavior.
Nothing else is said, because everyone is made to know by his word that the Lord has spoken the truth and Sarah has not. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
We may get away with a lack of integrity for a long time, but sooner or later we are exposed by “the One with whom we have to do” in a way that allows no hiding and no argument.
Him with Whom We Have to Do
Throughout Jacob’s story in Genesis we witness his extended lack of integrity in scheming to rule over his brother, deceiving his father. Jacob was born a deceiver: his name means “supplanter.” He gets away with conniving for a long time, until one day God confronts Jacob and wrestles with him over his integrity through an angel.
Even out there in the desolation of the wilderness where he is running from the consequences of his actions, Jacob tells the angel he won’t give in unless he receives a blessing. The presumption! And yet the angel is strangely unwilling to refuse.
The story is told from Jacob’s point of view, but you have to know the angel could have bested him at any moment. In the end he puts Jacob’s thigh out of joint as a demonstration of definitive superiority, in a way very similar to the way the angel of the Lord closed the dispute over Sarah’s laughter.
Oddly, the angel does not refuse to bless Jacob. Instead, like Sarah’s promise, he makes the blessing contingent on absolute integrity. The angel of the Lord asked, “What is your name?” In asking for Jacob’s name the angel wanted a confession of his character. And he answered, “Jacob” (supplanter).
The moment Jacob confessed his name—the moment he was brutally honest about himself—coming face-to-face with who he was and face-to-face with him with whom we all “have to do”—a supernatural transformation began.
Jacob’s willingness to be pierced to the division of soul and spirit and joints and marrow allowed the thoughts and intentions of his heart to be laid open (Hosea 12:4). Wholeness of heart was accomplished by the word of God, and Jacob’s integrity was achieved through his confession. Suddenly, he was no longer “supplanter” but Israel, meaning “prince with God.”
Theophany Is Epiphany
I believe there was nothing Abraham and Sarah wanted more than a child. God had promised them the desire of their hearts (Psalms 37:4), a promise that went well beyond being parents of one child, to embracing all people of faith.
In all kinds of ways they contrived and were frustrated in bringing about the promise on their own. For twenty-four years, God prepared them for the enormity of this call through confrontations with himself and his word.
Jacob, too, was promised greatness from birth, and though he betrayed and struggled even with God to make it happen, he lacked the integrity to ascend to it. Nor was he equipped to achieve the necessary wholeness in and of himself.
But the moment Jacob confessed who he was rather than making excuses for himself and his behavior, the angel of the Lord gave him what he longed for so long and so desperately, what was meant to be his all along.
We too are called to greatness, but a lack of integrity stands in the way of our reaching it. Like Sarah and Jacob and innumerable other biblical examples, God is drawn to my lack of integrity. He offers his word to me and appears to me there, so that in seeing God, I can see myself for who I really am and the integrity of who I am supposed to be.
Without this wholeness, I am unable to receive the fullness of my calling, because it lies in “him with whom we have to do”; He is integrity. We practice integrity by being in God’s word and submitting to him there. Through his word, he will “integrate” my doubts and fears, and then he will fulfill my promise. Only then will I live into my purpose.