May 23, 2010

A Consistent Life

I want to start out this morning talking for a bit about what it means to be consistent. What are the different uses of the word consistent? Well, we can talk about the consistency of a mixture. I made some pancakes one time and I didn.t get the batter consistency very good. The friends for whom I was fixing breakfast loved me enough to eat them, but the little floury nuggets were rather unwelcomed surprises. Lisa likes an occasional glass of hot chocolate or chocolate milk. When I have the opportunity to make such a treat for her, if I don.t get the consistency right then she.ll have a glass of milk (hot or cold) with some chocolate sludge in the bottom. And as appetizing as chocolate sludge might sound (Dairy Queen can use that if they want as long as I get a cut of the royalties), an evenly mixed glass of hot chocolate or chocolate milk sounds even better. Or how about another use of the word consistent: When building a house you want the studs to be placed a consistent distance apart so that the walls have even support, but also so that when you go to hang things later you can find the studs. How about another: I worked at OfficeMax in the printing department when I was in seminary. In making documents for customers, a document in which the printing was inconsistent—too dark in some places, not dark enough in others—would not have been accepted by any of my customers. And the more consequential the document, the more the customer was a stickler on consistency. I think we can make that point more generally. The more consequential anything is, the more important the consistency of whatever it is becomes. How about your reputation? In order to have a good reputation, a person needs to be very consistent. For people to be trusted, they must exhibit a fairly high degree of consistency. We need to know that they will respond to stimuli in a given way.

Now, the opposite of consistent is capricious. Capricious might sound like a whimsical word, but if you think about it very long you will quickly realize that it is a very dangerous word. From a capricious person you never know what to expect. Something that made them laugh one time might make them cry another. Something that made them very happy might make them very angry if it happens again. Do you see the problem here? What would be perhaps even more frightening than a capricious person, though, is a capricious God. What could be more frightening than someone with the power to do anything and who also might actually do anything? Let me raise another important question in our discussion of consistency: To whose standard are we concerned with something or someone being consistent? When I made pancakes for my friends, the floury surprises were spread evenly throughout the individual cakes. I could have claimed they were consistent, but the standard of consistency was not even placement of the floury bits, but a consistently smooth batter with no floury bits. Though appealing to such a standard of consistency is eschewed in modern culture as “too traditional” or “old fashioned” or simply “passé,” in personal relationships there is indeed such a standard. In fact, folks who claim inconsistency as mod are all for it until it actually affects them. We tend to trust people who consistently do the morally right thing. As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that this morally right standard is set and revealed by God.s character. Praise the Lord that He reveals Himself in Scripture to be very consistent to His character. It is difficult to overestimate the comfort of verses like Hebrews 13:5, which proclaims that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And because He is unchanging, or consistent, in this regard, we declare positively consistent people to have characters that are reflective of God.s character.

Well, I say all this about consistency to talk to you about something else that most folks may not immediately associate with it. You see, because consistency can mean different things when used in different contexts, when talking about personal relationships and our characters we generally use a different word: integrity. Perhaps the most common definition of integrity is “doing the right thing when nobody.s looking.” But if you think about it, if we do the right thing when people are around and when people aren.t around then we are…consistent. Furthermore, if we are consistently doing the right thing then we are equally consistent with the standard of rightness for the world. Yes, I am claiming there is a single standard of rightness for the world—not a terribly popular proposition in this culture, but a true one nonetheless. I am further claiming before you this morning that this standard is the character of the God revealed in Scripture. Thus, when it comes right down to it, integrity is being consistent with God.s character.

Now, because we are a capricious people by nature, we need examples of integrity to follow. We could certainly find examples of a lot of folks who don.t have integrity. In fact, if you want to find a place with scads of examples of poor integrity to avoid, you don.t have to look much further than a couple of hours up I-95. But ultimately, while some of those examples would be beneficial, many wouldn.t be. Better would be to take a look at some examples of integrity in Scripture. And as it turns out, in our journey of telling some of the great stories of the Old Testament, our next character is regularly held up as a model of integrity. Joseph, one of the two Bible characters to get a whole Broadway musical named after him, is without a doubt a person of integrity.

The story of Joseph, spanning from chapters 37-47 in Genesis, is a masterpiece of biblical literature. At a broad level, the story is about God.s gracious sovereignty in caring and providing for His people in circumstances that seem stacked against them. It demonstrates in a decisive way how God is guiding the events of history and even when they don.t seem to be in our favor, He still intends them for good. Narrowing in a bit, though, it is the character of Joseph that takes center stage. In this, Joseph demonstrates himself to be a model of integrity in every situation of his life. In fact, with the possible exception of the story of his dreams as a teenager which we.ll discuss in a just a minute, Joseph is tone of only a few major characters in Scripture who have nothing negative presented about them (the others being Daniel and Jesus). And his incredible integrity comes from simply being consistent to what he understands God.s character to be. Indeed, integrity is being consistent with God.s character.

The first picture of integrity from Joseph.s life comes from his youth. Though he was not Jacob.s oldest son, he was the firstborn son of Rachel, Jacob.s favorite wife. Because of this he was Jacob.s favorite son. Jacob lavished incredible attention and gifts on Joseph that brought the ire of his older brothers. One of these gifts was Joseph.s famous coat of many colors. Well, since Joseph is public enemy number one as far as his brothers are concerned because of their father treating him as superior to them, you can imagine, then, their reaction when he has these dreams of his family members bowing down to him. Now today we might be tempted to wonder why this was such a big deal since they were just dreams, but in this culture dreams were thought to come from the divine realm and brought portents of reality (whether present or future) not immediately graspable by people. With that in mind, let me read you this story in Genesis 37:5: “Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said, „Listen to this dream I had. We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine.. His brothers said, „So! going to rule us? going to boss us around?. And they hated him more than ever because of his dreams and the way he talked. He had another dream and told this one also to his brothers: „I dreamed another dream—the sun moon and eleven stars bowed down to me!. When he told it to his father and brothers, his father reprimanded him: „What.s with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?. Now his brothers were really jealous; but his father brooded over the whole business..”

Well, the obvious question here is: how does this episode present Joseph as a man of integrity? Certainly such a presentation is not the main emphasis of the author, but let.s think on it for a minute anyway. We have already defined integrity as being consistent with God.s character. This means acting in ways that properly reflect the character of God regardless of the circumstances. Scripture upholds God as truthful. He is said to be unable to lie. Here, we see Joseph as unyieldingly truthful. Now, there are many folks who interpret Joseph as a spoiled brat in these verses, particularly with the mention in 37:2 of his bringing bad reports to his father on his brothers. Yet read simply as presented, there is no direct evidence of this in the text. Such an interpretation derives itself from an understanding of Joseph.s tone of voice in relating these bad reports and the substance of his dreams to his family members and the text gives us no clues on this. In fact, given the culture in which he was raised, if Joseph was a conniving, spoiled youth, it would not behoove him to alienate the source of his empowerment (his father) by relating the dream with the sun, moon, and stars to him. This is a point open to interpretation, but I tend to see Joseph as a young man wrestling with two difficult visions and doing so by relating them to the people whose opinions he valued most in his life. In the process he strove for consistent honesty without respect to the person to whom he was addressing his concerns. Now, could he have approached this situation with greater tact and awareness of the feelings involved? Of course. A seventeen-year-old cannot be expected to have the seasoned wisdom of a seventy-year-old, but this does not mean he can.t act with integrity to the best of his abilities. Integrity is not perfection with respect to the feelings of others; integrity is being consistent with God.s character.

As you might expect, integrity isn.t always a terribly popular thing and this case was certainly no exception. Sometime after telling his family about his dreams, Joseph was dispatched by his father to go check on his brothers in the fields again. When they saw him coming they initially planned to simply kill him. Fortunately the oldest brother, Reuben, spoke up in Joseph.s defense and convinced them to not kill him, but to simply throw him into an abandoned well to rot (planning all the while to come back later and get him out). When I was in grade school, my family went to a Christmas get together of a friend of the family. While there I was messing with one of the adults and he threatened to lock me in a closet if I kept it up. I did and so he did.
He meant it in good fun, but I panicked and started pounding on the door (much to his and my parents. embarrassment I.m sure) until someone let me out. All that is to say, I suspect being tossed in the bottom of a dark well with no way out terrified our young hero. Thankfully, the brothers did not leave him down there to rot permanently. After a few hours a slave-trading caravan passed by their location and, seizing the opportunity to be rid of their pesky younger brother for good, they sold him into slavery. This journey ended up with him being sold as a servant to the man in charge of Pharaoh.s household: Potiphar. Listen to the description of Joseph.s experience in Potiphar.s house from Genesis 39:2-5: “As it turned out, God was with Joseph and things went very well with him. He ended up living in the home of his Egyptian master. His master recognized that God was with him, saw that God was working for good in everything he did. He became very fond of Joseph and made him his personal aide. He put him in charge of all his personal affairs, turning everything over to him. From that moment on, God blessed the home of the Egyptian—all because of Joseph. The blessing of God spread over everything he owned, at home and in the fields, and all Potiphar had to concern himself with was eating three meals a day.”

Joseph could not have attained such recognition without the help and blessing of God to be sure, but how do you think Potiphar recognized that Joseph could be so trustworthy? He demonstrated the character of the God who blessed him in every situation. In this way, integrity is being consistent with the character of God. Well, after working for Potiphar for a few years, Joseph really began to come into his own physically speaking. The text describes him as strikingly handsome. His good looks and squeaky clean character provided an opportunity for him to demonstrate his integrity in a very real way. Potiphar.s wife became infatuated with him and started trying to construct a scene from Desperate Housewives. She pursued him relentlessly and was pretty clear that she wanted him for his body. And it would have been so easy for him to give in. He had complete access to his master.s house and could swing long periods of alone time with Potiphar.s wife. Yet he stood his ground. He stood his ground and gave a clear answer as to why in Gen. 39:8-9: “Look, with me here, my master doesn.t give a second thought to anything that goes on here—he.s put me in charge of everything he owns. He treats me as an equal. The only thing he hasn.t turned over to me is you. his wife, after all! How could I violate his trust and sin against God?” This, my friends is integrity. He knew he had earned the precious gift of his master.s trust and he wasn.t about to do something that could violate this trust. Such an act would not only offend his master, but, more importantly, would be a sin against God. Regardless of the temptation before him he refused to act in a way that deviated from God.s character. He was, in other words, consistent with God.s character. Integrity is simply being consistent with God.s character.

Yet as with his brothers this firm stand for integrity did not immediately play itself out in his favor. Potiphar.s wife managed to corner him in the bedroom one day and grabbed his clothes so he couldn.t leave. Yet, she didn.t anticipate how dedicated Joseph was to his life of integrity. He slipped out of his shirt, leaving it in her hands, and ran out of the house. I believe I heard something once about Hell.s fury and a scorned woman. Potiphar.s wife was a scorned woman. Her charms had just been powerfully refused by a lowly servant. She began to cry out that Joseph had raped her and produced the shirt he left behind as proof. When Potiphar learned of this, Joseph.s sterling reputation was for naught and he found himself thrown in jail. He found himself in a place that must have sorely challenged his dedication to being consistent with God.s character. His jail cell was different from the well into which his brother.s had thrown him only in kind, not degree. Yet he still determined to reflect God.s character and God rewarded him for it here just as He had in Potiphar.s house. From 39:20 and following: “But there in jail God was still with Joseph: He reached out in kindness to him; he put him on good terms with the head jailer. The head jailer put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners—he ended up managing the whole operation. The head jailer gave Joseph free rein, never even checked on him, because God was with him; whatever he did God made sure it worked out for the best.”

We don.t know how many years Joseph was in this situation, but after some amount of time the king.s cupbearer and chief baker were thrown into prison for some offense against Pharaoh. While there, each man had a disturbing dream. Knowing Joseph to be a godly man, they brought their dreams to his attention and asked if he understood them. Joseph agreed to listen to them, but acknowledged that any wisdom he seemed to possess in understanding their dreams came from God; demonstrating a humility reflecting that of God. Joseph interpreted their dreams with God.s helped and each man.s vision came true just as Joseph had told them. When the cupbearer, whose dream indicated his eventual release from prison, was in fact returned to his position, Joseph asked him to intercede on his behalf with the Pharaoh. But, the cupbearer forgot about Joseph until the Pharaoh himself had a dream. It was dreams that started Joseph this adventure and it was dreams that were about to get him out of it. Pharaoh had a puzzling dream and when he told his cupbearer, the man finally remembered Joseph and recommended the Pharaoh seek the godly man out. Just as Joseph was honest with his father about his dream when it would have been easier to be dishonest, he was humble with the Pharaoh when it would have been more advantageous to him to puff himself up in Pharaoh.s presence a bit more. As with the cupbearer and chief baker, Joseph acknowledged first that any wisdom he seemed to express came from God. He then proceeded to interpret Pharaoh.s dream. This dedication to consistent humility kept Joseph nicely in line with God.s character once again. After all, integrity is being consistent with God.s character.

Now, as for the rest of Joseph.s story, things from this point forward start to go pretty well for him. All of his patience with God.s timing and determination to reflect His character with as much consistency as he could started paying the dividends for which he had been waiting all his life. His story comes full circle from the precocious teen relating to his family visions of them bowing down to him. Pharaoh made Joseph his second in command and when his brothers arrived to purchase grain from him thanks to the severity of the famine that was plaguing the land they did indeed bow down before him. His lifetime journey of integrity finally paid off in a big way. In the character of Joseph we find for ourselves a model of integrity. And it.s a good thing that Joseph.s story serves as an example of such a life for us. Another story might not include such a realistic picture of a life of integrity. Striving to live consistently with the character of God is not an easy journey. Indeed, for Joseph it twice landed him at the bottom of life. In this capricious world, a person of consistency, a person of integrity stands out like a sore thumb. Such a person attracts all the attention of a jealous world. Such a person stands up above the fray like a tall nail. Well what happens to the tallest nail? Joseph could tell you. It gets pounded. Yet if that nail is standing on the Rock, it will not be forced down. Oh it will be bent and brought near to breaking, but if it doesn.t move from its base it will always stand out as special. Remember those pancakes I made? Many times in our lives we are very much like them. We are consistently inconsistent. This is our natural state. Such inconsistency is our norm. Integrity may mean being consistent with God.s character, but we stray from that character with, at times, frightening regularity. The call and power of Christ in our lives, however, is to be fully consistent with God.s character. The implication of this is that we cannot be so consistent without His help. We see this in Joseph.s story as well. Every time he had the opportunity to demonstrate his integrity he credited God as his source. We may live in a culture today in which capriciousness is celebrated and encouraged, but all people in their heart of hearts long for consistency. The desire many people have for some concept of “home” today comes from a desire for the comfortable feeling of knowing what to expect in a given situation. My friends, we know beyond any shadow of doubt the place where this consistency can be lived on a daily basis without fear of losing it. We can find such a home when we belong our heavenly Father and to the body of Christ and can make it a permanent reality by incorporating the consistent character of God into our own lives. This is integrity: being consistent with God.s character. Let us live each day in the consistency of God.