Above the law.

My two-year-old came up to me yesterday with his hands behind his back, an immediate sign in our household that some crime has been committed. Looking a little too much like one of Al Capone’s guilty henchmen, he asked, “Daddy, can I have a banana?”

What the catch was, I couldn’t quite tell at that point. “Sure,” I said reluctantly, “You can have a banana. Why?” It was then clear what had gone down in those all-too-silent seconds he spent in the kitchen prior to his inquiry.

“Okay,” he said heartily, showing me his hands, with a fifth of a banana clutched in one hand and the leftover peel in the other. After a brief internal chuckle and a scolding look, I explained how we need to ask before we do something, not after.

When my wife came home I told her the story, somewhat in shock that my son would do such a thing. She laughed and asked, ‘Isn’t that what you said the other day about work, ‘it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission?’ I guess he got it from you.’ This is where as a man you give one of those hearty laughs that betrays the fact that you’ve been exposed.

I’d like to pretend I don’t really understand what the moral lesson here was, but it’s kind of obvious—integrity (or really any moral principle) is easier to apply to others than it is ourselves. It’s easy to look at others and say ‘you shouldn’t do that,’ wag a finger, and walk away with scornful amazement. When it’s you under the microscope, though, there always seems to be a justifiable reason why.

As an example, how many of us have lashed out with our opinions about the whole Joe Paterno fiasco, said things like ‘How could he compromise his integrity like that?’ or ‘what about all the children that were hurt?’ And frankly, we should be outraged. It’s appalling, and I don’t mean to diminish that at all. At the same time, we don’t show outrage when we compromise our own integrity on a day-to-day basis. Instead, we excuse ourselves where we tend to hold others accountable, because we have a higher standard for others than ourselves.

‘Well, I would have followed my own principle, but I had reasons not to. I’m a special case in which the rule does not apply.’ We’ve all got a little Judge Dredd in us crying out in that infamous Stallone accent, “I am the law!”

In the psalms, it says the righteous man swears to his own hurt and does not change. In other words, he keeps his principles and his promises especially when it means it’s going to hurt him, cause inconvenience, or result in more work. He lives on principle, first with himself, because he’d rather have integrity than ease or comfort.

In my experience, the old adage “do as I say, not as I do” is a waste of your breath; people will inevitably follow your example. Your kids and your co-workers will see what you value by the way you conduct yourself, by the way you act. And if they see you disregard the principle you merely verbalized, it won’t really matter because they’ll see that you didn’t mean it.

Integrity starts with self-discipline at home, with me. It means choosing the more difficult path, the one that would rather stay the extra hour to do something right than cut a corner and get it over with. It’s the path of asking for a banana before you eat it, knowing that you might get a “no,” but will be able to sit empty-stomached and yet clear in the conscience before God.

Having kids is this great eye opening experience, because it makes you ask, do I really live the principles that I confess? They know my theology not by what I say it is, but by how I live. How does my life look from three feet?  

“That’s integrity. The choice between what’s convenient and what’s right. The lingering effect is that choice carries longer-term consequences than we realize at the time… it’s what you do when no one is looking; it’s doing the right thing all the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage. Integrity is keeping your word. Integrity is that internal compass and rudder that directs you to where you know you should go when everything around you is pulling you in a different direction… integrity is critical to everything we do because it is the foundation of trustworthiness in our own eyes, in the eyes of those around us, and in God’s eyes” (Uncommon, Tony Dungy, 11-12).

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