I first truly understood integrity the day I was laid off due to budgetary reasons. That might seem like a strange time to recognize something so universally praised as integrity. Don't get me wrong: It was painful. Losing my job in a bad economy was hardly a pleasing prospect.
And yet, the person who told me I was laid me off did so with integrity. He said he had wrestled, painfully, with the decision—and I knew he was being honest. He said he had prayed about it—and it was clear he had. He said he had wept over the decision—and the tears at the corners of his eyes showed he meant it.
A week after getting laid off, I stood in line at church, waiting to take Communion from the same man. In addition to being my boss, he was also a priest at a local congregation where I happened to be visiting. As I approached my former boss, the man who'd laid me off, he said "This is Christ's body, broken for you. This is Christ's blood, shed for you."
I believed him, then, too.
Any time there is a human relationship, there is an opportunity for integrity or a lack thereof. In its most basic sense, integrity means to live out your life in private in the same way you live (or talk about) your life in public. And that's exactly how my former boss lives his life.
Christians are called to the highest of ideals. We believe things like "death to self" and "the last shall be first," but we grapple and struggle almost constantly with living lives of integrity. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of Christian leaders who suffered great falls where it was made clear that their private lives look vastly different from the carefully curated lives they lived in front of their audiences.
But God calls us to another way. So what does integrity really look like?
The Bible and Integrity
The Bible is somewhat silent on the actual term integrity. There are a handful of proverbs that mention integrity in certain translations (Proverbs 10:9; 11:3), but most of them are of the "it's good to have integrity because those without it are wicked" persuasion.
Scripture is filled, however, with passages urging integrity in believers—it just talks about integrity without using that term. Think of the most famous New Testament commands for Christian living: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-25). Such a list is a command to live a life of the highest integrity, a life that brings goodness and blessings to all people.
In short, the Christian command to integrity is a command to both talk and walk in the way of Jesus. It's a life marked by love, compassion, mercy, justice, and honoring God's call above everything else. It's the life spoken of in 1 Peter: "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil" (3:10-12). That definition of integrity calls us to walk in the path of Christ, and to steer clear of hypocrisy.
A Life That Matters
When pressed, I suspect many Christians want to live a life that matters. It's not a bad wish, by any means. These Christians are hoping for a platform to proclaim the gospel in the way they are gifted.
For many people (myself included), a life that matters seems to mean important meetings with important people making important decisions. However, this is not the life to which God calls many of us. To be sure, there are some who are called by God to do important things with integrity, but many Christians have mistakenly equated goodness with greatness. And that can lead to a life or ministry where someone knows all the right things to say, do, or write to gain a following, but everyday life isn't really impacted.
Let me be clear: If you're in charge of a ministry or a small group, or in any kind of leadership for that matter, but everyone around you thinks you're a jerk, you're not living with integrity. God asks nothing more of us than to live out the fruit of his Spirit. Or in the words of Philippians 4:8, a life consumed with thinking (and, presumably, acting) on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable."
Obviously, God can use broken people and broken ministries however he sees fit. People living with no integrity can still be used by God for incredible things—even church leaders who have fallen the farthest and hardest have likely still told someone the truth of God. But that doesn't let us off the hook. God doesn't care how "big" or "small" our lives are, only that we are living lives that are filled with the integrity he commands. It doesn't matter to God if you're a famous person or if the only people who have heard of you are in your community. What matters to God is that you're living with integrity to the commands he has given you. That might mean you become a great leader with a huge following, or it might mean you live a quiet life being the best wife, father, or employee you can possibly be.
So how can we live a life of integrity? We must accept God's call to live in his will and walk in the footsteps of Christ. We must live the kind of life that Jesus lived, even if no one is watching you. We must obey the command of James 1:22: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." It's simple, and it's difficult. And it's all that God asks.
—Ryan Hamm is a writer living in Orlando, FL, where he lives with his wife, spends as much time at Disney World as you would expect, and is at work on his first book. You can find him on Twitter @RyanECHamm; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.