Integrity is a word that used to be heavy. It used to mean something. If you had integrity 30, 40 years ago, it meant you were someone who was trustworthy. Someone who had thought the deep thoughts and come up with a value system that would not waver in the face of adversity. It meant your word could be trusted, and you lived by your principles. A person of integrity usually became a pillar in their community, a leader by example, a quiet hero.
However, over the years, relativism spread past the manicured lawns of the major universities and into general society. It’s an idea that has taken root in our current culture and is choking out truth like a weed chokes the flowers of a garden. America fired the Gardener, and our garden beds are unkempt and overgrown. Within the chaotic bramble of pluralistic theology and “causes” instead of communities the word integrity has lost its weight, its meaning.
It recently came to my attention that I don’t really know what this word means. Integrity is a word I have taken for granted and completely misunderstood my whole life. So I’ve taken some time to investigate this word and find the truth. It was very revealing.
In the past I thought integrity meant being a good person, maybe even an honest person, but mostly good. Someone who will probably do what they say they’re going to do because that’s what good people do. The problem is ‘good’ is vague. ‘Good’ can mean a lot of things and it leaves a lot of room for gray areas in our relativistic culture.
As long as I don’t lie point blank, smile at people, give to the local charity on some level and play by the rules I’m good, right? Just play by the rules, or at least look like I’m playing by the rules so that everything runs smoothly. Just don’t get in the way and don’t hurt someone directly, then I’m good.
What about a lie of omission? Or a half-truth? Is a lie a lie when you’re avoiding embarrassment and discomfort? How about smiles, smiles are good. But what about fake smiles? Is that a sneaky lie? There’s charity, charity is always good. Is it enough to just give old clothes and toys to the charity shop? Or is that really just making your problem someone else’s problem and calling it charity (not to mention the nice tax break if you ask for a receipt)? At least we still have playing by the rules, can’t go wrong there. Except when we’re having an “off-day” and we keep the appearance of playing by the rules (while we’re not playing by the rules) to bridge the gap until we’re “on” again and playing by the rules again. Is that another sneaky lie? Ok, just don’t get in the way, and don’t hurt anyone directly. Are we staying out of the way of someone who should be blocked? What about all the people we’re hurting indirectly, do they count?
Suddenly this version of good-integrity is looking really pathetic and dishonest. This version of integrity is lying to ourselves and everyone else just to maintain “good” despite the state of our hearts and despite the fact our communities are in tatters.
So what does integrity really mean? I looked on google first and they define it as someone who is honest and has moral principles. So, a good person, I’ve been down that road already, that can’t be it. Luckily for me (and you) I have in my possession a copy of Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary circa 1983! It is the size of a cornerstone, it weighs 20 lbs. It has every word under the sun. It is a thing of beauty. I’m getting carried away.
According to my massive dictionary, ‘integrity’ is a noun from the Latin word integer and the first definition is, “The quality or state of being complete; wholeness; entireness; unbroken state.” Wait a minute that has nothing to do with being good or honest. Isn’t ‘integer’ another word for number? How does that play in?
The fact that the definition included the Latin source for the word means this word has brothers and sisters. These siblings shed more light on the meaning of our word ‘integrity.’ Latin is a mother language that beget many languages we now use in the world, and in those languages there are many words that come from one Latin word, especially when it comes to English. I’m getting carried away again.
Let’s start with the mother-word, ‘integer.’ In Latin this means, “Untouched, whole, entire; in– privative, and tangere, to touch.” Privative is just a grammatical word that changes a positive term to give it a negative meaning. So this word literally means “untouched,” and if something is untouched it is by default whole. I feel the need to note, for those mathematical brains out there, that integer also means a whole number that is not a fraction.
Who are the brothers and sisters?
‘Integervitae’ – blamelss (‘vita’ is Latin for life, so this literally means: untouched life).
‘Integrability’ – the quality of being integrable.
‘Integrable’ – capable of being integrated.
‘Integral’ – whole; entire; lacking nothing; complete as an entity. Or necessary to make a whole.
‘Integrality’ – wholeness.
‘Integrant’ – to make whole; renew.
‘Integrate’ – to unite or become whole.
‘Integrator’ – one who integrates.
‘Integripallitate’ – a palliel line unbroken by notches.
I skipped a few, but I want you to get the picture. This family is all about wholeness. In fact, integrity is the last in line, it is the baby of the family.
So the integer family is a group that is whole, able to be whole, able to make whole, able to renew, able to unite. This is starting to sound like Jesus to me. How cool would it be if we as a Christian body rescued the word ‘integrity’ from the current understanding and brought it back to its original definition? What if we were known for being integrant integrators?
How did we lose this rich meaning for ‘integrity?’ How did we get from whole to good, maybe honest? My theory is this: If people are fractured in ideas and loyalties they have to lie to cover their fractures. Whereas someone with inner unity in thought and loyalty, has nothing to hide and no reason to lie. Someone with nothing to hide is always the same, whole and honest. I think integrity used to be understood as both whole and honest, until somewhere along the way the whole got dropped for the snappy sounding honest. Whole is boring, honest is marketable.
Nevertheless, the honest gets pretty flimsy without the whole. We need to figure out how to put wholeness back into integrity, and integrity back into us.
While I was in the process of writing this post I heard a podcast from the church, Emmaus Rd. Josh Heather was speaking, and he touched on this very subject. He even brought up how ‘integrity’ was derived from ‘integer.’ He talked about Jesus referencing the Shema (Duet. 6:4-9) as the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-31). Josh boils it down to God is one, we are one. We have the choice to give the one God our yes by giving Him our whole person. The devil doesn’t want us to be one whole person giving one big yes to God, so he sets us up to fragment ourselves. Josh said we need to become one person again, so we can give our yes to God.
We fragment ourselves. I had to think about what Josh Heather meant by this. After considering his message and my observation of people, I think it starts with adolescence. When we’re teenagers we take to heart messages that tear us down. To cope with the breakdown we start to compartmentalize. The break initially comes from something external, but after that we break ourselves over and over to spread out and hide what we’re ashamed of. Attention gets fragmented between various forms of entertainment, social media, work, and anything else we use to numb the fragmentation within – we fragment ourselves.
In my opinion, a good place to start on the road back to integrity and wholeness is prayer. In prayer, alone with God, we can empty all the compartments of our compartmentalized hearts at once. In my experience, this has to be done repeatedly. Each time stop up one compartment, remove it. Over time the different compartments will be eliminated until there is only one heart, one mind. We may look different than when we first started in our youth, but different isn’t bad. Different is a fresh start by the grace of God, sustained by His love. The fragments are mended in Christ. A broken bone is stronger at the break after it heals. In Christ our brokenness is our strength. We give Jesus our fragments, and He gives us integrity.
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary Deluxe Second Edition. Noah Webster, Revisions supervised by Jean L. McKechnie. 1983. New World Dictionaries, Cleveland, OH. Page 953.
“The Power of Your Yes.” Josh Heather. September 17, 2017. Emmaus Rd teaching series: Off Script, emmausrd.com