In our current series, Echo High School has been walking through the book of Nehemiah. Last week we came to a point in the narrative that is particularly important right now. I shared with our students a painful story of how leaders we love and trusted deeply ended their ministry career in moral failure, and the devastating effect it had on so many people. It wasn’t shared to point fingers or to cast stones, but just as a warning and word of caution: moral authority takes a very long time to build and only a moment to destroy.
Nehemiah 6:1-16 – Nehmiah’s opponents tried to stop the construction of the wall by threatening violence. It didn’t work. The wall is almost completed, and so the opponents change their tactics: they try to assault the character of Nehemiah, attempting to ruin his reputation and damage his influence with the king, with the nobles, and even with God. It is an attack of false statements, slander, and blackmail. They threaten to accuse him of treason. They threaten him with assassination in hopes he will go into hiding. They hire a false prophet to intimidate him. Nehemiah survives this attack because he is a person of Integrity. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, eventually everyone will know about it. Nehemiah’s integrity puts him in a place to call their bluffs and refuse to play their games. This kind of response is only possible for those with nothing to hide. His integrity makes him above reproach – think about how rare it is to find someone in our world that is “scandal proof.” How freeing it would be to live with nothing to hide – no secrets that could tarnish your reputation or ruin your credibility. This is what Integrity is all about. If there is no false accusation that can possibly stick, you don’t need to fear slander. This story is remarkable because there is no deceit, no cover up, no counterplots, and no insincerity. This is totally different than the modern political scene! He refuses to be intimidated and answers their charges with open and direct statements. I love Nehemiah’s response in verse 8: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” We talked out with our students what it means to be a person of Integrity.
First, the price of integrity is doing more than just enough. Sometimes people mistake an attitude of “good enough” for integrity, but they are not the same thing. Integrity goes above and beyond expectations – it takes the high road even at personal cost. It never asks: “what is enough to get by?”…it asks: “how can I exceed the standard?” Here is a hard lesson about leadership, but you need to understand it if you hope to have influence. When it comes to leadership: “others may, you may not.” Others may, you may not. I often have conversations with teens about defining what exactly is a sin. What is really being asked is “how close to the line can I get without crossing it?” This is a very common attitude but it is not the attitude of integrity. “Enough” is o.k. for many, this is what makes it average. When you find someone that gives so much more than enough, it is remarkable. The exceptional will demonstrate a level of integrity that will win them influence. Leadership hinges on this principle. You can be skilled and talented and smart, but your influence can very easily be eroded by a lack of character. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a moment to destroy it. It means there is a price to pay if you want true influence. Let me show you what I am talking about from Nehemiah’s life, just to give you a window into what kind of guy he is.
Nehemiah 5:6-13 – The situation here is one of recession. The people of Jerusalem were such a mess financially, they had to take loans from people (they called them Gentiles) outside Jerusalem from surrounding nations at very high interest. The interest was so high they could not afford to pay back the loans. (Really? What do we know about that!) This causes them to give up property and land and even their wives and children as collateral. The people of Jerusalem had become slaves again to outsiders! Nehemiah shows up casting vision to rebuild the walls, and he discovers they cannot give themselves to this work because they are so busy working to pay off their debts. The government is in shambles, and the previous governors were actually a part of this problem. They took their salary, and then they used their position to take additional money and food and land. Property values have dropped and the Nobles are taking advantage of others’ hardship and turning a quick profit on the low market prices. Nehemiah comes in and he and his people offer a bailout – a financial package that tries to end the crisis. He gives his own money to buy off these loans, and he doesn’t charge interest. Not long after, Nehemiah discovers that the Jewish Nobles have again loaned the poorer people money at high interest rates and they are in the same exact crisis again! Charging interest to another Jew is against the law of that time. The people are back in debt and the crisis is back! Nehemiah is TICKED OFF. He confronts to the nobles and condemns this practice: “What you are doing is not right!” Loan to them, but stop charging interest! The interest is exploiting these people. You are taking from them the collateral they put up on loans you know they cannot repay! Stop taking advantage of your own people! He wanted to reform this practice of injustice. He charges them to give back the lands and property and money of the people. Here is the crazy thing: they agree with him without a fight. Why does this go so easy? Why can he come in and demand something so hard of them and they agree?
It is because the payoff of integrity is “moral authority.” Nehemiah 5:14-18 – Nehemiah’s seemingly impossible ask works because he has moral authority. They trust him. He explains in v. 14. Now, understand that it might have been enough for Nehemiah to just not be corrupt and to take his fair share and no more. “Enough” is not enough for Nehemiah, because he wants to demonstrate moral authority. “Out of reverence for God I did not act this way.” He actually surrendered his salary for 12 years to see his country out of a recession. He could have taken advantage of the low market to buy up land and increase his wealth, but he didn’t. As a result, the nobles followed him. They followed not just his words, but his example. A pastor named Andy Stanley said: “Moral authority is total alignment between your creed and your deeds.” It means you do what you say. It means you are a person of your word and are trustworthy. Nehemiah motivates the rich to care for the poor – loan to them without charging interest. They were inspired to be generous because he was generous himself. Nehemiah doesn’t lead because they call him governor; he leads because he has moral authority. He gives himself to the building of the wall and to seeing his country out of the crisis. He doesn’t sit back with a cushy and luxurious job, enjoying the perks of his position. Instead, at personal cost he leverages his wealth for others. Because the demands on the people were heavy, he didn’t take what was rightfully his. He did exactly what he was asking others to do and more. The nobles took him seriously because he had earned their respect and trust by going above and beyond. He could stand in front of the rich and powerful and lead them because for 12 years he led by example, walking his talk. He won a level of influence you cannot be given with a title.
If you want to lead with moral authority, you have to be willing to do more than you expect or require from others. If people see a discrepancy between what they hear us saying and what they see us doing, we lose the ability to influence them. Are you willing to do more than other people think is enough? Keep this in mind – this level of authority takes a very long time to build, but just a moment to destroy. Don’t sell your integrity cheaply, because it is very costly!
*Talk about with your teen about some leaders you know whose influence was damaged by scandal or a lack of integrity. How can our choices today guide us away from a similar fate?
*Talk about the dangers of the digital age we live in and how this forces a level of accountability on people. What used to be private can easily become public on youtube or facebook. A bad choice can go viral and be viewed by thousands. How can we protect our reputations and live with integrity online?