Russell M. Nelson
Adapted from an address given at a Brigham Young University devotional on 23 February 1993.
Just as a heart’s physical integrity is essential to a person’s physical well-being, spiritual integrity of heart is essential to a person’s spiritual well-being.

The mitral valve, one of four valves within the heart, is a delicate and durable structure situated between the left atrium and the left ventricle. It is a check valve, regulating the flow of freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs to the heart’s powerful pump. The heart’s mitral valve opens and closes about one hundred thousand times a day—36 million times each year. It consists of soft, billowing tissue, cords, and attachments.

In a way, the mitral valve is like a parachute. When in operation, a parachute’s sail billows to form a pocket of resistance that slows the descent of the passenger tethered to it by strong cords. Similarly, the mitral valve opens widely to let blood enter the pump, then snaps securely shut when blood is ejected from the heart. The work of the heart goes on day after day, year after year, with or without our awareness.

But things can go wrong with the mitral valve. If for any reason it doesn’t close completely, blood is regurgitated backwards. The high pressure exerted by the heart is then impelled directly toward the lungs. If that were to go on very long, the heart and lungs would fail. From my experience as a cardiac surgeon, I know that this problem may occur if one of the mitral valve’s cords ruptures spontaneously. When that occurs, stress on adjoining cords is immediately increased and the neighboring cords are much more prone to rupture. When the cords break, the entire mitral valve loses its integrity, and a life is in serious jeopardy.

Cardiac surgeons speak of the heart in terms of its structural integrity. The word integrity is related to the word integer, which means “entire” or “whole.” Integrity may be defined as “the state of being unimpaired.” Integrity also means “incorruptibility”—a firm adherence to a code of values. Integrity denotes a state of completeness. If any component of the heart loses its integrity, the heart is impaired and a vicious cycle ensues. An anatomical flaw leads to improper function, and improper function leads to further failure. Therefore, the ultimate objective of any cardiac operation is to restore structural integrity to the heart.

Structural, Temporal, and Spiritual Laws

Why do I use such a teaching model? The reason comes from scripture. The Lord said, “All things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal” (D&C 29:34). Thus, temporal or physical laws that relate to our divine creation often have a spiritual application. This should come as no surprise, because “all [of God’s] kingdoms have a law given. …

“And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions” (D&C 88:36, 38).

The Lord taught that anyone “who hath seen any or the least of these [kingdoms] hath seen God moving in his majesty and power” (D&C 88:47). Because He is the Creator of both the physical and spiritual components of our being, examples of the importance of structural integrity can teach much about the importance of spiritual integrity.

A model of spiritual integrity can be depicted using the mitral valve analogy. For example, let the sail of integrity, tethered by cords, attach to us as individuals. And let us label each cord with a spiritual quality such as specific attributes of character mentioned in the thirteenth article of faith—being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, doing good, and seeking things of good report. Other qualities of character could be listed, but these will suffice to illustrate the principle. As we study this illustration, let us think of someone we admire greatly—someone with spiritual integrity. His or her integrity is characterized by the strength of each of these cords of character. As long as this model is unimpaired, the sail, cords, and attachments are all secure.

But imagine what would happen if one of the supporting cords breaks—the cord of honesty, for example. If that cord breaks, additional strain is immediately imposed on neighboring cords of chastity, virtue, and benevolence, in accordance with the law of sequential stress.

Warnings and Expectations

In scripture, we have been warned of such risk:

“And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; … yea, lie a little, take the advantage of … thy neighbor. …

“Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines” (2 Ne. 28:8–9).

Such doctrines are dangerous because they are hazardous to our precious integrity. Yet some people are so easily tempted to lie, to cheat, to steal, or to bear false witness—just a little. We cannot commit a little sin without being subject to the consequences. If we tolerate a little sin today, we tolerate a little more tomorrow, and before long, a cord of integrity is broken. Sequential stress will follow, putting adjacent cords at risk.

President Brigham Young had strong feelings about such matters. On one occasion, he said:

“Many want to shade a little, rather than to work hard for an honest living. Such practices must be put away, and this people must become sanctified in their affections to God, and learn to deal honestly, truly, and uprightly with one another in every respect, with all the integrity that fills the heart of an angel. They must learn to feel that they can trust all they possess with their brethren and sisters, saying, ‘All I have I entrust to you: keep it until I call for it.’ … That principle must prevail in the midst of this people: you must preserve your integrity to each other” (Deseret News Weekly, 7[25 Nov. 1857]: 300).

President Young’s statement strikes a sympathetic response in me when I reflect upon the days our nine daughters enjoyed as college students dating their boyfriends. As a young suitor would call at our door, I might silently ask myself: “Would he one day call me Dad?” “Would he help care for me in my old age?” And sometimes I wondered—knowing well the history of Jacob, son of Isaac—whether any of these boyfriends would follow the biblical precedent of Jacob, who kissed Rachel as soon as they met (see Gen. 29:11).

I trusted each young man to be a man of integrity. So I echo those thoughts expressed by President Young: “All I have I entrust to you: keep it until I call for it.” Now, some years later, I am pleased to state that our nine sons-in-law have earned and have honored that trust we placed in them. Each one possesses integrity of heart, as do our daughters and our son.

Integrity safeguards love, and love makes family life rich and zestful—now and forever. But none of us is immune to temptation, and the adversary knows it. He would deceive, connive, or contrive any means to deprive us of potential joy and exaltation. He knows that if one little cord of control can be snapped, others likely will weaken later under increased strain. The result would be no integrity, no eternal life. Satan’s triumph would be assured. If this domino-like deterioration causes a run in our spiritual stocking, qualities of character are lost and our cherished integrity is gone.

The Apostle Paul warned of the lethal wages of sin (see Rom. 6:23), but the Savior didn’t limit His caution to major transgression. He specifically warned against breaking “one of these least commandments” (Matt. 5:19). His admonitions were meant to protect and preserve our precious integrity.

A surgeon can repair or replace a mitral valve that has lost its integrity. But no surgical procedure can be performed for loss of spiritual integrity of heart. Such breakdown is under individual control.

Self-assessment and Repair

The wise fisherman inspects his nets regularly. Should any flaw be detected, he repairs the defect without delay. An old saying teaches that “a stitch in time saves nine.” Recorded revelation gives similar instruction. The Lord said, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works” (Rev. 2:5).

If we are wise, we assess personal cords of integrity on a daily basis. We identify any weakness, and we repair it. Indeed, we have an obligation to do so. The words of Isaiah apply equally to all:

“Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong” (Isa. 35:3–4; see also D&C 81:5).

Private personal prayer is a good time for introspection. Morning prayer might include a petition for honesty, chastity, virtue, or for simply being of service to others. In the evening, there may be another quick checkup on all those attributes. We pray for the preservation of our spiritual integrity, then we work for it. Should any flaw be found, we will want to begin the process of prompt repair that will protect further disintegration of a threatened spiritual quality.

Self-assessment is done best in many little steps, asking ourselves questions such as:

  • What do we do when we make a mistake? Do we admit our error and apologize, or do we deny it and blame others?

  • What do we do when we are in a group where wrong ideas or activities are promoted? Do we endorse error by our silence, or do we take a stand?

  • Are we totally true to our employers, or are we less than loyal?

  • Do we keep the Sabbath day, obey the Word of Wisdom, honor our father and mother?

  • If we have made sacred covenants in the temple, how do we react when we hear evil-speaking against the Lord’s anointed? Do we honor all covenants made there? Or do we allow exceptions and rationalize our behavior to suit our preconceived preferences?

  • How do we honor our word? Can our promises be trusted?

President Karl G. Maeser once said:

“I have been asked what I mean by word of honor. I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls—walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground—there is a possibility that in some way or another I may be able to escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never! I’d die first!” (Vital Quotations, comp. Emerson Roy West, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968, p. 167.)

I agree with Brother Maeser. A promise is binding until we fulfill it or are released from it.

We should not be discouraged or depressed by our shortcomings. No one is without weakness. As part of the divine plan, we are tested to see whether we master weakness or let weakness master us. Proper diagnosis is essential to proper treatment. The Lord gave us this remarkable assurance: “Because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong” (Ether 12:37). But wishing for strength won’t make us strong. It takes faith and work to shore up a weakened cord of integrity.

We know the process of self-repair called repentance. Mercifully, we do not have to begin that process alone. We can receive help through counsel with trusted family members and Church leaders. But their aid is more likely to help if we seek it not merely to satisfy a formality but with real intent to reform and come closer to Christ. He is the ultimate physician.

Real faith in Him will provide real relief—and glorious rewards. He said, “Because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father” (Ether 12:37; see also Ether 12:27, 2 Cor. 12:9).

Mistakes may mar our worthiest intentions, and serious sin can stain with scarlet the slate of pristine white that was once ours. As none of us may escape sin, none of us may escape suffering. Repentance may not be easy, but it is worth it. Repentance not only bleaches, it heals!

Testimony Builds Strength

Now for some more good news: Not only can our integrity of heart be maintained, it can be strengthened. A testimony of the gospel is one of the most important fortifiers we know. So taught Elder Orson Pratt, who faced the burden of leadership imposed upon him. To know the truth for himself “required a witness independent of the testimony of others.” So Brother Pratt once confided:

“I sought for this witness. I did not receive it immediately, but when the Lord saw the integrity of my heart and the anxiety of my mind—when He saw that I was willing to travel hundreds of miles for the sake of learning the principles of the truth, He gave me a testimony for myself, which conferred upon me the most perfect knowledge that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and that this book, called the Book of Mormon, was in reality a Divine revelation, and that God had once more, in reality, spoken to the human family. What joy this knowledge gave me! No language that I am acquainted with could describe the sensations I experienced when I received a knowledge from Heaven of the truth of this work” (Deseret News Semiweekly, 2[14 Sept. 1867]:75).

Just as Orson Pratt’s unshakable testimony fortified him for great trials ahead, our personal testimony will strengthen us for future challenges. Challenges come to a heart surgeon every day. From many years of experience, I learned that the integrity of my team’s performance was absolutely essential to the success of an operation. Any serious misstep, even unintentional, could nullify the fervent prayers of a patient even when fortified by great faith of family and friends. I learned that desired blessings come only when all necessary laws are obeyed. Hence, the demands of obedience can be painful. Sanctification is neither simple nor quick.

Speaking of His Saints in the latter days, the Lord said:

“They must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.

“For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (D&C 101:4–5).

If President Young could speak today, he might counsel us as he did in his day:

“In all your business transactions, words, and communications, if you commit [a wrong] act, repent of that immediately, and call upon God to deliver you from evil and give you the light of His spirit. Never do a thing that your conscience, and the light within you, tell you is wrong. Never do a wrong, but do all the good you possibly can. Never do a thing to mar the peaceable influence of the Holy Spirit in you; then whatever you are engaged in—whether in business, in the dance, or in the pulpit—you are ready to officiate at any time in any of the ordinances of the House of God. If I commit an overt act, the Lord knows the integrity of my heart, and, through sincere repentance, He forgives me” (Deseret News Semiweekly, 2 [3 Dec. 1867]:86).

President Young linked the integrity of his heart to forgiveness from the Lord. Forgiveness can be earned only through full repentance. Truly, the miracle of forgiveness finalizes the healing of ruptured cords of spiritual integrity.

Commitment to Integrity

Our personal integrity will be protected by prior commitments. Job secured his commitment to integrity before facing a challenge. He wrote:

“All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;

“My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit. …

“Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me” (Job 27:3–5).

Job knew he would face his maker one day in judgment. He recorded this hope: “Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God may know mine integrity” (Job 31:6).

Shakespeare also penned a strong prior commitment to integrity through lines he gave to his character Tarquinius in the poem Lucrece. During a moment of mental weakness, Tarquinius contemplated the conquest of a woman in lust. He temporarily repaired that flaw in his own thinking when he declared:

What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?

(Act 1, lines 211–15.)

“Pawning his honor to obtain his lust,” however, Tarquinius rejected wisdom (act 1, line 156). As a result, he lost his integrity, then his life.

Commitments to integrity are learned from parents.

A proverb teaches that “the just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him” (Prov. 20:7).

The Prophet Joseph Smith appreciated the integrity of his faithful brother, Hyrum. So did the Lord, who said: “Blessed is my servant Hyrum Smith; for I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me” (D&C 124:15). The Prophet Joseph added:

“Blessed of the Lord is my brother Hyrum for the integrity of his heart; he shall be girt about with strength[;] truth and faithfulness shall be the strength of his loins. From generation to generation he shall be a shaft in the hand of his God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 40).

That prophecy has been fulfilled. Direct descendants of Hyrum Smith stand as strong leaders of the Church today. Likewise, the integrity we develop now will be a model for our own children. Generations yet unborn will be influenced by our integrity of heart.

Identity and Integrity

If my fondest wish could be granted, it would be that we know who we really are, and that we know we come from premortal realms where we were numbered “among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.

“Even before [we] were born, [we], with many others, received [our] first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men” (D&C 138:55–56; see also Abr. 3:22).

Our precious identity deserves our precious integrity! We must guard it as the priceless prize it is. I reiterate counsel the Prophet Joseph Smith gave his friends:

“Seek to know God in your closets, call upon him in the fields. Follow the directions of the Book of Mormon, and pray over, and for your families, … and all things that you possess; ask the blessing of God upon all your labors, and everything that you engage in. Be virtuous and pure; be men [and women] of integrity and truth; keep the commandments of God; and then you will be able more perfectly to understand the difference between right and wrong—between the things of God and the things of men; and your path will be like that of the just, which shineth brighter and brighter unto the perfect day” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 247).

God bless us to achieve that full measure of our creation—to maintain, to strengthen, and to cherish our integrity of heart.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie