Several years ago I was participating in a discussion with some business men in Jackson, Mississippi. In the course of the conversation, one of the men made reference to a man who was not present at the meeting. He said, “He is an honorable man.” When I heard this comment, my ears perked up as I thought for a moment I was hearing a foreign language being spoken. I realized that I was in the middle of the Deep South where customs of old had not entirely been eradicated, yet I still could not get over that somebody in this day and age was using the word honor as a descriptive term for a human being. The term honor has become somewhat archaic. We may think of the famous speech that General Douglas MacArthur gave at West Point entitled, “Duty, Honor, Country,” but that was more than a half a century ago. Today, the word honor has all but disappeared from the English language. Virtually, the only time I see the word in print is on bumper stickers that declare that the owner of the automobile has a child who is on the “Honor Roll,” but “Honor Roll” is perhaps the last vestigial remnant of a forgotten concept.
I speak about honor because the dictionary lists the term honor as the chief synonym for the word integrity. My concern in this article is to ask: “What is the meaning of integrity?” If we use the pedestrian definitions given to us by lexicographers, such as we find in Webster’s dictionary, we read several entries. In the first instance, integrity is defined as “uncompromising adherence to moral and ethical principles.” Second, integrity means “soundness of character.” Third, integrity means “honesty.” Fourth, integrity refers to being “whole or entire.” Fifth and finally, integrity means to be “unimpaired in one’s character.”
Now, these definitions describe persons who are almost as rare as the use of the term honor. In the first instance, integrity would describe someone whom we might call “a person of principle.” The person who is a person of principle is one, as the dictionary defines, who is uncompromising. The person is not uncompromising in every negotiation or discussion of important issues, but is uncompromising with respect to moral and ethical principles. This is a person who puts principle ahead of personal gain. The art of compromise is a virtue in a politically correct culture, which political correctness itself is modified by the adjectival qualifier political. To be political is often to be a person who compromises everything, including principle.
We also see that integrity refers to soundness of character and honesty. When we look to the New Testament, for example, in the epistle of James, James gives a list of virtues that are to be manifested in the Christian life. In the fifth chapter of that letter at verse 12, he writes, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no,’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Here James elevates the trustworthiness of a person’s word, the simple statement of yes or no, as a virtue that is “above all.” What James is getting at is that integrity requires a kind of honesty that indicates that when we say we will do something, our word is our bond. We should not require sacred oaths and vows in order to be trusted. People of integrity can be trusted on the basis of what they say.
In our culture, we see again and again the distinction between a politician and a statesman. One person I know made that distinction in these terms: A politician is a person who looks to the next election, while a statesman is a person who looks to the next generation.
There is, admittedly, a kind of cynicism inherent in such a distinction, the idea being that politicians are people who will compromise virtue or compromise principle in order to be elected or to stay in office. Such lack of virtue is found not only in politicians, but it is found in the churches everyday, which appears at times to be filled with ministers who are quite prepared to compromise the truth of the Gospel for the sake of their current popularity. This is the same lack of integrity that destroyed the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, where the false prophets proclaimed what they knew the people wanted to hear, rather than what God had commanded them to say. That is the quintessence of the lack of integrity.
When we come to the New Testament, we look at the supreme example of a lack of integrity in the judgment accorded Jesus by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. After examining and interrogating Jesus, Pilate made the announcement to the clamoring crowd: “I find no fault in Him.” Yet after this declaration, Pilate was willing to deliver the faultless One into the hands of the raging mob. This was a clear act of political compromise where principle and ethics were thrown to the wind in order to appease a hungry crowd.
We look back again to the Old Testament to the experience of the prophet Isaiah in his vision recorded in chapter 6 of that book. We remember that Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up as well as the seraphim singing the Trisagion: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” In response to this epiphany, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me,” announcing a curse upon himself. He said the reason for his curse was because “I am undone” or “ruined.” What Isaiah experienced in that moment was human disintegration. Prior to that vision, Isaiah was perhaps viewed as the most righteous man in the nation. He stood secure and confident in his own integrity. Everything was being held together by his virtue. He considered himself a whole, integrated person, but as soon as he saw the ultimate model and standard for integrity and virtue in the character of God, he experienced disintegration. He fell apart at the seams, realizing that his sense of integrity was at best a pretense.
Calvin indicated that this is the common lot of human beings, who as long as they keep their gaze fixed on the horizontal or terrestrial level of experience, are able to congratulate themselves and consider themselves with all flattery of being slightly less than demigods. But once they raise their gaze to heaven and consider even for a moment what kind of being God is, they stand shaking and quaking, becoming completely disavowed of any further illusion of their integrity.
The Christian is to reflect the character of God. The Christian is to be uncompromising with respect to ethical principles. The Christian is called to be a person of honor whose word can be trusted.