Judging CharacterDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 24, 2002
Selected highlights from this sermon
Our world is suffering, and much of it can be traced to an absence of integrity. We lie and take advantage of others. We spurn truth and transparency for the sake of a little more money in our pocket.
We need to instill in ourselves and our children the importance of a sound character—of integrity. We need to honor our friendships and speak the truth even when it hurts us. And if our integrity is already in disrepair, we must cultivate a life of repentance because restoration will not begin by words alone.
The topic today is judging character. Judging character. The subtitle would be “How do you recognize integrity?”
Would you bow with me one more time as we pray?
Now, Father, as your Word penetrates the deep closets of our souls, we ask, oh Lord God, that we might give you the key to those closets. For some this message is going to be difficult because it has implications far beyond their present daily existence. And therefore, Father, who are we that we should presume that the human heart can be changed? We know that it cannot except by divine power. Therefore, Father, work in my heart and in the hearts of all who listen in ways that could not have been predicted, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a man by the name of Richard Dortch. Some of you will remember that he was an associate of Jim Bakker’s back in the mid-80s during that great scandal that we’ve all heard about. Richard Dortch was a pastor for many years, a man of integrity, a man who was highly respected. But he lost his integrity when he tried to create some hush money for Jessica Hahn, a woman with whom Bakker had had a relationship. After spending some time in prison, Dortch wrote a book entitled “Integrity, What It Is, How I Lost It,” [and the subtitle was How I Lost it and My Journey Back].
Integrity. Integrity can sometimes be better described maybe even than defined. The Bible uses the word many times. For example, it says that Job was a man of integrity. In fact, that’s what God said about Job. God is speaking to Satan and says, “Has thou considered my servant, Job, that he has not lost his integrity, though thou has incited me against him to destroy him without a cause?” Wow. What a statement. Job maintained his integrity.
I notice that in the New International Version, Jesus is spoken of as having integrity. Remember when they came to Him and they said, “We know that you are a man of truth,” The NIV says, “We know that you are a man of integrity.” The problem is that integrity, or character, is in short supply. According to one survey, 70% of all college students cheat, which means they lack integrity. If they cheat, it also means that they lie, so I’m always wondering how you can believe the polls, but nevertheless, the simple fact is that integrity is in short supply. Integrity is the kind of thing that everybody wants others to have, or affirms that others should have. We want our corporations to have it. We wish Enron had had it. We want our schools to have it. We want our churches to have it. We want our politicians to have it. They are to be men and women of integrity.
A little girl said to her dad, “Dad, do all fairy tales begin with ‘Once upon a time’?” He said, “No, there are many fairy tales that begin with, ‘If elected, I promise...’” But we’d like to think that our politicians have integrity.
This happens to be the tenth in a series of messages entitled, “Who Are You to Judge?”, a study in biblical discernment. We’ve talked about judging doctrine, judging miracles, judging false teachers, judging entertainment, judging conduct and other such topics, and today we get to judging character, a message on integrity.
What is integrity? Steven Carter, in his book on integrity, says it is discerning right from wrong. It is acting on the basis of that discernment. This is an excellent way to characterize it—acting on that discernment. And then he says, third, it means announcing or making it public that you are committed to this particular course of action. I like that. Integrity. It comes from the same word as integer. I think, going back to my math days, that referred to whole numbers. Someone who is a man or a woman of integrity are people who are whole. They are not duplicitous. Did I just make up that word or is there one like that? They don’t speak with a forked tongue. They are whole, they are righteous, they are honest. When you do business with them you can depend upon them.
Now, what standard should we use? Some of you young women, wondering whether or not you should marry this guy... At the end of the message I may have some advice, depending on who the guy is and whether or not he has integrity. What standard shall we use? And by the way, there are some of you who have real challenges in life. Those of us who work in an institution like The Moody Church where everyone has integrity, you know integrity is no big issue. We don’t face those big issues. We just are committed totally to truthfulness and integrity. But if you are in a business like some of our prayer partners... My prayer partners who met yesterday morning to pray for me... One was sharing about... You know, he’s in an environment and a leadership position where he wants to be honest and is committed to integrity when all around is dishonesty and pressure to cut the corners and to compromise. That’s difficult. We have to pray for our business people.
But what is the standard? Take your Bibles and turn to Psalm 15, and you’ll notice this wonderful description of integrity: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” Who can be a guest of God? Who can come before God with a clear conscience? Who is the one who can stand in God’s presence and God is going to receive him? Ultimately only Christ is received, and we are received because of Christ, but if we want to have a clear conscience, if we want to be people of integrity, the description now begins. Some commentators have seen ten different descriptions here. I have limited them to five and grouped them together, and I think they will be faithful to the text if we look at these five.
First of all, you notice it says, “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right,” number one, “he speaks truth in his heart; and does not slander with his tongue.” He is a truth speaker. And could I add that he’s a truth speaker even when truth costs? He speaks truth even when it diminishes him, and even when it doesn’t make him look good. Shall I say he speaks truth, and this gets difficult now, even when the truth shames him?
This past week I was speaking to the president of a Bible college in another state other than Illinois. And he was telling me about a faculty member who was having an affair on the internet with another woman. And when they confronted the faculty member, he denied it adamantly until they gave him incontrovertible evidence. We can understand that, but a person of integrity speaks the truth even when it shames him.
The person of integrity speaks the truth even when it harms him. I read this past week that years ago in Chicago there was a baseball manager who refused to accept a run from his own team because his player had missed third base. No one else saw it. The ump didn’t see it. The players were livid. “Nobody saw it, Coach!” It doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of integrity. How many players would be willing to speak up and to say, “The coach made a wrong play here; I am guilty”? Integrity.
In fact, he speaks the truth, and now we really get down to the brass tacks. He speaks the truth even when it indicts him. There are some of you who are listening to this message who, if the truth were known, are covering things up that would put you in jail, and the problem is that when you come to worship God, and you want to sing, as we sang this morning, with joy and with gratitude, there is that nagging conscience that tells you, “Yeah, but...”
Remember that man I told you about two years ago who filled out an employment form for worker’s comp and lied on the form? He said that the accident happened on his job when it happened when he was hunting. And now he’s getting workman’s comp for the rest of his life. And the person who was preaching in the church said, “Don’t you know that this is wrong? You have to get this cleaned up.” And he said, “Do you think I’m that stupid? Do you think I’m going to go to jail?”
Listen to me very carefully. There are some things worse than jail, and one of them is to be out of fellowship with a holy and a living God. There are some things worse than jail.
How do we discern a person of integrity? Number one, he speaks the truth. Number two, he honors friendships. Could I say, by the way, I should have commented on the point of speaking the truth. I remember a story about some people who were arguing about a point of grammar. And they said, “Now you know, when a hen is sitting on the straw, is she sitting or is she setting?” And they couldn’t figure it out, so they thought, “Well, you know we’re going to ask the farmer.” Now farmers usually are not good at grammar. Well, let me stroke that from the take. Okay? They become very good at grammar within time. Let me change that.
But they said to this farmer, “What is it correct to say? The hen is sitting or the hen is setting?” He said, “I don’t care about that.” He said, “When I seen a hen I want to ask this question. Is she laying or is she lying? That’s what I want to know.” (laughter)
That’s why the Bible says in Psalm 120:2: “Oh Lord, keep me from lying lips (Listen to this.) and a deceitful tongue.” There are some of you who listen to stories without discretion and you share information without discretion, and that’s a prayer all of us should pray. Could I make it any more strongly than this? We are never more like the devil than when we lie.
First of all, he speaks truth. Secondly he honors friendships. You’ll notice that the text says, “He does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellow men.”
Have you ever wondered how you can find out who your real friends are? If you want to really find out, nothing works as well as doing one big public mistake. Then you’ll find out who your real friends are. It’s amazing how your real friends aren’t there if they are to be associated with you when things go bad. Here’s a person who honors his friendships.
Now let me tell you a story that’s happened a thousand times. It’s happening today. It’ll be happening tomorrow. It’ll happen next week because I’ve seen this throughout my whole life. A pastor friend of mine, in an entirely different part of the country, dismissed a staff member because of some serious breaches of integrity. Now that staff member knew that his pastor would never explain this to the whole congregation. He’d never go through the details because the pastor didn’t want to hurt the man and his wife and his family, but wanted to deal with it through counseling and accountability in a quiet way, but he had to say that you are dismissed. You know what that did? That freed the dismissed staff member to say whatever he liked about the pastor, to make up whatever story he wanted to make up as to why he was dismissed. And you see, it may not all be lies. It may even be partially true, but what he does is he takes a part of the truth, makes it the whole truth, makes himself look good, does as much damage as he possibly can as he leaves the church. Why? To justify himself and to show, you know, who’s right and who’s wrong. And the one thing he will not do is tell the whole truth unless he’s a person of integrity.
Notice what the Scripture says now. “He does his neighbor no wrong, casts no slur on his fellow man.” Wow. He’s willing to not use friends as a matter of convenience, and not break friendships just to make himself look good.
Let me give you a third characteristic. He keeps his commitments. Notice it says: “He despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord (notice) who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” Remember how the King James put it? Essentially the same way. “He swears to his own hurt, but he changes not.” That is integrity.
Now when we think of swearing, making an oath, we immediately think of marriage, of course. And we are reminded of the fact that at the altar there, the agreement is not, “I’m going to be with you as long as you meet all of my needs,” or “I’m going to be with you until I find someone else who is more conducive to my personality.” An oath is an oath.
And then there are promises. Now, some promises are conditional. The condition is implied. If I say I’m going to have breakfast with you and something happens, you understand that that’s not breaking a promise. But there are some promises that we make that are solemn promises that are not just words. We intend that person to understand that he can depend upon us, and then we break those promises anyway when it becomes convenient.
Let me ask you a question today. Can you trust people to keep a secret? That depends on what the secret is. If somebody comes to you and confesses some sin, that should not be hard for you to keep. We, as members of the pastoral staff (and I am sure the elders as well) have many secrets in our hearts that people have confessed. And I speak for all of us when I say that we do not have a hard time keeping those secret. But you know what sometimes happens is there are people who tell secrets, or they are sworn to secrecy, but if telling the secret makes them look good, or if telling the secret exempts them from criticism, forget it. In most instances the secret is told.
You know, this business of self-protection, this business of saying that there is a part of my life that everyone has to see me through the correct set of glasses because it’s very important, you see, that I look right, and therefore, we are willing to blow off our commitments simply because it hurts. A man of integrity swears to his own hurts. He may regret that he made the promise, but he keeps it because a promise is a promise is a promise.
This can be broken, by the way, in many ways. You can also betray people simply by silence. Another true story. Forgive the true stories that have to do with pastors today, but you have to understand. I’m a pastor and I associate with pastors. And pastors have stories. (chuckles)
A friend of mine, out of Bible college, his first church, he goes there and the deacons said to him, “Young man, there’s this wealthy man in the neighborhood who actually is a farmer. He has a great deal of influence in the community, but we don’t know whether or not he is saved. Why don’t you visit him and ask him, ‘Are you saved?’” So this kid, just as naïve and enthusiastic as most young pastors are, visits this man and asks him, “Are you saved?” The man was livid, and attended the next church business meeting, and stood up and said, “You know, this young pastor came and visited me and had the nerve to ask me whether or not I was saved. What do you think we should do?” And then he sat down. Dead silence.
Then the man stood up a few moments later and said, “I suggest that we vote him out of the church.” And they voted him out of the church. And he told me the only man who put his arm around him as he was leaving was the janitor. And that young man walked through the rain mile after mile after mile, and never became a pastor again. Those deacons, those wimps, betrayed him with their silence. Where were they when the discussion was going on?
People of integrity are willing to say, even when it hurts, “Truth is truth, period.” Do I have a witness? Are you guys hearing me today? (applause)
Number four, he refuses to take advantage of others. Look at this. “He lends money without usury.” This has nothing to do with modern business practices where you get money for interest. It means the exploitation of the poor who can never repay you. There’s nothing wrong with lending somebody money, and if he’s able to use that money to make money to have you then share in the money that he’s making through interest... But in those days, because it referred to gouging the poor and putting an impossible burden on them, what he said is “Blessed is the man who does not take advantage of people.” He doesn’t move in when he sees an opportunity.
Let’s go on to number five. He’s not for sale. He does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Now don’t interpret that to mean that he’d accept a bribe if the person wasn’t innocent. That’s not the idea. You have to understand the Hebrew text. It just means that he does not accept bribes. He can’t be bought. The Bible says in Proverbs 23:23: “Buy the truth and sell it not.” Don’t you dare put yourself up for sale. It is said in the world that everyone has his price. Let that not be said about us.
Do you remember the story of the man who said to this woman, “Would you go to bed with me for a hundred thousand dollars?” And she thought about it for a long while. She thought of her debts. She thought of her family. She thought of her needs. And then finally she said, “Hmm, for a hundred thousand dollars, yeah, I’d do it.” He said, “Well, would you do it for fifty dollars?” “Fifty dollars!” she said. “What do you think I am?” He said, “Lady, I know what you are. We’re only haggling about the price.”
Listen to me very carefully. There are some things in life that are worth being fired from a job for. There are some things in life that are worth flunking college for. Everybody else is cheating and doing their thing, and you want to live a life of integrity, and you can’t compete in this cheating environment. That’s okay. There are some things worth flunking for. There are some things that are worth dying for.
See, there are many people who have said, throughout history, that our integrity in terms of the Gospel and truthfulness are more important than going on living and taking care of our families even. We think of Sir Thomas More. We differ with his theology because he died as a Catholic, but we admire his integrity. Do you remember that story of how Henry the Eighth said to him, you know, “You’d better agree with the act of supremacy,” which put Henry the Eighth over the pope so that Henry the Eighth could get a divorce? Thomas said, “No. (He was the man for all seasons.) “Absolutely not.” And he was put to death because of it. Henry beheaded many, many people, but Thomas More was a man of integrity and said no. Integrity. There are some things worth dying for. Don’t be for sale.
Let me bring all of this together as we talk about some lifechanging lessons about integrity. Number one, it’s fragile. Oh, is this thing fragile. It’s like that vase on the mantle shelf that falls into a thousand pieces. Yes, you can glue it together, but even after it is glued together, you can still see the hairline cracks. If you don’t think it’s difficult to win integrity back, try to do business with someone whom you once defrauded and see how that works, or explain that you cheated to a partner and then work it out and try to recreate what your marriage once was. If you don’t think that integrity is difficult to regain, think about that.
One day I told somebody something about a Christian organization, and there were reasons why he should know this because he did have some influence. But I told him... I said, “I don’t want you in any way tell this story to certain people,” and he promised he wouldn’t. And he did.
You know, it’s interesting that even though it’s been maybe 20 years ago, when I see him, that’s the first thing I think of. And if I have lunch with him or breakfast with him, I say to myself, “Oh, we can be friends. Absolutely we can be friends, but as far as conversation is concerned, I’m only going to share with him what I want other people to know.” Integrity. It’s fragile. One breach can set off a series of dominoes that is unbelievable. Just one breach of integrity.
Secondly, losing your integrity begins with small infractions. It’s like a tire. Before it blows, you know, you say, “Oh, you know we went along and suddenly this tire blew,” but actually the experts tell us that there are cracks already that have been developing in that tire probably for months and maybe years. It usually begins by lying to your parents, lying to the school system, lying and not taking care of it, going through life, finding out that lies sometimes work and sometimes they don’t. And consequently you then become a liar.
Young ladies, if you are dating someone and you find out that he lied to you, there are two assumptions you can make with absolute certainty. In fact, I’ll use the word apodictic certainty. It’s probably not a word you use from time to time, but I remember it is on the first page of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” and every once in a while I like to use the word apodictic. (chuckles) It refers to absolute certainty. There are two things you can know. Number one, this isn’t the first time he lied. Number two, you can be sure that this isn’t the last time he’s going to lie.
You say, “But, oh, he promised. He promised. He promised he’d never lie again.” My dear friend, he just added one more lie to his list. Can you believe a liar if he promises you that he’s not going to lie? Throw the fish back into the pond. I don’t know. Are you guys with me here? (laughter) I need to know this today because we’re plowing some ground here. (applause)
Last and number three, restoring integrity begins with repentance. It’s not enough to say, “Well, I’m not going to lie anymore; I’m not going to do this anymore.” Don’t accept that. That’s like an alcoholic saying, “I’m not going to drink anymore.” A true liar will lie and lie and lie and lie. Remember what I told you. Most people don’t change when they see the light. Only when they feel the heat. It begins with repentance.
But what is repentance? Repentance is not only to turn from the sin, but it also (I believe this so deeply.) begins with restoration. You’ve stolen something from work. You have taken goods that belonged to others (tools and supplies) and you steal. The answer is not to say, “Well, I’m not going to do it anymore.” The answer is to take it back and say, “This is what I took, and this is what I am returning.”
You say that you have spoken dishonestly about other people. And by the way, the angrier a person is, the less evidence he needs to say what he wants. Did you realize that there are some people who the best thing that can happen to them in their day is to hear something bad about somebody? Well, what there has to be is repentance for that deceitful tongue that has been used to poison the minds and hearts of others. You can’t just simply say, “Well, I’m going to change.” No, you won’t.
If you have the habit of lying I’m going to give you a surefire way to break this habit. Every time you lie, and it just comes out of your mouth, and then you realize, “Oh, I lied,” you say to the person to whom you are speaking right at that time, “I want you to know I just told you a lie.” You rebuke it right there and say, “I’ve lied to you, and God is teaching me truthfulness, and so I’m going to tell the truth. I lied.” And what you have to do is to ask yourself, “What people have I hurt? Who shall I ask forgiveness for?”
Now, some of you have some very complicated situations. Some of you wives are living with a deceitful, dishonest husband, and you don’t know what to do because you know that he is being deceitful at work, and you know that his income tax is deceitful, and you are somehow a part of it, yet you are subject to his authority. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what shall we do?” I’m not sure if I have an answer that says one size fits all, but what I’d like to suggest is that you ask God what you should do. Talk to someone you respect and say, “What do I do in the midst of that situation?” But, there are many situations in which we know what to do. We have to make things right so that our consciences are clear.
The Bible says in the book of Proverbs, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by duplicity.” That’s so good I have to read it again. “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by duplicity.”
Now notice what the Bible says about someone like this. The last verse of Psalm 15 says, “He who does these things will never be shaken.” Wow. He doesn’t have to have a good memory because his story is always going to be consistent. He doesn’t have to say, “Well, you know, I said this to this person, and this to this person, and now I forget who I said what to so that I have to cover myself and try to remember.” No, he just says the same thing all the time. Integrity.
We all have deceitful hearts. We have all at times lacked integrity. What do we do? Let me answer that by asking you this question. How perfect do you have to be to get to heaven, to be accepted by God? So let me answer that by saying, as perfect as God Himself is with no daylight between you and God at all. None. If that’s true, of course, the Bible says, “If you should mark iniquity, who can stand?” We can’t stand in God’s presence because all of us have been deceitful. But what we do is we thank God that when we accept Christ as Savior, God puts our sin upon Jesus Christ. Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account, and we are cleansed and we are forgiven, and we have a brand new heart, and we do things differently. C.S. Lewis has a chapter in “Mere Christianity” in which he says that sometimes there are Christians who are nastier than non-Christians, but the nasty person would be even more nasty if he were not a believer. (chuckles) That’s encouraging, isn’t it? (laughter)
And so what do we do? We begin there by accepting Christ as Savior, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then we begin to say, “Lord, in all of these areas in which I have lacked integrity, how do I begin to make them right so that I have a conscience void of offense before God and before man?” The promise is, “He who does these things will never be shaken.”
Father, we pray for those today who, as the Word was being proclaimed, felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit, saying, “I lack integrity.” I pray today, Father, that you shall grant them the grace not only to receive your forgiveness, but the forgiveness of others whom they have wronged. Where sin is understood superficially, it is dealt with superficially, and liars go on being liars, and deceivers go on being deceivers, and promise breakers keep on being promise breakers. And on and on it goes unless you put a halt to it through repentance and restoration. Grant that, Father God, for your people today wherever they may be.
Now listen. I want you to talk to God. What has He said to you today? How many of you would say, “Pastor Lutzer, God has spoken to me this morning, and I know I have some issues I have to deal with”? Will you raise your hands please? All over the auditorium. Also in the balcony. Thank God for the many of you.
And there were others of you who didn’t want to raise your hands. Whatever God has said to you, do it.
And if you have never trusted Christ as Savior, that’s the place to begin. That’s the place to begin—to receive Him.
Father, do what you have to do in our lives, but make us honorable representatives of Jesus, and may we be willing to pay whatever price is necessary. May we buy the truth, and oh God, we pray that we might not sell it. In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.