Each month we ask two writers to respond to a quote by Dr. Stanley. During April we’re discussing the idea of integrity, and how our life in Christ is about more than doing the right thing. Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s article “The Undivided Self,” with responses from Aline Mello and C. Lawrence.
“In the Hebrew language, the word translated as ‘with integrity’ means ‘complete, blameless, whole, wholesome, innocent, upright’ and includes being honest and sincere. Although we usually think of integrity as simply being moral in what we do and what we avoid, it encompasses so much more. It’s being an undivided person. In other words, who we appear to be on the outside to others is who we actually are in our innermost being.”
by Aline Mello
Growing up, I tied my identity to different external things—my family, grades, and any accolades I could get my hands on. They were safe harbors for me, defining me in ways I didn’t have to wrestle with. And they weren’t all bad. My strong grades were a positive thing, and it was good I was so close with my family. Singing helped me win college scholarships; my writing garnered me awards. Those things molded me into a shape, and I was glad for that.
But when I left school (and with it, certain groups that had defined me), I came to realize I didn’t know who I was. This was especially clear on my birthday, when I had to choose which friend group to invite to the party. Should it be church friends? Friends from school? Friends from my volunteer work? I was a different person in each group, and if they were all together, I’d surely malfunction.
I think what Dr. Stanley says about integrity could’ve helped me in my predicament. Who am I when I’m alone? What would happen to my sense of self if my family or community was gone? And what would happen if I let go of all the masks? Perhaps, unbound, I’d become complete. This is what I’ve tried to do since my early 20s. I decided to be fully myself, doing whatever felt right—even if it didn’t feel completely correct—in all circumstances. I started pronouncing my sister’s name the way we do in Portuguese at all times, even when speaking English. I did the same with my mom, calling her Mamãe in front of others, the same way I do in private. In job interviews, I was my full self, not some more professional, grayer version that I thought hiring committees wanted to see. Slowly, it became more natural, though it is something I am still working on.
I can admit now that the way I used to restrict myself with external definers as a child was something I thought would keep me safe. But it no longer suits. And over the last decade, I haven’t become a new person. Rather, all the versions of me are coming together. I am becoming a whole new person. Emphasis on whole.
by C. Lawrence
I’ve spent a lot of time in churches—from vacation Bible schools and youth camps to Sunday services and adult discipleship retreats. And through all these experiences, discussions about integrity tend to follow a similar script: Don’t do anything in private you wouldn’t do in public, and vice versa.
Who am I when I’m alone? What would happen if I let go of all the masks? Perhaps, unbound, I’d become complete.
While there’s truth in that formulation, I appreciate how Dr. Stanley pushes our understanding of integrity beyond morality. Not that he negates it—a strong moral character, imagination, and practice are fundamental aspects of integrity. The problem is that morality simply isn’t enough. It stops short—is too small to help us become the people God created us to be. We could even say that moral behavior is merely the evidence of becoming whole as a person, not the substance.
With that said, becoming a person of integrity is not fundamentally about behavior but about a way of being: Our thoughts and actions all flow out of whatever understanding we have about who we are, why we exist, and what these things mean for the way we move through the world. Either that or they flow out of a misunderstanding and wreak havoc on our life. In the end, for the Christian, sinning isn’t so much “doing bad things” as it is a failure to be oneself—that is to say, a beloved child of God, a radiant bearer of the divine image, the hands and feet of Christ on earth.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3 ESV). Hidden with Christ in God—these profound and mysterious words are the remedy for my posturing; they offer relief for every temptation I’ve felt to construct an identity for myself out of the stuff of this world. Perhaps you can relate.
For the Christian, sinning isn’t so much “doing bad things” as it is a failure to be oneself—that is to say, a beloved child of God, a radiant bearer of the divine image, the hands and feet of Christ on earth.
Dr. Stanley says living a life of integrity means “being an undivided person. In other words, who we appear to be on the outside to others is who we actually are in our innermost being.” But finding out exactly what that means requires a long and arduous journey—it’s a journey we must make with the Holy Spirit and our fellow travelers who tangibly show us the love of Christ. Because the truth is, many of us often feel that we’re going through life as if stumbling through dimly lit terrain, where it’s easy to think the brightest lights are behind us, in the past, rather than ahead. We might sometimes feel so lost, in fact, that it’s as though we’re walking toward an endless night. It’s a difficult journey, one made all the more troublesome by our insistence on crafting an identify for ourselves. We layer persona upon persona like a trunkful of costumes. We put them on, one after another, until it’s impossible to remember the real person underneath.
The better path to becoming our true self is none other than the path of repentance—one that we’re to stay on our entire life. It is the only cure for the kind of delusion that tells us we are not made in God’s image but fashion our own. The true self exists beneath every layer of ego and pride, beneath every worry and fear and desire to be affirmed by the world. It's worth remembering that repentance is a lifestyle of returning to God, not self-flagellation. It’s the decision to—no matter what happens—keep pressing on toward the bright transfiguring light of God’s love.
Illustration by Adam Cruft