Sep 1, 2008

Integrity in Vocation

3 Min Read

Mr. Reagan is “a firm and unbending politician for whom words and deeds are one and the same.” This assessment found in East German secret police files provides future generations with a lasting example of integrity. These files must have reached the attention of Iranian leaders who released fifty-two American hostages held for fourteen months — on the very day Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981. His reputation for integrity meant all parties could anticipate a swift and sure response from a man of principle. Those files, recovered after the ransacking of the Stassi headquarters in Berlin, now hang prominently in the Reagan Library.

The word integrity means wholeness, completeness, or consistency. Derivatives of the word penetrate the vocabulary of many professions. In mathematics, we call whole numbers “integers,” and calculus uses integral equations. School integration meant we bused school children across towns seeking racial consistency. Engineers design structural integrity into our buildings, bridges, and airplanes, or their lack of integrity creates catastrophe in the news. Most recently, the lack of financial integrity in certain types of insurance and investments has brought turmoil where we expect soundness. In Scripture, when God appeared to Isaiah in chapter 6, Isaiah realized his own lack of integrity by confessing that he was undone, or in other words, he dis_integrated_.

In the vocational realm, to whatever line of work or responsibility God has called you, nothing matters more than maintaining integrity. Through the years, I’ve noticed how successful people must excel in three respects: They must develop compelling competence, they must produce a high volume or reach a large scale, and they must operate with integrity. If they lack competence, we call their work mediocre. If they don’t reach a large scale, we can still respect their quality, and may prize their work for its scarcity, though they won’t earn much. But if someone’s work lacks integrity, no matter how large or profitable they become, they bring dishonor upon themselves and their profession. To paraphrase Jesus, what does it profit a man if he (sells to) the whole world, but loses his soul? (Mark 8:36). My advice to people in any career stage always stresses the need to begin with integrity, and only then constantly improve quality while you increase volume.

Early in our careers, we have ample time to establish a reputation for integrity and improve our skills, knowledge, and productivity. The future holds out hope for unbridled success. We have plenty of potential, but not much to show for it yet. In time, we reach the middle and later stages of our callings, so our future opportunities narrow. Nevertheless, we have established a track record, and maybe we have accumulated some wealth. I’ve known a number of people of significant wealth, and for some of them, their material and professional success rings hollow because they forfeited their integrity to gain wealth. Every time we cut a corner, drop a detail, overcharge, or fail to admit and correct errors, we erode our integrity. These lapses accumulate quickly and sully our reputation. Most shamefully for the Christian, tarnished integrity undermines the credibility of our Christian witness and brings dishonor upon Christ and the Gospel. As the Westminster Confession 16.2 tells us, our vocational integrity should “adorn the profession of the gospel, [and] stop the mouths of the adversaries.”

Among the vocational heroes in the Scriptures, I find the prophet Daniel and his friends most intriguing and instructive for their example of enduring integrity. As a youth, Daniel resolved not to defile himself, and God gave him favor, learning, skill, and wisdom (Dan. 1:8–9, 17), the essential elements of vocational success mentioned earlier. In his middle years, by his integrity and godliness, Daniel distinguished himself above all his peers by the excellent spirit within him and because no fault was found in him (6:3–5). Even the crafty schemes and traps laid for Daniel could not dissuade him from serving God continually (6:16, 20), and so he prospered (v. 28). Daniel’s life reminds us of Proverbs 22:29: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”

Meaningful tests of integrity arise with adversity, hardship, and temptation, especially the temptation to avoid large business losses. People will work several times harder to avoid a financial loss than they will work to make an equivalent gain, so watch your integrity assiduously when contemplating a loss. Our ultimate example comes from Jesus Himself. Hebrews 12:3–4 asks us to “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility…. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

Whatever our vocational challenges, career stresses, or temptations to compromise for personal gain, we must remember always that finishing the course with our integrity intact will far exceed the satisfaction of any degree of material prosperity. Above all, I want to hear from the Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).