When my boys were growing up, I taught them from an early age about the importance of integrity. I used to say to them, “Boys, remember whatever else is true about you, if you don’t have integrity, you have nothing.” Fast forward a few decades and I’ve just released a new book, Character Still Counts, which details the twelve traits and virtues that are central to having character. I purposefully put integrity as the very first chapter because I believe integrity is the foundation of character. If character were a deck of cards, integrity would be the trump card. If you were building a house of character, the foundation would be integrity. Integrity would be “the first man up.”
The fountainhead of the river of character is integrity because all other virtues flow from this one character trait. The chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the most successful and wealthy businessmen in the world, remarked that he looks for three things when he hires people: intelligence, initiative, and integrity. He emphasized if those people don’t have integrity, the first two will kill you. This is my definition of integrity: “Integrity is always doing the right thing at the right time, in the right place, regardless of the cost or the consequences.” The reason I emphasize the last part of that quote is because there is a high price to pay for integrity. It doesn’t come cheap. It is costly. We are free to exercise integrity, but integrity is never free to exercise.
Integrity is a word that has such a deep and broad meaning that it is difficult to capture in just one sentence. C. S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing what is right when no one is looking.” I would tweak that a bit and put it this way: “Integrity is what you are when no one but God and you are looking.” Someone else said, “Integrity is doing what you say you will do unless it is wrong.”
One thing you should do is read the story of Daniel in the lion’s den and you will understand the high price you pay for integrity and the high cost incurred within integrity. Most every child is familiar with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. Too often we focus on the lion’s den instead of the reason that got Daniel put there. The reason was rather than do a simple thing like refrain from praying for thirty days, he doubled-down and prayed openly in public even though he knew it could cost him his life. For Daniel, even though the price of maintaining his integrity was high, he knew the cost of losing his integrity would be even higher. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, said, “My basic principle is you don’t make decisions because they are easy; you don’t make them because they are cheap; you don’t make them because they are popular; you make them because they are right.”
Integrity is sorely lacking (and missing) in our culture today, but I believe there is a thirst and hunger for it that is an undercurrent in our nation. Integrity that doesn’t go with the flow, integrity that doesn’t follow the crowd, integrity that stands its ground, integrity that doesn’t listen to polls, integrity that lives for principles, integrity that stands up and stands out even though it may cause you to stand alone. Think about this as you come to the end of this article. The most important question you can ask to determine if you are living with integrity is not, “Did I do things right?” but, “Did I do the right thing?” at the end of your life. That is the only question that will truly matter.
Many years ago, I was in Beijing, China, and I could not wait to go to the Great Wall of China. It took the Chinese more than two centuries to build this wall. It stretches more than twenty-one thousand kilometers and it was built for the purpose of preventing invasions from barbaric armies that would attack from the north. I was spellbound as I walked on top of that wall so thick you couldn’t break through it, so long you couldn’t go around it, and so tall you couldn’t get over it. I felt like I was standing on the most secure place on planet Earth.
I soon got over my fascination when my guide told me that within the first century after it was completed, China was successfully invaded by those northern barbarians three times. I was blown away. I asked “Did they go over the wall?” He said, “No.” I asked, “Did they go around the wall?” He said, “No.” I asked, “Did they go under the wall?” He said, “No.” I knew they didn’t go through the wall, so I said, “How did they get in?” He smiled and said, “Three times they bribed the gatekeeper and they walked right in.”
The Chinese failed to realize that the strength of the wall was not in the cement or the bricks; it was in the integrity of one person. There is a high price to pay to maintain your integrity, but there will always be a greater cost when you don’t.
James Merritt is lead pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia. He is an author, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and host of the Touching Lives television program, seen nationwide and in 122 countries. As a national voice on faith and leadership, Merritt has been interviewed by Time, Fox News, MSNBC, and 60 Minutes. He resides with his family outside Atlanta, Georgia.