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Integrity: the key to leadership

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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According to Scripture, virtually everything that truly qualifies a person for leadership is directly related to character. It’s not about style, status, personal charisma, clout, or worldly measurements of success. Integrity is the main issue that makes the difference between a good leader and a bad one.
(John MacArthur)

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. In my day, rackets were made of wood, with strings made of cat gut. (My children shudder at the thought.) Bjorn Borg was my hero; John McEnroe was the villain. Eventually, reality set in and my tennis aspirations became a story I will tell my grandchildren.

As a lifelong tennis fan, I never imagined that a betting scandal would one day rock the sport I love. But that’s what’s happening today. As the Australian Open begins, allegations of match-fixing are generating headlines. Reportedly, betting syndicates have bribed players to lose matches. Tennis authorities are now under fire from players and fans.

There is no better way to damage a sport than to undermine the integrity of its leaders. The same is true of any organization, be it a church, a business, or a nation. If leaders do not maintain personal integrity, they forfeit their right to public credibility.

You can think of CEOs who lost their positions and pastors who lost their ministries because of private moral failings. You can name once-revered politicians and celebrities who are now reviled for the same reason. No one is exempt. In fact, the more significant your leadership, the greater the scrutiny you face and the more catastrophic the damage your failures can cause.

Where is your integrity being tested today? As a Christian, what should you do?

Why are we tempted?

Let’s begin with a theological framework for our discussion. Why did God create a world in which we are tempted, an environment in which our integrity is so important?

All through Scripture we find a divine-human partnership. And yet, it would seem simpler for the Lord to do his work without our involvement. We have all sinned and fallen short of his glory (Romans 3:23). As the doctrine of total depravity teaches, every dimension of our lives is affected by the Fall. Even if we could refuse sin for an hour, we cannot think as God thinks or act as God acts. He could do so much more in the world if he did not invite our participation.

Conversely, he could leave things to us, removing himself from all involvement in our fallen world. Deists pictured God as a clockmaker who winds up the universe and then watches it run down. If God sat on the sidelines, he would bear no responsibility for what we do to his creation.

Instead, he invites us to partner with him in redeeming our fallen lives and world. As we will see shortly, our integrity is vital to this partnership.

God created the world, then commissioned Adam and Eve to “work it and keep it” (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). He called Noah to build the ark, then sent the animals and closed the door. God called Moses to raise his rod, then he parted the Red Sea. Jesus called fishermen to be his disciples, then made them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

We see this partnership at work in the creation of God’s word. When I began studying Greek in college, I was amazed at the personality differences I discovered within the various New Testament books. Luke the physician used medical terminology found nowhere else. John wrote simply and elegantly, while Mark wrote in short, energetic sentences. Hebrews is almost Shakespearian in its grammatical sophistication. If God simply dictated the words of Scripture to its writers, why these differing personalities? And yet we know that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Why does God invite us to join him in advancing his Kingdom? As I have considered this question, I have come to three responses.

One: God created us to worship him, but genuine worship is a choice. So God gave us free will, with the character options that gift entails. As a result, our Lord chooses to partner with us rather than coerce our obedience. Freedom requires the former rather than the latter.

Two: God is a Father who wants his children to maximize their greatest potential. Jesus taught us to pray to God as “our Father” (Matthew 6:9). He describes us as the children of this Father (John 1:12; Galatians 3:26).

As with any good father, our Lord rejoices to see his children grow into maturity. And he knows that freedom is essential to such growth. When we choose to respond to challenges with integrity, we form our character and please our Lord. Charles Spurgeon admitted, “I never grew half so much as upon a bed of pain.”

Three: God is glorified more fully when we choose to partner with him than when we are forced to obey him. If God created humans as a race of automatons that responded mechanically to stimuli, we would show him to be a brilliant inventor. But when we choose to respond obediently to his word and will, we show him to be not only our Creator but also our Lord and Father.

Steve Jobs was praised for the sophistication of the computers he invented. Imagine the response if he had created machines that could decide whether or not to follow our commands, then chose obedience.

It is to God’s greatest glory and our greatest good that he made us partners in his Kingdom work on earth.

Whom does God use most?

However, not all partners function equally. God uses us as fully as we are willing to be used. He equips the called rather than calling the equipped. It’s availability more than ability that counts with him. The problem is, some of us are more available to God than others.

Even those who rebel completely against God’s will do not stand outside his providence. He redeems their sinfulness for his greater purposes, though they forfeit the good that comes from those purposes. C. S. Lewis was right: “Whatever you do, God will make good of it. But not the good he had prepared for you if you had obeyed him.”

While God can redeem our failures, he would rather work with us than in spite of us. What characteristic does he most require for us to be most used?

Abraham “believed God, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Moses was more humble than “all people who were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 17:3), and God used him to liberate the Jewish people, produce the Ten Commandments, and give us the Law of God.

David was a man after God’s own heart, and the Lord made him the most revered king in Jewish history. Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank” (Daniel 1:8). His friends joined him in his commitment. And “God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (v. 17).

Paul chose to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), and God used him to write half the New Testament. John was faithful to Jesus even on Patmos, and our Lord gave him the Revelation.

What is the common theme of their stories? Integrity.

The English word comes from the Latin integer, meaning “intact” or “whole.” Hebrew words translated as “integrity” are tom (“completeness”) and tummah (“innocence”). The Greek is adiaphthoria (“soundness, purity”). To have integrity is to be intact morally. It is to be one person at all times in all places.

We should choose integrity, for “whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9). Solomon added, “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways” (Proverbs 28:6).

Integrity positions us to be blessed by God’s grace: “You have upheld me because of my integrity” (Psalm 41:12). David walked before God “with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all I have commanded” (1 Kings 9:4). Like him, we should pray for integrity: “May integrity and uprightness preserve me” (Psalm 25:21).

Why does God value integrity?

Why does God seek people of integrity to use for his Kingdom purposes? Consider two factors.

One: Our private lives will be made public.

Jesus warned us: “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3). Moses was clear: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

No leader whose private sins became public expected to be exposed. Each believed the lie that he or she could cover up such failures, that no one would know or be hurt, that the situation could be managed. This is a lie from Satan himself. He loves to draw us further and further into moral quicksand until it’s too late for us to escape. If you turn down the lights slowly, your eyes adjust and you find yourself in the dark.

God knows that our personal lives will affect our public influence. That’s why he most trusts those men and women whose integrity is most trustworthy. Epictetus noted that “difficulties show men what they are.” D. L. Moody was right: What we are in the dark is what we truly are. And God knows our hearts.

Two: People judge God by those who claim to represent him.

A bumper sticker claims, “Christians aren’t perfect—just forgiven.” While this is true theologically, it is less true culturally. Non-Christians have a right to expect Christians to live up to the values they espouse. If we betray the moral commitments we want others to follow, we lose moral credibility. If people cannot trust our character, why should they trust the One we represent?

How can we choose integrity?

Am I asking you to try harder to do better? Yes and no.

We must value integrity if we are going to demonstrate it. Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it. All effective leaders know that setting goals is the first step to achieving them.

So make it your goal to be a person of greater integrity today than you were yesterday. Value integrity as the key component in leadership and service.

Then admit that you cannot achieve this goal in your ability. You and I are fallen people. Sin affects and infects every dimension of our lives. We cannot accomplish God’s goals for us in our strength.

Here’s the good news: The will of God never leads where the grace of God will not provide. In this case, the Holy Spirit is ready to make you more a person of integrity than you have ever been.

Begin every day by submitting to the Spirit as your ruler and power (Ephesians 5:18). Pray through your day, turning your plans over to him. Then walk through the day with him, praying about your decisions and challenges, opportunities and problems. Ask his wisdom and trust his leading. Seek biblical truth whenever you need wisdom. Live close to Jesus, and the Spirit will form his character in you (Romans 8:29).

A good way to determine whether you are living in the power of the Spirit is to seek the fruit of the Spirit in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). No one can manifest these attributes consistently and wholeheartedly without God’s help. When the Spirit is in control of your mind and life, his fruit will be evident.

Begin right now. Ask the Spirit to control your thoughts and life. Ask him to show you anything that is blocking his work in your life, and confess all that comes to your thoughts. Submit your plans and day to him. Trust his power and purpose in your life. And he will make you the person of integrity your soul longs to become.

David Brooks: “You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.” The Spirit is ready to help you, today.

What should we do when we fail?

Am I suggesting that we must be perfect to be used by God? Absolutely not. But we must seek to be people of integrity. That fact includes the integrity with which we respond to our failures to choose integrity.

David’s moral failures are well known. Less regarded is his response to his failures. When the prophet Nathan exposed the king’s hypocrisy, David immediately admitted his sins. He repented, seeking God’s forgiveness. And God was able to restore and use his fallen servant.

When Peter denied Jesus three times, our Lord gave him the opportunity to reaffirm his love three times (John 21:15–19). And the fallen fisherman became the great preacher of Pentecost.

John Claypool told a story about a group of monks living in a monastery high atop a mountain. One day a monk came down into the village to buy supplies. A villager saw him, fell before him, and asked, “What do you and your fellow monks do up there in the clouds, so close to God?”

The monk smiled, pulled the man to his feet, looked into his eyes, and said, “We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up.”

When you fall down, get up. Admit your failure to your Father. Ask for his forgiving grace, and claim his cleansing love (1 John 1:9). Know that he forgives all we confess and forgets all he forgives (Isaiah 43:25).

Then he redeems even our failures for his purposes. Some of history’s most effective leaders were women and men who were able to share and use their mistakes to help others.

We worship and serve a God of grace. Our character is revealed less by our success than by our response to failure. When you fall down, get back up.


When Nehemiah was rebuilding Jerusalem, he put in charge of the Holy City a person who was “a more faithful and God-fearing man than many” (Nehemiah 7:2). This leader faced many challenges, including enemies of the Jewish nation and discouragement among the people. His example shows that we cannot always choose our circumstances, but we can always choose our character.

One leader’s integrity enabled him to lead an effort that changed the world. Five centuries after he helped rebuild Jerusalem, our Savior walked through its walls to our cross. Because Jesus was a man of absolute integrity (Hebrews 4:15), he could die for our sins and purchase our salvation. As a result, we will spend eternity in the New Jerusalem with God (Revelation 21:2).

Napoleon Hill observed, “It is the path of least resistance that makes rivers and men crooked.” Conversely, Warren Wiersbe noted, “The highest reward for a faithful life is not what you get for it but what you become by it.”

What will you become today?

Research by Ryan Denison