The Demise of Integrity as a Sign of Decline

John Carpenter

On December 8, 1941, the day after that day of infamy when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a famous speech of only 520 words. Over 150 of those words decried how the previous day’s attackers “deliberately sought to deceive.” Today, his surprise that the attackers had acted without integrity sounds almost naïve, even childlike. FDR and the American people were shocked by treachery. Nowadays we’ve become so accustomed to empty words, we hardly notice them. People used to say, “You’re only as good as your word.” Or, “A man’s word is his bond.” Those idioms are fading. Like the frog in the gradually heating pot, we haven’t noticed that, when it comes to integrity, we’re already frog stew.

We Christians now routinely bewail the decline of our culture, repeating metrics that demonstrate how low we’ve fallen: the divorce rate, the skyrocketing number of births out of wedlock, the percentage of Generation Z identifying as LGBT, etc. But have we noticed what’s become of integrity? Sure, it’s less obvious. But unfaithfulness is a leading indicator of decline.

The Adulterous Generation

The Lord Jesus diagnosed His generation as “adulterous” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4.) We immediately think of sexual immorality, but the foundation of adultery is unfaithfulness. We made a vow to “forsake all others . . . till death do us part,” and we don’t keep it. That Jesus indicts an entire generation shows that unfaithfulness can be cultural, a sin in the air of society that has become so common we forget it’s a grave sin—as Robert the Bruce’s leprous father says in Braveheart, “All men betray.”

The hypocrites of Jesus’ day, who claimed to abhor literal adultery, were adulterous nonetheless because they were unfaithful (Mt. 23:16-22). Their word wasn’t their bond. They thought they were being sophisticated spiritual leaders by seriously debating when, exactly, they could break a commitment. If they swear by the temple, for example, that’s not binding. It’s like crossing our fingers. Ah, but if they swear by the “gold of the temple,” then they’ve got to keep their word. If they swear by the altar – “I swear on the altar that I will clean my room!” – it doesn’t count. But if they swore by “the gift on the altar,” then they better get the broom and start sweeping. Those who reason like this Jesus twice calls “blind.” We’re blind when we don’t see what commitments are about; when we fail to see that we make commitments when we feel like making them so that we’ll keep them when we don’t feel like keeping them. Commitment-breaking is like adultery because after we’ve made the commitment, something comes along and seduces us to break it.

David publicly pledged to raise $800 for his pastor’s trip to Singapore. He promised he’d reach the goal even if he had to give it out of his own pocket. He made up a page-sized certificate, with a nursery school-looking border and clip art airplane which displayed for all to see his commitment to fund the flight. His graphic design skills wouldn’t win him a job as a layout artist, but he was trying. Soon, David got mad when he didn’t get his way on the elder board. So, he reneged his pledge of support for the pastor’s trip, broke his membership vows, and left the church. It was as if he had sworn merely by the temple or the altar.

Psalm 15 says the person God approves of keeps his (or her) commitments even if it hurts. David made a commitment. He made it publicly and boldly. Then, when it would hurt to keep it, because it would offend his ego, he didn’t keep it.

When the Lord Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Mt. 5:37), he meant, “be such a person of your word that you don’t have to take an oath, with your right hand raised, or sign a sworn statement, or publish a certificate to guarantee your earnestness because you’re dependable.” You can take oaths, if required. But Jesus says to be such a person of your word that those formal pledges don’t raise your likelihood of keeping your promise because you always do so. David’s “yes” might turn into a no. His certificates might be worthless.

Above All

So, is holding David to account petty? No. With everything our culture is being assaulted by, is a decline in integrity really that big a deal? Yes, it is a big deal. James repeats the Lord Jesus’ “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ command (Mt. 5:37.), adding that we should follow it “above all” (James 5:12.) Above all the commands, James says—most importantly—be a person of integrity, a promise-keeper. We’re called to say yes and no and then keep our word. We must flee from the adultery of unfaithfulness.

If there’s going to be a moral revolution against the demise of integrity, it will start with a spiritual reformation in the hearts of God’s people. The good news for us is that this reformation has already started with our Lord himself. He is often praised in Scripture for his faithfulness (Dt. 7:9). Jesus incarnated integrity. The Son swore to his own hurt – even the suffering of the cross – and did not waver in his commitment even when it hurt. It wasn’t just “my sin that held him there,” as the modern hymn says; it was his own iron-clad integrity. Jesus is the Promise-Keeper. He is, after all, the Word, full of grace and truth. By his Spirit, may we, also, keep our word and be full of both grace and truth in a culture running out of both.

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