Most of us have been taught to think of integrity in a very one-dimensional, surface level way. If you were to ask me even a week ago what the term means, I’d have probably answered that “to have integrity is to demonstrate consistency and honesty.” We also tend to think of integrity as something that only belongs to extra virtuous people – someone who refuses to cut ethical corners even if they lose everything as a result, or someone who can be trusted to keep a secret.
These are legitimate examples of integrity, of course, but we’ll only understand why this is the case – and why it matters in our own lives – when we consider the virtue’s deeper meaning and broader implications. I’ve been taking some time to deliberately meditate, pray, and journal about this over the past several days in anticipation of the new year. The embarrassing reason? Integrity is something I seem to lack when the rubber meets the road. It’s the common thread knitting most of my problems, big and small, together.
So what is it, exactly?
My past four (five? six?) years studying English language and literature has made me more keenly aware of the need for recognizing the meaning of words that we take for granted. Most of our modern inability to effectively talk about controversial issues stems from our misunderstanding and miscommunication of the words we use. This is why good lectures and speeches often begin with the phrase, “Let’s define the terms.” Let’s, indeed.
The root of the word ‘integrity’ is the Latin integer, meaning “whole” or “complete.” Consider the word ‘integer’ which is mathematical term referring to a whole number, rather than a fraction. Merriam-Webster gives three basic definitions for integrity, and the first one is what we typically associate it with: “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” However, in my opinion, the second and third definitions are even more important, as they form the basis of the first definition: “an unimpaired condition; soundness,” and, “the quality or state of being complete or undivided.”
Proverbs 11:3 (NASB) speaks specifically of integrity: “The integrity of the upright will guide them, but the crookedness of the wicked will destroy them.” So in the contrast provided here, we see that having integrity is the opposite of being “crooked” – or duplicitous, inconsistent, and unstable.
Integrity has a lot to do with structure and substance. What do we mean when we say that a building has structural integrity? We’re saying that it is sound. It is complete. It is not going to crumble away under pressure. Its component parts are integrated (notice the prefix) to the extent that it can reliably, effectively perform the tasks it was designed for.
Coming out of 2019, God was kind enough to make it more abundantly clear that my need for greater integrity is the leading cause of my ineffectiveness. If Christianese is helpful for you, another way to phrase this is to say that if you don’t have much integrity, you will not be fruitful. In order for plants to produce the fruit or flowers they are designed to produce, all the component parts must be attended to. You cannot water it every day but ignore its need for light. You can’t notice mildew creeping up the stalk of your tomato bush and just assume it will not harm the leaves or leave your veggies marred by end rot. You can’t fill a pot with diseased or nutrient-deficient dirt and expect the visible parts of the plant to flourish, as though they can operate separately from the root system.
Plants and people are inherently integrated creatures. (I imagine this is why God has placed so many agricultural analogies in the pages of Scripture.) To have integrity is to be whole, to be made up of component parts that work together as a comprehensive unit. In this sense, integrity is scary and overwhelming and demanding. It seems to demand perfection: perfect capacity for fruitfulness, or perfect balance instead of neglectful extremism. This is true in a way. Real, pure integrity – the kind found in the character of God Himself – is in fact perfect by definition. It lacks nothing.
As sinful humans living in a corrupt world, we lack much. We know it, too, and so we regularly make plans for improvement and then sigh together at the inevitable reality of our failures. Or perhaps we try to compensate for these inadequacies by embracing a sense of bravado and chanting mantras of self-empowerment. Neither response to human brokenness is biblical. Neither response is effective.
Because of the magnitude of this, I anticipate writing more specific posts about it as the year progresses onward; but before I go, I want to list some of the more personal, practical implications that integrity, or the lack thereof, has on my life:
I need to recognize and respect the fact that I can’t escape the link between mind, body, and soul. I need to steward my body well. Rather than seeing it in secular terms, as something entirely separate from my personhood or as the most important aspect of my personhood, I should adopt a more balanced, biblical, wholistic perspective of what it means to be a healthy individual.
2. People pleasing and contentment.
My sense of wholeness cannot depend on anything other than God Himself. I should not need any material possession, pleasant experience, or positive human affirmation to make my life legitimate or valuable.
3. Theological-existential consistency.
There is far too much contradiction between what I profess to believe about God, and what my life shows me to actually believe. When I recognize that there is a disconnect between what I say is true and what my actions demonstrate about my heart’s true convictions/priorities, especially in regard to the things of God, I need to stop and take that seriously. A fragmented worldview that picks and chooses between whatever truths are most convenient has never actually benefitted anyone – especially the Christians who think this characteristic only shows up in the lives of their postmodern, secular peers.
Because of the incarnation of Christ (which many of us just celebrated at the end of December) and the combined immanence and transcendence of God (see this post for explanation of what I mean by that), there is hope that I can grow in this kind of integrity. It doesn’t have to be a flimsy New Year’s Resolution doomed to fail before it begins, because it’s something intrinsic to what the Gospel of Christ accomplishes in His people. He makes whole what was broken. Even more powerful than that, He makes alive what was once dead. And so, while I won’t achieve any perfect balance either in habit or in perspective as long as I still walk the earth, I can rest assured that I don’t need to live in fragmented pieces anymore.