By David Hegg
Tradition has it that young Abraham Lincoln walked several miles to return what turned out to be too much change from a store owner. Similar actions during his growing-up years earned him the moniker Honest Abe. And while we still hear stories of such radical honesty today, the problem is they really do seem radical. They are newsworthy and quite frankly they shouldn’t be.
The virtue of honesty, a fundamental element in personal integrity, ought to be so common among us that when it is in operation, it hardly seems out of the ordinary. Sadly, it seems honesty is quickly being overcome by expediency as a virtue in our society.
Back in my high school days I dated a girl who held down a job at a local fast food restaurant. I can remember the excitement I felt the first time she gave my friends and me some free food. We thought it was great, and it never occurred to us we had knowingly eaten food someone else had stolen from her employer.
But I can still remember the day during my college experience when the free food incident floated to the top of my memory pool. Dr. Bob Smith came to our campus to lecture on being the kind of person who achieves both success and significance in this world.
He started with one question: “What’s your integrity worth? What would you trade your integrity for? Would you trade away your integrity to save a little on your taxes? How about to land a job? Would you trade your integrity for a falsified resume if it meant landing that position you are dreaming of?”
As he spoke, the question that came to my mind was: “Would you trade your integrity for a free hamburger?” Sadly, I had to answer in the affirmative, and that’s when I committed myself to never doing so again.
Integrity is a word we hear often but may not understand fully. Integrity essentially speaks to the consistency a person exhibits between action and beliefs. If you think honesty is a proper virtue, then when you act honestly you are exhibiting a high level of integrity. If, however, you decide to lie in order to get ahead, you’ve lost your integrity.
I recently heard some parents calmly advising others to “put down Grandma’s address” so their children could attend a school outside their prescribed boundary. Or how about when you buy a used car from a private party, and you ask them to put the sales price down as much less than the actual cash price, so you can save on the sales tax? Or lying about your age or that of your kids so you can get a discounted ticket?
In these situations integrity becomes a commodity rather than a virtue, to be exchanged for something that seems important at the time. But, sadly, every time integrity is undermined the very strength of the person and ultimately our society is eroded.
Human character is not the only place we hear about integrity. It also describes the internal consistency and strength of a whole range of things like bridges, electronic data, and even airplane wings. In 2007 when a bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing several motorists, it was finally determined that the “integrity” of the bridge had been undermined over time by several forces including substandard construction materials. The bridge had lost its integrity. And it is often heard in news reports following airline crashes that the inspectors are searching the debris to see if the “integrity” of the aircraft had contributed to the tragedy. When integrity is lost, bridges, airplane wings, and human character collapse.
And so it is with us. Anything that nicks our integrity, that erodes its consistency, ultimately weakens it. Each lapse sets a new normal, making future inconsistencies more likely. And even more problematic, the next generation is taking their cues from us.
When they see us trade our integrity for a few dollars, or a better position, why wouldn’t they consider that the proper way to get ahead? And all the while we are unaware that the bridge of our societal integrity is being undermined bit by bit.
As with many of our nation’s challenges, at first the idea of restoring honesty and integrity in a fully pragmatic society seems too overwhelming to even attempt. What difference can we make in the sea of humanity that calls America home?
Whenever I come face to face with enormous challenges, I remember some words my father taught me: We aren’t everybody, but we are somebody; we can’t do everything but we can do something; and what we can do, we ought to do; and what we ought to do, by God’s grace and in His strength, we will do. And somehow, committing to a life of purposeful integrity brings a level of satisfaction and purpose to life that no amount of free hamburgers could ever match.
So, what’s your integrity worth? Let’s commit to one answer: It’s priceless, and we can’t be bought.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.