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A little while ago, I got a phone call about a young man in our church who was, and had been for over a year, doing one of the most unseemly things you can imagine. I can’t even describe it to you graciously. It involved his abuse of children and the violation of his own integrity. When I heard about it, I ached. I hurt. I suppose at another time in my life I would have been angry with him, but I couldn’t get mad. He was a mess.

The thing that bothered me the most was that he had been very active in our church and had worked in a completely Christian environment. He had been surrounded by believers every day. He had moved with believers in the life of what, supposedly, is a healthy church, yet he was a mess. He was not a new believer–he’d walked with the Lord a long time, since his early teenage years–and it was painful. It was ugly.

That happened only two months after another occasion, when one of the leaders in our church–a man who carried significant responsibility–became involved with a woman in the church. You could say she blew the whistle on him, except she wasn’t acting in that spirit. They had not been involved in adultery, but they were terribly close. He had proposed adultery to her, and in the fear of her heart she called a member of the pastoral staff and said, “Help me.”

We helped that man. We helped that woman. We helped that boy. They’re still in our congregation. They’re still loved. But those memories are terrible things. They hurt.

And I asked the Lord, after the second one took place, Lord, what is the word I’m to speak to this congregation? The Lord didn’t answer me right then. He didn’t answer me for a month. It wasn’t until I was preparing to go speak to a group of pastors–the first speaking engagement I had had in a month and a half–when the Lord stopped me from speaking on what I had planned and gave me just one word. He said: integrity.

I was already prepared to speak. It was a two-hour drive to where I was going. That’s all the time I had left to get ready to speak on the subject. Nevertheless, I called my secretary and told her I needed her to drive me to the place where I was speaking. I was at the house early in the morning when the Lord gave me this word, and so I told her what books to bring from my office. She came over, and I got into the backseat of the car with those books and, for the two hours I had, I just started digging on this word.

And in those two hours I made one of the most satisfying, exciting discoveries I have made in the Word of God all year. It was an exciting thing that helped me perceive how integrity works in the human personality. But I also saw the absolute, essential need for integrity of heart.

You see, the problem with those two people I cited earlier was not their sinning. That wasn’t the problem. We all sin. But the tragedy of those two cases was that both of those men lived in the deceptive supposition that, because they were surrounded by righteousness, they would automatically be righteous.

Auxiliary to that fact is that both of them violated fundamental principles, not simply of morality. Long before their act, they had violated fundamental principles of integrity. They knew what they were doing, and they violated their own hearts. And I want to talk with you today about integrity.

I speak all over the world, mostly to leaders. I’m never in a conference but some pastor or group of pastors will come to me and say: “Jack, what is the key to fruitful ministry? What is the key to your own personal, private life with God?” They’re looking for one, key thing. More and more, my answer has come down to this: absolute integrity of heart before God.

The key to your growth, your fruitfulness, and your fulfillment in Jesus Christ–in life as a human being–is integrity of heart. The key to growth is not the Bible; it’s not studying the Word of God. That is a key to growth, and you cannot grow without the Word of God, but that is not the key. There are many people who study the Word of God that do not have a heart for God. Integrity has to do with a heart for God.

Prayer is not the key to spirituality. You cannot be a spiritual person without praying, but it is not the key to spirituality. Integrity of the heart is the single, foremost factor you must come to terms with in your own life.

I could go through and list any single thing you can think of that has to do with spiritual life and growth-giving, service, ministry-mindedness, Spirit-fullness, gifts, fruit of the Spirit. You could go in through a dozen or more examples, and I would still tell you the same thing. Those are not the key. Integrity of the heart is.

Integrity is a wholeness of heart before God.

Now, we have a problem with the word integrity because we don’t all think the same thing together. So a good place to start is to define it. Then, I’ll illustrate it in the Word. Then, I want to share with you the exciting discovery I made, and then we need to pray for it and open to it fully in our lives.

First, let’s define it. By integrity, we’re talking about a wholeness of heart toward God. Wholeness–I didn’t say holiness. Holiness flows from wholeness, but the essence of integrity is completion. You see, of David–who in his lifetime did some very unwise and sinful things–it is said that he had a heart after God. The Lord said: This is a man after my own heart.

Why? David says in Psalm 25, “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me.” In the next chapter, Psalm 26, he says: “Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I trust also in the Lord. Therefore, I shall not slide.” David says “There are two things I must do. If I walk in integrity and trust the Lord, I can’t slide. My steps will not lose their footing. I won’t fall off the path. I will make headway.”

Now, regarding the matter of integrity of heart, we need to see two large concepts. First, the word for integrity in the Old Testament occurs around 20 times. It’s the word tom. It means “complete.” The simplest comparison in our own language would be the word integer–a number, a single number, a whole number, an integer. Integer and integrity are related terms in our language, and the concept in the Hebrew means the same thing. It’s whole. It’s complete. It is not compromised or eroded by personal dishonesty. It means: I don’t sandbag myself. I don’t refuse to discuss things with my own mind or conscience–it has a commentary on me.

Every person within the sound of my voice has shared with me that feeling of your heart speaking to you, but you deafening your inner ear. And the saddest thing in the world is the speed with which I can close off the voice of my heart. I can stop it without a sputter. It may lift its voice again to be heard another time, but there will come a time when it will cease to speak.

And I’m dealing with more than simply my heart. I’m dealing with a God-ordained, internal umpire of my personality. And it can be seared. My conscience can be silenced; burnt-over, cauterized–it doesn’t even bleed anymore. Integrity is that which keeps your heart soft, sensitive and responsive. It is absolute honesty with God and yourself.

There are many things that numb the soul to maintaining integrity. And the reason I am dealing with this subject is because I think one of the most deceptive things that can happen to an individual believer is the supposition that, because you’re surrounded by people that love the Lord, you’re automatically insulated from the jeopardy of your own failure. Or that somehow being around righteous people does not require your own internal honesty with yourself and the Lord.

It’s the idea that you can go along and, if you feel critical, let yourself be critical because it feels good to be critical right now. That I can let myself pursue a particular path because I am not damming my soul–and indeed you’re not damming it, but you are draining it off. It’s being eroded of its power.

How many people come to church with a good-time-Charlie handshake and a slick exchange of words? And that becomes their entree into a group of spiritual people. “Praise the Lord. Hallelujah. Isn’t Jesus good?” But at the levels of their being, deeper levels, nothing really is going on.

How many of us have been engaged in conversations where the discussion took a tiny, negative bend, and something in your mind flashed a yellow signal: Don’t proceed along that line of conversation. Flash, flash. No further. But there’s something in us that wants to go ahead and say–not necessarily an impure remark, not a dirty thought, not a cheap shot–but something that we know we’re just not supposed to broach. And for any one of a number of reasons, we crowd on past that signal.

For example, you’re at a coffee shop with six or eight other people, all talking together, and the conversation takes an unfortunate turn. And probably everyone at the table knows they have entered into an area that they just need to get out of, but everyone is dispossessed of the courage to say, “Hey, let’s turn the corner and get back to where we were.” You don’t want to seem prudish. Don’t want to be a wet blanket.

And it occurs to me that the source of our inability to know how to address those situations is our lack of practice at addressing them. We don’t know how to graciously say, “Whoops, back up.”

Speaking with a brother on the telephone this past week, I wasn’t profane, blasphemous, or impure, but I said a dumb thing. And all of a sudden, having said the dumb thing, I stopped. I said: “John, wait just a minute. You know me well enough to know that I’m not trying to be a super saint or something, but I should not have said that. I said, “Just give me a minute. Jesus, neutralize those words, forgive me. Thank you, Lord. Go ahead, brother.” And we have a relationship that makes that kind of thing easy. He said, “I understand what you’re saying.” And we went right on. That was it.

In my life, hardly a day goes by that I don’t have to listen to that umpire saying, “Foul, that’s out of line.” And the determination of the sheer force and strength of your character, of the grace that’s allowed to flow through you, is directly proportionate to your willingness to walk with integrity of heart.

How it works out in real life can be seen in the 20th chapter, of Genesis. Abraham has lied about Sarah. He has claimed her to be his sister. He has done that to save his own head.

I think one of the cleverest things I’ve ever heard said about this came from Dr. Howard Courtney, the pastor of Angelus Temple. He was speaking to a group of pastors one day about this peculiar thing that Abraham did. And Doc, as only he can–he’s a preacher from Oklahoma and he’s got that southern delivery– said: “Brethren, this Sarai was a beautiful woman. Abraham was a transient in the land of another king, and he was not especially wealthy.” And then Doc said, “In those days, a poor man with a beautiful wife was a temporary citizen.”

Abimelech demonstrated integrity.

Now it’s interesting that the issue of integrity, however, does not have to do with Abraham’s lie. The issue of integrity in this narrative has to do with Abimelech’s response. You see, because Abimelech thought Sarah was available, he was apparently prepared to introduce her into his harem. But the Lord headed him off.

Abimelech had not come near her when the Lord said to him, “You are but a dead man. This woman belongs to another man.” And in Genesis 20:4, Abimelech says: “Didn’t she say ‘He’s my brother,’ and didn’t he say, ‘She’s my sister?’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.” This next verse says, “And God said to him in a dream, ‘Yes I know you did this in the integrity of your heart, and that’s the reason I stopped you.”

One of the guidelines used in interpreting the Scriptures is called the Law of First Usage. This law says that the first time a term or a concept occurs in the Scriptures it gives you a general guideline of what you might expect from this concept elsewhere in the Scriptures. It’s not the legalistic guideline, but it’s a very practical tool. When you encounter an idea, you go find where it was first used.

This is the first usage of the idea of integrity. Abimelech says: Lord, I didn’t know.

And God, the monitor of mankind–not seeking to judge but seeking to redeem–says: I know. I know you didn’t. I saved you from yourself because you were honest with yourself and with me.

The idea of integrity occurs frequently in the rest of the Scriptures. In the New Testament, it takes on different language. The word integrity isn’t used. There are two words: “the peace of God ruling in the heart,” and also the concept of worth–being worthy, walking worthy. The word worthy doesn’t mean how many brownie points you’ve gained with God. It means your willingness to keep the full weight of you personality from being eaten off by insensitive responses to the prompting of your heart by the Sprit of God or your own conscience. It means having integrity of heart.

I was talking with a businessman this week. It was very difficult. He’s an extremely strong man, highly successful, and would measure his success in millions. As I sat at lunch with him, because he’s a believer and a brother in Jesus, I addressed this issue very directly. I said: “You know, I think you understand that I say this in love, but there is a real problem in your tendency to try and carry over into the spiritual realm the same principles of business that made you a multi-millionaire before you knew the Lord.” That dynamism of personality, that efficiency with which you can get things done, does not gain any ground in the sprit realm. Spiritual development comes by slow growth and character, not charisma.

There is a reason the harvest fields are filled with the bones of people who have been dashed to oblivion by spiritual leadership that has failed them. It’s because people, being sheep, will so readily follow a voice and not listen deeply enough to find out what the heart behind that voice is listening to. People respond to charisma, but you don’t hear a whole lot of teaching on character.

What I’m saying to you today is that the key to your spiritual growth is integrity of heart. It’s the key to your fruitfulness, the key to your advancement, and the key to being protected from yourself. It’s the key to me being protected from myself. I must listen to the voice of my heart quickened by the Lord.

“Search me, O God, and know me. Try me and know my thoughts. Search my heart. See if there be any wicked way in me. Lead me in the way everlasting.” That’s David’s prayer from Psalm 139. “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me. O my God, I trust in thee. Let not mine enemies triumph over me.”

Integrity is the inner umpire of the heart.

Let’s talk about the exciting discovery I made as I was studying the word integrity in those two hours in the backseat of my car. I was using my Hebrew word translated integrity so many times in the Old Testament Scriptures, is the singular form of a word that is not translated. The way you make a word plural in Hebrew is by putting “i-m” on the end of it. And the Scriptures mention thomim, although we pronounced it Thummim. The Thummim is always linked with the Urim, and so we get “the Urim and the Thummim.”

For those of you, who don’t know about the Urim and Thummum, let me quickly tell you what they were. In Israel, when the tabernacle was erected, the Lord told them the specific garments and accoutrements that were to go with the high priest’s office. One of them was the breastplate, which the high priest wore. On the breastplate were 12 stones, each one of which was different and lovely, and represented each of the tribes of Israel.

But also in the breastplate was a substance–and nobody knows really what it was–called the Urim and the Thummin. Interestingly, the word urim means “lights” and the word thummin means “completeness or perfection.” And so “the lights and the perfection” is the only way you can translate it, but nobody knows what it means or what is was.

Yet when there was counsel to be sought of God, the high priest would go into the Holy Place–not the Holy of Holies, but the Holy Place–which was only lit by the lamp stand and so was very dim and he would stand before the veil of the Holy of Holies. And in that virtual darkness, standing before the Lord, he would ask God for guidance. And the Scripture says God would answer him by the Urim and the Thummin. We are never told how it worked; we are only told that it worked when they sought counsel from God.

But it’s interesting to me that thummim is the plural of the word that’s translated consistently in the Old Testament Scriptures as “integrity.” That means there is an umpire in the heart that tells you yea or nay. Integrity is the Thummim of the present day for the priest of God, which are all the people of God. There is one High Priest–his name is Jesus–and the rest of us are priests under his care, under his leadership. And all of us have been given a breastplate of righteousness. That’s what it says in Ephesians 6, “the breastplate of righteousness.” I understand what that is now. We have a protection, an arming, when we’re honest with our hearts.

When I was a little boy, my mama used to call me in sometimes when something deeply troubled her–a word she’d heard or something that had happened. I doubt that Mama ever said this to me 25 times in my whole life, so it was not an everyday kind of thing.

But I can remember her saying, “Son, come here.” So I’d come and I’d stand there. She would say, “I want to ask you a question.” And by the sobriety of her demeanor I knew that it was very, very important. So as I stood there as a little child, she’d say, “The other day when you were over there…” and she’d mention where I’d been or what I had done. Then she would ask me what she wanted to know, and she’d say, “I want you to answer me in front of Jesus.” And I would stand there, and I never learned to lie.

From the time I was a little boy, my father taught us very well. It was not without spankings, but we learned not just to avoid lying, but also why we shouldn’t lie–the erosion of life and character. I can remember my father having us memorize that “all lies come from the devil, you are of your father the devil, you are of the seed of the enemy if you permit the lie, the deception, and the forked tongue of the serpent to come into your own tongue.” It was not just religion-ism; it was truth, and you understood its power.

So when Mama said, “in front of Jesus,” it wasn’t because she thought we were about to tell a lie, because we didn’t lie very often at all. But she wanted us to understand that there was a deep, heart-searching issue at stake, and that it was more than just yes or no. She wanted the whole spilling-out of everything that was involved. It wasn’t just saying, “No I didn’t do it,” and then rationalizing in our minds how we could say that and make it true. It was the whole truth, “in front of Jesus.”

Integrity will preserve you. And I’m concerned about you because I know that the Bible says there is going to come a day when I not only need to give an accounting of my own life before the Lord Jesus, but the Scripture says I will have to give an accounting for the souls of all of those that are under my shepherd care. Someday I’ll stand beside the Lord Jesus not as a Judge, but as a responsible shepherd–an under-shepherd under the Great Shepherd–and I will answer to him for the things to which he’s called me to account. I’ll stand there and, as you come, I’ll have to answer to Jesus as to whether I was responsible for not telling you or not feeding you or not showing you or not demonstrating to you.

And so I’m talking to you about your integrity, and telling you that you have heard and that you have no security outside of integrity of heart. Being part of an alive congregation, being baptized in the Holy Spirit, being a serious student of the Bible, being an intercessor, speaking with tongues, functioning in gifts, knowing how to teach and exercise faith does not answer to it. For Jesus said, “On that day many will stand before me and say, ‘Lord, Lord, have I not in you name done…?'” And they’ll begin to recite marvelous works. But Jesus will say: I never knew you. Leave.

God knows us at the heart, not in our works (even though he does know our works). He knows us at the heart, not in our prayers (even though he does hear our prayers). He knows us at the heart, not in our studies (but he does call us to study). He knows us at the heart: “For man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I’m calling you to be sure that you’re protected by living your life in front of Jesus.

And the Bible says, “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship one with another.” And here’s a beautiful thing that happens when integrity is present: communion happens between brothers and sisters–real communion, not the superficial slosh of people that are in the same charismatic club. I will not give you one plug nickel of that kind of junk.

As your pastor, I’m required one thing–to answer for people’s lives before God. And the way to ensure that you’re maintained in the Lord’s way is to walk in integrity of heart, with the peace of God ruling in your heart. Not because you’re sinless or perfect, not because you’ve overcome every weakness, but because you answer in your heart to the summons of the Savior and say: “Yes, Lord. I’ll say yes, Lord.”

(1934-2023) was the former president of The Foursquare Church and founding pastor of The Church On The Way.