Today, I'm tackling the subject of conscience. I recently received a few questions about it, and want to answer those as well as God will bless me to be able to do. First, I'll write about some basic things about conscience. Then we'll consider some pertinent scriptures. Finally, I hope to deal with some critical, or, for some, troubling issues and end with something helpful and positive. Remember, this is a blog post, not a formal essay.
Conscience can be a killer! A good, active conscience formed by the word of God properly understood is among the greatest blessings in life—if heeded! However, a conscience untaught or misinformed can be the source of one's emotional unraveling and spiritual death. Conscience only works properly in a relatively healthy mind. Most everyone has some kind of thought-related issue or another—an emotional vulnerability, a self-esteem issue, emotional pain from something in the past—we call these our "scars," or "baggage." It is often this "baggage" that we tend to try to carry around with us that causes us to become reactors instead of actors, and leads us to form consciences that tear us apart, give us no peace, and ultimately do the exact opposite of what conscience is supposed to do by God's intent. (If you're struggling with emotional pain and/or self-esteem issues, check out SFT Awareness.) Others struggle under the weight of too heavy a conscience because of an erroneous belief system. Many people crush themselves with inner dialogue due to being taught that nearly everything is wrong and sinful, and find themselves feeling shackled, desperate; perhaps even hopeless. Let me say the following with boldness: conscience was designed to function properly within an environment of truth and grace. No one's conscience will or can work properly outside of covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. It will either excuse what shouldn't be, or accuse with no path to redemption.
Alright, but what is conscience and where does it come from? The Bible teaches that God made man in his likeness (Gen 1:26-27). Without going into great detail as to what that means, let me summarize that it means we are creatures with a spiritual nature. Thus we have a mind composed of intellect, sensibilities, and will. We have the right and obligation to make decisions, and written upon the hearts of every one of us is a basic sense of right and wrong and justice. On this, I urge everyone to read C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. When conceived, we begin writing the laws we will live and judge ourselves by upon the bare tablets of this spiritual nature of ours. We gain these from degrees of recognizing our inborn needs, the influence of our families and society around us, and the things we study and meditate upon. We have every right and ability to alter these as we grow, and well we should when necessary. Conscience is simply what we know about right and wrong confronting our knowledge of what we've done or want to do. We apply the knowledge it gives us by either having a sense of well-being and goodly accomplishment when we do something right, and by feeling guilt when we do something wrong. So, conscience is simply an aspect of a spiritual mind that God gave us to help us grow. The Devil tries to get us to misuse it.
On to some scriptures: The first specific mention of conscience in my ESV is 1 Samuel 25:31, when Abigail urged David not to attack Nabal's household. She prevailed upon him with her wisdom by urging him to take a path that would not lead him into guilt. Next we find these words from Paul, "So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man" (Acts 24:16 ESV). Paul speaks of the state of having a "clear conscience" and by his example teaches us that it takes effort. On that effort he wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV). By diligently studying the Bible, one can properly train his conscience, and then, by taking pains to follow its direction, will find himself in a position of peace and boldness with God, and not guilt (1 John 3:21; Hebrews 4:16). An untaught, or improperly taught conscience is not a safe guide! Just doing what seems right as if we were all born wise is beyond foolish, it's just plain stupid! Nevertheless, that idea is being encouraged by many teachers these days in the mantra, "Do what your heart tells you to do." Solomon wrote about that mistake 3,000 years ago when he said, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death" (Proverbs 14:12 ESV). As a side note, someone asked me about the relationship of 1 Peter 3:21 to this subject. The passage reads: "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (ESV). Some translations don't do great justice to the original Greek, but the ESV is great. Baptism, as the point one's faith becomes active in obedience, is the point one's sins are initially washed away by God's grace (Acts 2:38, 22:16). As such, if someone wants a clean conscience—free from the guilt of past sins—he or she must first find the blood of Christ in baptism. It is an "appeal" or "request" to God to cleanse us.
Now, I want to address a couple of passages related to conscience, guilt, etc. that are troubling to some. Hebrews 4:13 reads, "And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (ESV). That's true. God knows everything, even our deepest, most secretly guarded thoughts. What gives people trouble here is this: "For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light" (Luke 8:17 ESV). This: "For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God" (1 Corinthians 4:4-5 ESV). And especially this: "By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God" (1 John 3:19-21 ESV). The troubles many of us have with these verses are what I mentioned briefly above as failing to understand conscience functioning within the grace of God. If my conscience is condemning me, something is definitely wrong! If I am purposely doing something wrong, I need to fear the judgment of God. I need to wake up and listen! If I am not doing anything wrong, and my conscience still plagues me, I need better understanding. If my conscience plagues me with guilt over sins that I have confessed before God and asked his forgiveness regarding, then I need a better appreciation for the grace of God. Jesus is coming again as Judge, but not to "judge" Christians. He's coming to judge the world. The only judgment left for faithful Christians is the granting of the reward. We read the above verse from Hebrews 4, but need to understand it in the context that includes "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16 ESV). We need to read 1 John 3, but understand it as part of the context that includes "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13 ESV), and "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:7-9 ESV).
To sum this up, conscience is a blessing. God gave it to us to help us grow. It is not meant to be misused by Satan as a tool to abuse us. It must be properly instructed and function within a relatively healthy mind. When those things are in place, simply follow its guidance and you'll have peace within yourself and with your God. There's nothing better than that!