It seems to me that it’s open season on scandals in the news of late. You couldn’t pay me enough to be Joe Paterno or Herman Cain this week, as they both wrestle with the weight of allegations that seem pretty likely to rock their worlds–themselves and their families and organizations reeling with the aftershocks of their alleged moral failings. If I understand it, they are under fire for either something they did, or didn’t do, something that happened a long time ago. It is certainly not my intent to either defend or excuse them, if indeed the offenses occurred. But in our cultural and political climate, it’s sometimes very hard to determine exactly what did happen, and it’s fairly easy to torpedo and sink someone’s career aspirations or personal life simply with a well-aimed accusation. At this point, I’m withholding judgment on the matters. Suffice it to say, a lot of damage has been done. It’s a very dangerous thing to be a public figure.
Listening to all of this in the news flow this week started me thinking about the matter of integrity. Integrity is about entirety. When we talk about “structural integrity” we’re talking about whether or not something is strong enough to remain standing, or strong enough to bear the weight of stresses that are placed upon it. While that might seem a fairly abstract concept, we all depend every day on integrity. When I drive across the long bridge over the train yard on I-40, I’m trusting the integrity of that structure to hold up me and a hundred other cars and trucks rumbling down it in both directions at the same time. You and I trust the integrity of, say, a pharmacist to put a cure in our pills instead of a poison. We trust the integrity of our law enforcement officers to deal firmly with the bad guys and fairly with the rest of us. We trust the integrity of our doctors, our accountants, our preachers, our teachers–and all of the many other folks we place our collective trust in–to not fail us in some way, to do well and consistently what they have sworn to do well and consistently. When you think about in this way, the fabric of our entire society is held together by integrity.
The issue of entirety is where this gets dicey. Technically, unless every part of the aforementioned bridge is 100% capable of carrying my car safely across, it lacks integrity. If they say, “You can be certain 80% of that bridge is great and guaranteed to not fall down”–well, I don’t think I’ll be driving on it, unless I know exactly where the 20% lacking integrity is. It’s not enough, is it, that my hamburger is 99% e-coli free? So integrity matters very much, and entirety is the true test. In our church of late we’ve been about the business of selecting leaders, Basically, what we are looking for is men with the quality of integrity. Why does that matter, and why is God concerned that church leaders have integrity? Just ask the people of any church where integrity was lacking. So God, like the Army, is looking for a “few good men” to step up and become foundational servants upon which the entire church can depend, men who won’t let us down. The “bar” is set high.
And so it should be. Because integrity matters. Trust matters. Dependability matters. Character matters. It matters in the church and far beyond. In a world that seems to care less and less about these qualities, a society which “mediocres” itself to a new low almost daily, it matters even more. But here’s the rub: There are no perfect men or women. If you doubt that, just look in the mirror. Indeed there are some very good men and women, stalwart examples of integrity who inspire us and earn our trust simply because they have walked under our inspection for a long time in the same direction. But, as I have heard it said, even at our very best we are never that far from our very worst. The Bible reminds us in Romans 3:23 “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s the reality of it. No person is 100% dependable, truthful, moral, trustworthy. No person is 100% anything except human–which translates–fallen. That’s our nature. That is why even very good men, godly women, leaders of stature and heads of state–even they can and will let us down. They, and we, are only human. That’s the bad news, and the truth about the limitations of human integrity.
But there’s good news. In fact, you’ll find it in the rest of that verse I quoted earlier from Romans 3. Look at it again, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and (all) are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” On our own integrity is just a word, an always unattainable ideal. But through Christ and his work in me, through his grace and redemptive power, I can become a person of integrity. Perfect? Not while I’m breathing earth air. But I can be a person being perfected, being completed through the ongoing work of God in me, as I begin to look and act more and more like him and less and less like myself. So let’s celebrate integrity, and strive for it. But let’s celebrate perhaps more loudly the God who takes the unstable, undependable messes that we are–and who finds pleasure in making us more than we are. And let’s be careful about throwing rocks at others who seem to have stumbled, for we are all merely fragile works in progress. And while rocks hurt, grace, both given and received, rocks!