On 24 September 1988 the world watched as the most eagerly anticipated running race in history took place. In a stadium in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, eight men lined up for the blue riband event of the 1988 Olympic Games, the men’s 100 metre final.
I say eight men, but in reality everyone’s eyes were firmly fixed on just two – the American defending champion Carl Lewis and the Canadian world record holder Ben Johnson. They had face one another on the track several times over the previous two years and their meetings were always memorable. Just a year earlier Johnson had shocked Lewis by winning the World title in Rome in a world record time of 9.83 seconds.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world held their breath as the gun went off and the runners exploded from their blocks. The noise was deafening as Johnson pulled away from all of his rivals and was so far clear that, as you can see from this iconic image, he even had time to look round and raise his arm in celebration before crossing the line. Something he did in a barely believable 9.79 seconds.
Nobody had ever run faster. It was history. Nobody could believe their eyes.
With good reason. Two days later the IOC announced that Ben Johnson’s post race urine sample contained traces of stanozolol, a banned steroid. He had cheated.
He was stripped of his gold medal and returned home to Canada in disgrace.
Of course since then many, many other athletes have failed drugs tests, including five of the other seven runners in that race in Seoul, now known as the dirtiest race in history. And it isn’t just athletics. Nearly every other sport, most notably road race cycling, have been damaged by the use of performance enhancing drugs. Athletes, coaches, unscrupulous doctors and even countries are finding new ways of gaining an unfair advantage. Of course, they do it in part for the money and in part because of a belief that everyone else is doing it, so they’re just levelling the playing field.
But, by cheating, they are destroying the integrity of sport. Whenever an amazing sporting feat is achieved there are many who wonder whether what they have just witnessed is real, or chemically enhanced.
We have just seen the results of this, with Justin Gatlin’s victory at the World Championships in London over the same distance. Gatlin has had two doping offences (this would normally see a lifetime ban, but the first was caused by the ADHD medication he’d taken since childhood). He was booed loudly at the start line, then again after his victory. A triumph tainted by a past lack of integrity.
And the athletes themselves must, even on a very small level, feel that what they achieve is devalued. After all, they didn’t really do it themselves; the drugs did.
This is what cheating, lying and any other kind of dishonesty do. They affect our own integrity, but they also call the integrity of others into question. People become cynical and untrusting, after all we’ve been burned so often how can we possibly believe anything we see or hear?
Paul was facing a similar problem as he wrote his second epistle to the Corinthians. His integrity had been questioned by the church in Corinth. In his first letter to them he has promised to spend the winter in Corinth “if the Lord permits”. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, he had to rearrange that and then cancel the rearranged visit altogether.
Suddenly he’s being accused of saying yes when he means no. He was having his integrity and authority called into question, not because he had been dishonest, but because the individuals in Corinth will have seen so much dishonesty in their lives that their trust in anybody was very fragile. Their experiences had led to cynicism, which had then led to them accusing Paul of lying about something he had no control over.
This is why dishonesty is so destructive. It tears at the fabric of human relationships, causing mistrust, conflict and isolation. When trust between people disappears then everything we do is viewed with suspicion, and we all see others in the worst possible light.
This is what people mean when they talk about the hypocrisy of the Church. The times when those within the Church, or even the Church itself, acts in a way that, rather than pointing the way to God, points to those within it, exposing the lies and sin within them.
But Paul defends his own integrity by talking about the one we really can trust.
“It is God himself who makes us, together with you, sure of our life in union with Christ; it is God himself who has set us apart, who has placed his mark of ownership upon us, and who has given us the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the guarantee of all that he has in store for us.” (2 Cor 1: 21-22 GNB)
God’s mark of ownership on us, his seal upon us, is to be completely trusted. He has filled us with his spirit, made us his own and given us a cast iron guarantee of eternal life with him, because of the sacrifice of Jesus.
And Paul is saying that he, and Silas and Timothy, has preached this gospel to the Corinthians, has delivered God’s promise to them and has transformed them as a result. How can this be the case if he is working on his own agenda? Had he not been acting with complete integrity, had he not been following the wisdom of God rather than his own wisdom, how could God have revealed his truth to them? It would have been a butchered, incomplete, misleading message. But it wasn’t.
The only way to truly do God’s work and to deliver his message and salvation is to act with the trustworthiness and integrity he does, at all times. We belong to him, not through force or slavery, but we made a free choice to let God put his seal on us. As a result we have a responsibility to act honestly at all times.
Do we? No, I dare say we all let ourselves and God down on that score.
However, we have a God who forgives us when we do, and when we come to him in repentance. We have a God we can go to for the strength and the help to do better next time. We have a God who owns us, but treats us not as slaves or as property, but as his own children. Why would we do anything but try to please a God like that?