Integrity as an Absolute Standard
In our first letter on honesty and integrity last month we encouraged you to think of a person whom you admire for their integrity. While I was thinking of people of integrity in my life, I realised none of them are perfectly right. Everyone at some point did or said something wrong, and if I am being honest, I am the same if not worse.
Deep inside we know what is right and as Steven Garber puts it, “At our best, we long for integrity - for what we know and what we do to be coherent.” There are things we know are good to do but we don’t do them.
Integrity is righteousness in biblical language. It is to live - speaking and acting by moral and social laws given by God. In the Old Testament the words for righteousness (“tsedeq”) and justice (“mishpat”) always go together as two sides of the same coin. Righteousness speaks of being upright and acting rightly towards every person in every circumstance. Whilst justice makes right that which was wrong, providing a basis for both restoration and punishment. There is one word used in the New Testament, “dikaiosunes”, which translates as both righteousness and justice, depending on the context.
When it comes to human integrity, the Apostle Paul, quoting from various Psalms says, “There is no one righteous, not even one….for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:11-23), so the opposite of righteousness is sin. As much as this word is avoided, and even hated today, the truth is that lack of integrity is not merely an issue of behaviour that can be improved; it is a reflection of our sinful nature, which is both cause and effect of our broken relationship with God, and which leads to broken relationships with each other and with creation. None of us can say we are intact, sinless. None of us can claim that what we believe and how we live are in perfect harmony.
Yet the Bible emphasises again and again that we are to pursue righteousness: “Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honour” (Proverbs 21:21), or Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
The restoration of humanity’s lost righteousness is a central theme of the Bible. The only person in human history whose life was absolutely integrated, in whom there is nothing to blame, whose beliefs, words and deeds were in perfect harmony was Jesus Christ. His character and life is a perfect example of integrity.
In the Beatitudes Jesus portrays a righteous person and then continues with describing what a righteous life looks like. He says, “You are the salt of the earth…” (i.e. impactful) and “You are the light of the world…” (i.e. wisdom and insight for other people in society) “…[so] let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). But he also warns against self-righteousness: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1). We are not to perform our religious life - prayer, fasting, charity - in front of others. These are part of our secret life with God.
So righteousness in the Bible is personal but cannot be kept strictly private. Thinking of our life and work, what are the areas in which we are insightful (light) and impactful (salt)? In what areas do we wish we would be and do better as integrated people in God’s sight?
My favourite theologian, Oswald Chambers, defines integrity as an alignment of one’s actions with their beliefs and righteousness as conformity to the right standard where no one but God sees. By God’s grace, we’ll explore how one can be, live, and work righteously in our next Workwise.