The weakest of all weak things is virtue that has not been tested in the fire.” —Mark Twain
Justo Thomas came from a coffee and coconut farm in rural Dominican Republic. Now he works at Le Bernardin, a three Michelin star restaurant in New York.
“Good morning, chef,” every sous chef, line cook, pâtissier and stagiere says to him, almost reverently, as they come in for the day.
No one appreciates more how phenomenally good Justo is at his job than them. The one time a year that he takes his vacation time to go back to the D.R., it will take three of them to scale, gut, clean and portion the 700 to 1,000 pounds of fish that Justo does alone, every day, in four to five hours.
Nothing in his carving room smells even faintly of seafood. Justo hauls a 25-pound halibut up onto the board. It takes him eight minutes to carve it up into perfectly portioned filets and pieces.
He wipes his cutting board with a wet cotton towel that is thrown away. On to the next fish, which is cut and portioned with the same, near mechanical precision. Wipe the cutting board. Throw the towel away. Only minutes have passed. Everything is immaculately clean.
The fish’s pin bones—tiny, nearly invisible ribs—must be removed with tweezers or needle-nose pliers to avoid bruising or gouging the delicate flesh.
Justo’s hands are a flurry of movement, each bone expertly found, the plier tapped on the cutting board to release each hair-like curve of cartilage. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap—he’s done and begins on another filet. Even among a world of top-notch chefs, the quality of his work is unequaled.*
How Do We Define This Word?
What do you think of when you hear the word “integrity”?
Is it simply “the quality or state of being complete or undivided,” as the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it?
If we behave the exact same way in private as we do in public, is that enough to say that we have integrity? By that definition, the people with the most integrity would be the schizophrenic and those with delusional disorders. They certainly don’t modulate their behavior in front of others.
Simply behaving the same way when we are alone as when we are in a crowd might meet this sterile definition of integrity, but it doesn’t mean that we’re behaving biblically.
Integrity is also sometimes defined as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” For believers, though, is rigid morality enough to qualify? If it were, why did Jesus Christ scorn the Pharisees steadfast devotion to the Old Testament law, plus all of their additions to keep a wide berth between them and sin?
What if, instead, biblical integrity had everything to do with us and a God whose Son was the only person on earth to live perfectly?
After citing Galatians 5:22-25 and the fruits of the Spirit, Ryan Hamm notes in his article on leading with integrity, “Such a list is a command to live a life of the highest integrity, a life that brings goodness and blessings to all people.
“In short, the Christian command to integrity is a command to both talk and walk in the way of Jesus. It's a life marked by love, compassion, mercy, justice, and honoring God's call above everything else.”
What if true integrity is to strain constantly toward living in God’s presence and his desire for how we should work, rest, speak and think?
What Is a “Blameless Life”?
In his sermon The Power of a Blameless Life, David Wilkerson muses over the verse 1 Thessalonians 2:10. “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.”
He points out, “That's a pretty powerful statement to make, to call on God as a witness to your holiness.”
How could Paul claim to be blameless? He says otherwise in Romans 3:10 when he reminds the church that “None is righteous, no, not one.” David explores how this apostle justified his statement by pointing out that he lived with “a consuming desire to honor the name of Jesus before all men,” no matter where he was or what he was doing.
That constant awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence inside him, of God’s unerring awareness of his heart, kept Paul in a life of careful integrity.
It doesn’t meant that Paul never sinned; however, his relentless seeking after the Spirit’s instructions meant that God’s work was evident in his life for everyone to observe.
When we tune ourselves to God’s voice, we live this kind of integrity.
At the end, we will kneel before our heavenly Father and the books will be opened (Revelation 20:12-15), and then we can look forward to hearing our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21 ESV).
An Invitation to Dinner
“In six years at Le Bernardin, and in twenty years cooking in New York restaurants, Justo Thomas has—like the overwhelming majority of people who cook our food—never eaten in his own restaurant,” Anthony Bourdain muses in his memoir Medium Raw, after having observed Justo at work behind the scenes.
He decides to ask the head chef to make an exception to this unspoken but industry-wide policy.
For the first time, Justo is able to see and taste the fruits of his labor.
The fish that he meticulously works with is now part of others’ craftsmanship, his halibut delicately poached with braised daikon radish in a sesame court bouillon. Out come other dishes, the ingredients of which he has never touched: oysters and sea urchin along with wakame-orange-scented broth. A salad of mâché and wild mushrooms dressed with foie gras shavings and an exquisitely light balsamic vinaigrette.
The years of work take tangible shape on his plate and those of the many other diners who are enjoying each succulent bite of fish without knowing who has toiled to make it brilliant. Justo quietly looks around with satisfaction, with joy.
One might even say it is a taste of heaven.
*This is a summary from Anthony Bourdan’s descriptions of the Le Bernardin kitchen in Medium Raw during his visit to Justo Thomas.