“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” – Psalm 51:6
To write about the power of integrity is not easy. In conjunction, these two terms are jarring. They are categorically worlds apart, evoking different linguistic and moral spheres.
Integrity derives from the Latin integritas, from integer, meaning “intact or complete.” To lack integrity is to be somehow deficient, to have parts missing, to be unable to function optimally.
Power, on the other hand, is associated with hubris and the delusion of relative invincibility. It is marked by getting one’s way most, if not all, of the time by vanquishing the weak—by being louder, faster, stronger, smarter, larger, and more influential than neighbors and enemies. Individuals, families, sports teams, universities, corporations, political parties, armies, and nations can all be powerful. In attaining, maintaining, and imposing power, ethical scruples are a huge disadvantage, and integrity is compromised or abandoned altogether.
It is no surprise, then, that powerful people and nations have not been generally noted for integrity. Conversely, those with integrity have seldom aspired to or wielded power. The Gospels suggest that power and integrity are inversely proportional. Our story from Genesis to Revelation persistently reminds us that incumbent power inevitably finds genuine integrity difficult to tolerate. “Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” Jesus observed as he summed up the history of God’s chosen people in his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:19).
Power seems to be unavoidably corrosive, corrupting those who wield it, however well-intentioned they might be. Power corrupts because we human beings are self-serving individually—and by extension, ethnically, communally, and nationally—justifying whatever it takes to promote, sustain, and advance self-interest, even to the point of taking the lives and possessions of those who stand in our way. Such self-seeking is antithetical to obedience to Jesus, who modeled and advocated self-giving—what he called taking up our cross and following him (Matthew 16:24)—as the only sure evidence of kingdom life.
In its conventional usage, then, power should not apply to Christians. Power to witness after the Holy Spirit comes upon us, yes (Acts 1:7). But witness—literal translation of the Greek word martyr—is more about relinquishing human power than wielding it or benefiting from it.
For followers of Jesus, his Sermon on the Mount serves in ways analogous to the United State’s perpetual self-correcting or self-justifying recourse to its Constitution. But these two defining documents could not be more dissimilar in intent, means, or outcomes. In Jesus’ “Kingdom Charter,” the powerful are never “blessed”—although they are tellingly castigated. Throughout his short life, Jesus steadfastly rejected conventional power as a means to advancing God’s will on earth. He chose, advocated, and modeled weakness, not power.
Being vs. Appearing to Be
And herein lies the conundrum. What kind of power can possibly be associated with integrity or, as the title implies, might even be an implicit dimension of it? The power of self-preservation or self-advancement? The power to dominate large numbers of people, amass vast sums of money, or direct complex organizations? The power to live a secure, self-fulfilling life, getting one’s own way most of the time?
Clearly, none of these things is associated with what Jesus promised to those who “simply let [their] ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and [their] ‘No,’ ‘No’ (Matthew 5:37). Although there are notable scriptural examples of power as the reward of integrity (e.g., Joseph), more common are the stories of those whose integrity landed them in deep trouble, rendering them powerless. The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles are our exemplars here.
As deeply religious but fallen creatures, infused with the very image of God, we are aware of the difference between being and merely appearing to be. The great sin of the professionally pious through time has been to substitute looking good for being good.
This is a particular peril for those of us who earn a living from being religious. There is an insidious internal pressure to divert ever so slightly from the implausible paths of righteousness … to display the exterior trappings of piety while going astray within. It was for this that the Pharisees became known. We can be certain that these deeply pious, sanctimoniously scrupulous religious leaders did not set out to become the first word in the thesaurus on hypocrisy! How did this happen?
They became more concerned with the husk than with the kernel, with the pot than with the porridge, in looking good rather than with being good. Because Jesus was genuinely good, he looked bad; because their religion focused on pious façade, masking a deadly (literally) reality, Pharisees looked good. As Kenneth Pike so aptly notes, “The deepest sins are camouflaged as holiness.”1
It was this obsession with appearances that elicited from our Lord his most scathing, unsparing rebukes. All seven of his “woes” in Matthew 23 are directed at the most pious men of his day.
… they do not practice what they preach …. Everything they do is done for men to see…. they love … to have men call them Rabbi…. Hypocrites …. Blind guides … blind fools … blind men …. You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside … are full of greed and self-indulgence…. You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness…. Snakes …. Brood of vipers …
It is hard to imagine a stronger emotional eruption. Jesus was deeply disturbed by the endemic failure of religious leaders. Such leaders, he said, make their converts “twice as much son(s) of hell” as themselves (v. 13). And he was grief-stricken by the looming disastrous consequences of such leadership, climaxing his impassioned outburst with a tearful lamentation: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (v. 37).
A Call to Service & Vulnerability
The benefits of integrity are readily apparent in governments, businesses, churches, mission organizations, and personal relations. To pretend to be what one is not takes a lot of energy and memory, and the paths of righteousness soon become overgrown and obscured. Integrity—whether it be personal, group, business, or government—means trust. When honesty, justice, and compassion have been internalized, people can rely on each other and on their leaders. People can proceed in confidence, knowing that the person, business, organization, and church are trustworthy… even to the point of “swearing to [their] own hurt and changing not” as the Psalmist put it (Psalm 15). This kind of integrity or wholeness is its own power.
The real power of integrity is the power of a living seed. True to its identity, infused with the mysterious gift called life, it will bear fruit when it falls into the ground and dies. Its power derives from its being wholly true to itself … not simply looking like a seed, but being an actual seed. Only this gives it the power to grow into a tree and replicate itself through its seeds.
The power lies within the healthy kernel itself, not in its husk or outward appearance. As long as it does not make self-preservation and majestic appearance its central goal, or pretend to be what it is not and cannot be, it will be part of the divine relay for successive generations of life, in accordance with its Creator’s intentions.
The power of integrity is the power of wholeness—of being what God intended us to be in his world, doing his work, in his way. This kind of integrity is at the very core of the good news: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:16-21)
Integrity is powerful, precisely because it is vulnerable. It was not by brute power that Jesus could overcome the deep evil that subverted and deformed his creation, but by his vulnerability. Seeds do not yield new life by being strong, self-reliant, and safe, but by falling into the ground and dying. The power of integrity, then, is the power to give oneself in service to others. Integrity ties into the eternal. That is true power.
1. Pike, Kenneth L. 1997. “Hypocrisy.” In On the Shepherd Feeding the Flock. Volume 3, Kenneth L. Pike Poetry. Ed. Sharon Heimbach, 103. Dallas, Texas, USA: SIL.