Not As Pleasing Men
Paul’s second non-negotiable of integrity is to serve with spiritual courage. The Thessalonians were being told that the missionaries spoke bold words to gain manipulative power over the new converts, and that at the first sign of opposition they would abandon the sheep. Essentially, Paul was being defamed as a mere hireling. Jesus had chided hirelings who feign protection but are cowards in the face of danger (John 10: 11-15). Self-preservation at all costs is a weakness, not a virtue. But was it true of Paul and the others? Again, he appeals to the spiritual courage they had demonstrated some one hundred miles to the northeast in the city of Philippi. Even after they had “suffered and been shamefully treated”, they “had boldness in…God to declare…the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thess 2:2). Paul literally hobbled into Thessalonica—blood still drying on his body from the beating in Philippi—and began to teach in the synagogue, the most confrontational and dangerous environment the truth of Christ could infiltrate. After several weeks (perhaps even 2 to 3 months by some calculations) of unvarnished gospel ministry, the truth hit hard upon stony hearts, at which point the missionaries were secretly whisked away by the new believers who wanted to preserve the lives of their only trusted shepherds. I can almost hear Paul, reluctant to be sent away, strongly contending for the opportunity to remain and teach yet again in the synagogue.
Are these the actions of a man without integrity? The answer is a resounding “No!” A godly man has nothing to fear because his conscience has been “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel,” and he speaks “not as pleasing men, but God” who sees what’s in the heart (1 Thess 2:4). Solomon, not to be outdone, declared that “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov 28:1). Check spiritual leaders! Do they demonstrate spiritual courage? Do they trust the work and the word of God? Do they unfold the scriptures without shrinking back? Do they give an answer with biblical clarity? Do they willingly invite questions about doctrine, ministry, character, service, etc? If not, the sheep will become vulnerable, and accusations will eventually have a legitimate target. Integrity marked by courageous leadership is a tremendous safeguard.
Battles Only God Can See
A third non-negotiable of integrity gleaned from Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is an unashamed transparency before God. A leader must consistently win the battles of his own heart if he is to lead with sincere and genuine effectiveness. Obviously, Paul knew that his heart was blameless in the war against his flesh. Though subject to failure like any sinner, he wasn’t in the habit of rationalizing or excusing infractions of God’s holy standard, and therefore freely summoned the incisive witness of His Creator. In 1 Thessalonians 2:4-5, Paul states, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.” As to questions of doctrinal error, prurient interests, flattering speech, or greed, Paul and the missionaries proved to be earnest and truthful among the new converts. If the case was otherwise, how could Paul speak strongly in the face of opposition without fear of contradiction? Were his heart set on using the Thessalonians for personal gain, he could have no such confidence, no such liberal invoking of divine examination.
Those who neglect the issues of the heart must develop elaborate ways of working around the truth. Like a master chess player, a leader who rationalizes sin carefully calculates every evasive move and counter-argument. He may appear composed to his followers, but deep within there is a cauldron of desires being cleverly excused in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Rationalization is the well-worn tool of the dishonest and insincere. Its familiar progression is easily sketched:
Temptation arises and the conscience warns of impending danger—
Rationalization: “Because I already hate sin as a general rule, I can be near temptation without desiring it or becoming vulnerable”
Rationalization: “I’ve been doing well spiritually, what possible damage could result from merely ‘noticing’ trouble?”
Sinful desires begin to consume the thought life—
Rationalization: “My life is very difficult, so how am I supposed to be strong all the time? Can I be expected to hold off every powerful enticement when I’m under such pressure?”
The conscience screams reminders about truth, family, friends, and consequences—
Rationalization: “Since I’m alone, none of those I love will be affected; and besides, this is a small sin compared to what I’ve seen others do.”
Sin prevails with the attendant guilt—
Rationalization: “I’m not as bad as others; I know God will forgive me; I’ll just leave this between me and Him; I don’t need anyone’s help because they’ll just be judgmental.”
Sin continues as a pattern, truth becomes dull, and sensations of guilt fade—
Rationalization: “People can be so legalistic; they think they’re the only ones that do anything right; God is much more loving and he wants me to be happy.”
While the above doesn’t capture all the tactics of the heart, it does depict the general anatomy of compromise. In the concise words of Proverbs 18:1, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” No matter what outward successes or popularity contests grace a leader’s trophy case, rationalization always gives birth to sin and ruin (Jas 1:14-15). Halting this terrible process requires the radical amputation of sinful desires, the complete ownership of failure through confession and repentance, and mind-renewal by the saturation of scripture and submission of the will. The prevention of sin, Jesus said, begins with radical surgery at the level of our affections:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matt 5:27-30)
The moment our minds entertain a sinful desire we must “flee from these things” (1 Tim 6:11), running as fast as we can to take refuge in the cross of our Lord and Master. Furthermore, rationalization cannot coexist with a full disclosure and ownership of sin. David’s confession in Psalm 51 is filled with expressions of personal responsibility:
“According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (vss 1-4).
True confession involves seeing sin as God defines it, without mitigation or blurring the lines. Taking ownership of every nuance of offense caused by our sin and bearing the weight of it—this is the heart of the truly penitent. The premier evidence that we have genuinely “owned” our sin is the desire to exonerate God’s character in the matter. Rather than justifying himself, David extolled the justice of God in every consequence resulting from sin (“blameless in your judgment,”, v.4). Lest we think otherwise, such personal responsibility was no picnic for the King of Israel! Shortly after the writing of Psalm 51, rationalizing his sin plunged David into almost thirty years of devastating family turmoil and years of insipid leadership surrounding him. Through it all, he never accused God of being overly harsh or unfair. David’s heart was broken and sincere, the kind of repentance with which God is highly pleased (Psa 51:17). When a leader is “a man after God’s own heart,” rationalization dies a natural death.
Finally, it is much harder to rationalize sin when our minds are saturated with the word of God and our wills are swiftly brought into subjection. We need clear definitions of sin, lofty views of God’s majestic holiness, and the perfect guidance of the Holy Spirit to fashion in us the character of Christ. If we desire divine power against temptation but neglect the “milk of the word,” the Spirit has nothing to work with since it is His truth alone that He uses to sanctify (John 17:17). On the other hand, if we study scripture without yielding our will, our lives will change very little, and the risk of becoming a Pharisee will increase. Ezra “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it…” (Ezra 7:10; emphasis added) because he knew there was no profit for his mind and heart otherwise. Spiritual leaders cement their integrity by learning early the value of yielding to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). If our motives for study and meditation are spurious, driven largely by curiosity, obligation, or intellectual pride, there will be, as A.W. Pink declares, “no real benefit to the soul.” Integrity is an anchor for effective spiritual leadership and influence. When truth is at home in our hearts, God smiles upon meager efforts, covering our limitations with His grace and wisdom. As the people of Israel used to sing, “O Lord, who may…dwell on Thy holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Psa 15:1-2; NASB).
Dear Savior, help me to do battle where no one else can see but you. If my conscience cries out, may I never suppress it in a foolish rationalization. Make me see the subtle gymnastics of my heart, and compel me to take full ownership of my sin. May your grace lead me to true repentance so that I remain highly truth-sensitive. Amen.