In June, my wife and I were participating in a gathering of church planters in Chicago and each day would walk from our hotel to the meeting place. On our way, we walked under one of the many structures meant to support the “L,” the system of elevated trains that travel the city carrying commuters back and forth to work. I was amazed at this steel structure each time we went under it not because of its mass or intricacy but because at least two-thirds of it was covered by rust. I remember wondering how much structural integrity was being compromised by all that rust! And it made me wonder who had let the rust get out of hand, allowing the few initial indications of corrosion go unchecked.
Recently I was asked to do some teaching on the topic of ‘Integrity’. That’s a pretty big topic and I feel like I only scratched the surface with my presentation but I was reminded of some very important realities that those of us in ministry should be aware of continuously.
The first reality is that integrity is a very important issue from God’s perspective. That’s no surprise to any of us but sometimes we can forget how high it is on God’s priority list. King David understood that level of importance when he said, “…God himself said to Solomon…” And of course we are all well aware of the constant issues Jesus had with the Pharisees related to their lack of integrity as seen in their practice of loading expectations on others while feeling no need to live up to those same expectations themselves. (See the ‘seven woes’ pronounced by Jesus against the teachers of the law in Matt. 23!) In John 8, Jesus interacts with a group of Jewish people who insist that they are the ‘children of Abraham’. In their minds, the fact that they were biological descendants of Abraham gave them some special right. Jesus, on the other hand, counteracts their claim by observing that they are acting nothing at all like Abraham. While Abraham trusted, obeyed and followed God, these people wanted nothing to do with following Jesus and in fact, wanted to kill him. Jesus makes the drastic statement that by claiming to be children of Abraham while desiring to kill him, they are proving to be the children of Satan instead! In other words, your actions, not your biological bloodlines, prove whose children you are and integrity is measured by actions rather than claiming to have rights.
The second reality is that the matter of integrity seems to be a primary target of Satan in his constant efforts to discredit, invalidate and even destroy the work of those who serve God. Indeed, those of us who are in pastoral roles may actually be most vulnerable in this area of integrity. Why? There are many reasons but one observation I’d make is that the rigor of always having to be ‘on’, preaching every week, helping everyone else with their problems, etc, sets us up for the potential of just going through the motions. That is an almost imperceptible slip into lack of integrity. At first, nothing bad seems to happen. No one notices and things go along just fine. The problem is that little lapses like that can accumulate over time and almost before we know it we’ve slipped into the syndrome of being empty on the inside but portraying an appearance of ‘all is well’ on the outside. No one intends to get there…it happens over time one tiny decision at a time. And then there is that disturbing story of Job who is actually identified as a man of integrity by God to Satan whereupon Satan is granted access to test Job’s true motivations by taking away/destroying all the ‘good things’ that surround him. Ever feel like there must have been a similar conversation about you that has resulted in circumstances that test your integrity for seemingly no reason? In one way or another, you can be pretty sure that if you are serving God, staying the course in the area of integrity will be a challenge.
The third reality about integrity is that maintaining it requires constant vigilance. Addressing the first signs of rust as soon as they emerged could have easily preserved the structural integrity of the “L” bridge in Chicago. Now, it’s at least a major project to restore it. If you’ve ever driven across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, you have seen workers maintaining it. That’s because they are ALWAYS maintaining it…starting at one end and going to the other…dealing with the rust and repainting. When they reach the end, they immediately start again back at the beginning…year in and year out. Of course it takes more than paint to deal with personal and spiritual integrity! As I read scripture, it seems clear that the primary maintenance component for integrity is confession…at three levels. The first is confession to (or honesty with) ourselves. King David needed help from the prophet Nathan to finally get honest with himself about his acts of adultery and murder. Damaged integrity will never recover as long as we are in denial. The second level of confession is before God. In David’s confession in Psalm 51 he says, “…wash me thoroughly and cleanse me from my sins.“ The third level is confession to someone else. This is a practice that somehow seems to have been lost in the protestant traditions for the most part. But it is very biblical, understandably complicated for pastors, and a necessary part of the repair process. Talk to anyone who’s been in a twelve-step group and you’ll hear that progress toward recovery starts with being able to verbalize to the group that you have a problem. Keith Meyer talked about confession in July’s Pastor Resource Call and had some great suggestions on how to do this the right way. Many other resources give guidance on appropriate ways to handle this level of confession.
God cares deeply about our integrity! It is something we need to guard consistently and maintain regularly. And the best maintenance plan requires us to deal with any emerging ‘rust spots’ as quickly as possible. The longer we let the rust go un-dealt with, the more likely it is that our integrity will be severely compromised.