When I was a child, there was an oath we used to convince our friends that we were REALLY serious about keeping a commitment we were about to make, or that we were telling the truth. You probably used it too. Do you remember?
Cross my heart and hope to die, Stick a needle in my eye.
Think about that for a moment - "stick a needle in my eye"? That's a pretty heavy consequence for a young child! You'd have to be pretty serious to make a commitment like that, wouldn't you?
Now, do you remember how a person could legally break even a "cross-my-heart" commitment without any repercussions? By crossing your fingers, right? I mean, you could commit to anything, and as long as you had those fingers crossed, you could renege with impunity. No one could touch you. All that oath taking and finger crossing stuff was pretty harmless when we were children. But, we aren't children anymore. And yet, it seems to me that as we have grown up many of us have kept right on using this finger-crossing technique so that we can find ways to justify breaking almost any commitment - especially when keeping the commitment becomes difficult, costly or even just inconvenient. And as a society, we are reaping the consequences of generations of finger-crossing in our commitments. Each year as a society, we spend billions of dollars to cover the costs of broken commitments in businesses, in marriages, in society in general.
Beyond the monetary cost, consider the personal, emotional, and spiritual costs of broken commitments. Many here today know the pain of discovering that someone we trusted - a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, an employer or co-worker - apparently had their fingers crossed when they made those "cross-my-heart" promises to us. And we still feel the pain of those broken commitments. It has shaped the way we view the world, and people. It may have even shaped the way we view God. That's why the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are so relevant for us today.
Matthew 5:33-37 (NKJV) "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' 34 "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 "nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 "Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
In this text, Jesus calls us to a new and different way of living! Jesus is calling his followers to be people of integrity. The word integrity, by the way, means: "wholeness" or "consistency." Some synonyms for integrity would be: credibility, character, fidelity, honesty, reliability, and morality. A person with integrity is consistent in what he says and what he does. His word is his bond. Having integrity means in your life there is no gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be.
In our text, Jesus says to his followers, "Simply let your 'yes' be 'yes,' and your 'no,' be 'no.'"
Jesus said his followers should be able to make one-word, verbal commitments to each other, and once those commitments are made, the word would be binding. The deal would be done. Finger-crossing was simply not an option for the family of God.
Can you imagine living in a world where "I'll be there" meant they would be there? Where "You can count on me" meant you could count on them? Where "yes" meant "yes" and "no" meant "no"? The whole world would be a very different place, wouldn't it? Jesus wants the world to be like that, and he wants his followers to lead the way!
Let me share with you two reasons why integrity is so important.
First: Integrity reflects the character of a covenant-keeping God!
From cover to cover the Bible reveals God to be one who makes commitments to us and then keeps them - every time! Just read through the Bible and see how God has committed himself to us.
John 11:25-26 (NKJV) Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 "And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"
Hebrews 13:5 (NKJV) Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
Psalms 37:28 (NKJV) For the LORD loves justice, And does not forsake His saints; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked shall be cut off.
Isaiah 41:10 (NKJV) Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.'
Now that's a commitment! And when God makes a commitment, he keeps it - no matter the cost. Even when keeping it would lead him to the cross!
Now, friends, I want you to understand, God keeps his promises - every time! When he says something, he means it - every time! He always keeps his word. Do you?
Ephesians 5:1 (NKJV) Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.
Every time we make a commitment and keep it, every time we keep our word, we are reflecting the fact that we are imitators of that commitment-keeping God! And when people see His commitment-keeping character taking root in us, it will draw people to him! It's contagious!
But there is another reason why Jesus calls us to lives of integrity - Authentic Biblical community depends on it! We cannot have authentic Christ-honoring community without integrity.
The early church was built on integrity, they were true to their commitments to God and to each other
Acts 2:42 (NKJV) And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
The words "continued steadfastly" come from the Greek word proskartereo, a word that means: "to make a binding promise or pledge." At its heart, it has to do with enduring or sticking to something even when it would be easier not to. It's impossible to have real friendships, healthy marriages, growing small groups, or churches unless we know we can count on one another to be there to fulfill our commitments - no matter what. Regardless of how we might change or how our circumstances might change, regardless of the cost, authentic Christ-honoring community depends on integrity!
That's why Jesus says, "In my kingdom, my people will be as good as their word. Their "yes" will mean "yes" and their "no" will mean "no". When they make a commitment they'll keep it."
Today we're going to look at three things you can do to maintain, or regain a position of integrity in your life. First of all -
1. We must mean what we say and say what we mean.
This text in Matthew calls us to a radical honesty. Let's get very specific here. Have you ever said something like this, "I will be praying for you"? And deep down you know that you have no intention at all of praying for them. Remember, a person with integrity is consistent in what he says and what he does.
Ever said to someone, "We have to get together for lunch or dinner sometime soon," when you know that that's about as likely to happen as you being included on the next space shuttle mission?
Have you ever made a commitment to attend an event, here at church, or in the community - and you said, "Count me in. I will be there?" But in your heart you had your fingers crossed, and what you meant was, "I will be there unless the sun is shining and I have nothing else I want to do."
Now, you might be thinking, "Nobody really takes those things seriously! It's just the grease that keeps relationships moving smoothly. No one expects us to keep our word on that."
Well friends, God does. He really does. Those casual commitments matter. Now, sometimes we will make commitments with the best of intentions, and for a variety of reasons, something comes up we never anticipated and we get derailed from keeping the commitment we made. That's going to happen from time to time, but what Jesus is getting at is: Does your "yes" mean "yes" or does it mean "Maybe" or "no"? How good is your word? Can people count on you to do what you say you will do?
Proverbs 22:1 (NKJV) A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, Loving favor rather than silver and gold.
Do you believe that? You run into that sort of moral platitude all the time in the book of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is, among other things, a textbook of practical advice on how to live in order to have a good life. A "good name" speaks of character, integrity.
On the cover of Time magazine back in the eighties were these words: "Whatever happened to ethics? Assaulted by sleaze, scandals, and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings." The article was a devastating revelation of moral crisis. It said, in effect, that when offered the choice between silver and gold or a good name, America goes for the gold.
Sometimes we make casual commitments sincerely with the best of intentions, but sometimes even as we say them, we know we have our fingers crossed. We have no intention of doing what we said we would do. Why do we do that? Often we do it because we want to be the good guy. We don't want to have to say, "No, I can't or I won't do that right now." We don't want to hurt people's feelings when they are standing right in front of us. But we create a whole lot more pain in the long run than if we had just spoken the truth in love about our limitations and ability to commit to them - We need to just let our "yes" be "yes" and our "no," "no".
We need to work on this. We need to ask God to give us an increasing sensitivity to what we say to people. We need to learn to say "no" when we know we can't do something and "yes" only when we have every intention of doing it. And when we say "Yes," we need to follow through on it even when it costs us. David gives us several character traits of the person who is living in fellowship with God.
Psalms 15 (NKJV) LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? 2 He who walks uprightly, And works righteousness, And speaks the truthin his heart; 3 He who does not backbite with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; 4 In whose eyes a vile person is despised, But he honors those who fear the LORD; He who swears to his own hurt and does not change; 5 He who does not put out his money at usury, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.
I want us to specifically note verse 4, notice how the translation, "God's Word" put it:
Psalms 15:4 (GWT) The one who despises those rejected by God but honors those who fear the LORD. The one who makes a promise and does not break it, even though he is hurt by it.
The person of integrity keeps his word even when it costs them greatly to do so.
Now, I don't think Jesus intends this to be a new kind of legalistic straight jacket. But I believe he IS asking us to be sensitive to the commitments we make, because God takes them seriously. And often the people we make them to take them seriously too.
Now, it should go without saying that if people of integrity keep the casual commitments that they make that they also are very serious about making and keeping formal vows. In this passage in Matthew, Jesus is not outlawing the making of vows altogether. He is trying to undo the finger crossing when making those oaths. But the Bible would readily affirm the usefulness of making formal vows, like marriage vows. The Bible is full of instances where men and women of God made legitimate vows, and they made them because they wanted to underscore the sense of purpose that they felt in their spirit. They wanted to invoke God's name and go public with their vows.
What does it mean to take an oath or vow? When one swears or takes an oath, he is making a solemn declaration or statement with an appeal to God to bear witness to the truth of what he is affirming, denying, or promising. He is calling upon God to be witness, judge, and revenger if he is not speaking truthfully, and by taking an oath, he is guaranteeing the truth of his affirmation, denial, or promise. We read about this in:
Hebrews 6:16 (NIV) Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.
In a promissory oath, one appeals to God to witness to one's sincerity of heart and faithfulness of purpose. And if one fails to fulfill the promise, God is called upon to judge and punish him.
When a man and woman stand up together in His presence before a crowd of people and say: "I take you to be my wife or husband. I am promising to be faithful to you and to love you as Christ does, no matter what happens in our circumstances. I am committed to you, no matter what!"
We live in what is fast becoming a commitment-free world. Everywhere we look it seems that people are trading in their power to make and keep commitments for the quick fix illusion of an uncommitted life - a life devoted to keeping options open so that we don't get tied down to commitments that might get in the way of our pursuit of happiness. In the midst of that kind of world, Jesus says, "I want you to make commitments to God and to each other. But if you make them, I want you to take them seriously and to lean upon the grace of God to enable you to keep those commitments. Because when you do it's going to make a difference. It's going to stand out. God will be honored and the Body will be held together and encouraged!"
So how are you doing on commitments that you have made? We must understand that our commitments matter, they matter to God because they reflect his character, and they are essential for developing authentic biblical community!
Let me ask you, "How are you feeling right now?" Chances are, if we have been paying attention, some of us are feeling a little uncomfortable right now.
Some are uncomfortable because deep in our hearts we want to be a person who can make commitments and then keep them, but up to this point our track record hasn't been all that good. Maybe we have broken some very serious commitments and we wonder if it's even possible to start over again.
Some of us have been so wounded by broken commitments from others; we are terrified of committing ourselves to anything or anyone where our commitment might not be returned in kind.
Listen, you need to know that there is grace and good news in our text for each and everyone of us who struggle with making and keeping commitments.
Our text tells us that there is power available from God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves - power to make and keep commitments.
Jesus alludes to that here in our text:
Matthew 5:34-36 (NKJV) "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 "nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 "Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.
What's he saying? You are all making these commitments and sealing them with elaborate oaths to convince people you will carry it out, but deep down, you know you can't do it. You've still got your fingers crossed. You can't control heaven, or earth, or the city of Jerusalem, you can't even control a hair on your head, but God is bigger than all those things that you might swear by, and he wants to make his power available to you to enable you to make and keep your commitments!
So just say, "Yes" and "no" and lean upon the transforming grace of God to help you keep your word!
The power to make and to keep commitments is not something we can work up for ourselves through gritting our teeth and trying hard. It takes supernatural power that only God can give! But you see, one of the commitments God has made to us is that if we are willing to trust him, and lean on him, he will give us all the resources we need to become people of integrity; regardless of our past track record; regardless of our current circumstances; regardless of an uncertain future.
He offers abundant unlimited grace and forgiveness to those who have broken commitments so that we can begin again and take a fresh run at it. There is no broken commitment that God cannot forgive!
He offers us His very presence - God himself has taken up residence in our lives and enables us to manifest the very character of Christ - who is the greatest of all commitment keepers!
He offers a family of believers - the church - who can pray for us, encourage us, hold us accountable, and give grace to us as we struggle together to make and keep our commitments to God and to one another.
That's all available to us - the question is: Will we avail ourselves of his offer?
The second thing you must understand in maintaining, or regaining a position of integrity in your life is -
2. There is never a good excuse to compromise your integrity
What will it take for you to compromise your integrity? If you have a price, I want you to know that someone will pay it- your boss, your "friends", maybe even your family. If your integrity is for sale, someone will buy it. What will it take - money, sex, a promotion, acceptance, approval? Whatever your price is, someone will pay it. If you want to narrow the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, you have got to become a person who cannot be bought. There will always be many reasons why you can compromise your integrity; there will never be a good reason.
The third thing about maintaining or regaining your integrity:
3. Your private life must match your public life
If you were to go to a movie studio and look at the set of a small town main street that they use in a number of films, the detail of the set would amaze you. The trees are real. The sidewalks are real. The fronts of the stores are authentic in every detail; the price of sirloin is posted in the grocer's window; a "Help Wanted" sign hangs in front of the drug store; there is a "spit-and-whittle" bench in front of the barber shop. Everything about this town looks genuine, but on the other side of the set there is nothing but plywood and two by fours. On the screen, everything looks real; behind the scenes it is easy to see that the set is fake.
This is how some of us organize our lives. We manage to make everything look great on the surface, but the view from behind the scenes reveals a different story.
It's easy to make your personal life look good on the surface. The only way to make the appearance real on a deeper level is to have a foundation of integrity. Integrity means that our lives are the same behind the scenes as they are "on camera."
A lady wrote Miss Manners wondering what to do about her husband. She said something to the effect of: "He eats like a slob at home. When we eat out he puts on his best behavior, but when he is alone with me he gulps his food, he talks with his mouth full, he uses his sleeve as a napkin, and he belches at the table." She went on to say, "When I complain about it, he just says 'In my own home I ought to be able to be myself.'" Miss Manners' reply was basically, "Isn't it a shame that we label our worst behavior as 'being ourselves' and our best behavior as 'putting on airs.'"
Maybe you can put on and take off table manners at will, but it doesn't work that way with integrity. Integrity requires that our private life be consistent with our public life - that we act the same whether people are watching or not.
If you feel that you have compromised your integrity, if the way things are in your life aren't the way things should be, it doesn't mean that you have become worthless or useless. It means that you have to take the necessary steps to make things right; stop making excuses, mean what you say, and get things in order.
You can't live on yesterday's integrity; nor should yesterday's mistakes keep holding you back. Integrity is now. It is an ongoing process and we have to live it every single day of our lives. Maintaining your integrity, or regaining your integrity, is a matter of meaning what you say, getting rid of your excuses, and doing what it takes to get things in order. This will enable you to narrow the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be.
Friends, what would happen in our relationships, our neighborhoods, our business, our church if each of us made the decision today to respond to Jesus' words and let our "yes" mean "yes" and our "no," "no"? What would happen if we stopped the finger crossing in our commitments? What would happen if we just said to God, "I want to be like you! I want to be a person of integrity - a commitment keeper." Do you think that might make a difference in our world? Let's find out!