Editorial: October 2009
Webster defines conscience as the sense or consciousness of right and wrong. It is that faculty by which one distinguishes between the morally right and wrong, which urges one to do that which he recognises as right, and restrains him from doing that which he recognises to be wrong. Conscience is moral awareness. "Conscience reigns, but it does not govern." Conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking." It "warns us as a friend, before it punishes us as a judge."
The word "Conscience" appears 30 times in the New Testament. However, it does not appear in the Old Testament, though the idea is well known and is expressed by the term 'heart.' It appears at the very dawn of history, as a sense of guilt with Adam and Eve after the fall. We read of David that his heart condemned him (2 Sam.24:10). Job said, "My heart shall not reproach me" (Job 27:6). It is a declaration of Job's unshakable claim to integrity. The cries of anguish of an aroused conscience can be heard in Psalm 32:1-5 and Psalm 51:1-9.
Conscience is innate and universal (Rom.2:14-15).When Gentiles do instinctively the requirements of the law, it is a manifestation of the law written in their hearts. They have an internal norm or standard, put in their hearts by God. This internal standard is the basis both for the response of their conscience and for their reasoning. The conscience is an automatic intellectual response to a given standard. It is influenced by factors such as habit, training, environment, and education.
The devil is our accuser before God. He is not with us all the time. But our conscience is the accuser in us, always present with us. While the devil tries to condemn us, conscience tries to correct us.
Conscience ceases to function when its warning voice is repeatedly disregarded. Paul refers to it as a seared conscience (1 Tim.4:2). The false teachers are such hypocrites that they even 'brand' their consciences by their willful disobedience to God's Word. The problem is not with the head, but with the heart. It is the inner voice that urges a person to do what he feels to be right. It accuses us when we do wrong. It should be the central nerve of our being which reacts to the moral contents of our actions. "An uneasy conscience is a hair in the mouth." "The disease of an evil conscience is beyond the practice of all the physicians in all countries in the world."
The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman, taken in adultery, to Jesus to test Him. Jesus' words had the effect of shifting attention from Himself and the woman to the accusers. Conscience began to do its work. "Being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last" (Jn.8:9). Their age made them leaders, and their longer experience of sin gave them greater cause for self-accusation. They recognised their guilt in their conscience.
David speaks in Psalm 32:3-4 with moving openness of the inner conflict he passed through. He was fully aware of the many sins that he had committed. He also knew that only an honest confession before God would help him. Though he became ill and could not sleep, he resisted confessing his sins. He refused to acknowledge his sin before God. He suffered the consequences of an evil conscience. The Psalmist recognised that God's chastening was being felt. There was no relief, day or night, as long as he refused to confess his sin before the Lord. When he acknowledged his sin to God, he was forgiven (v.5). "A sleeping pill will never take the place of a clear conscience."
Conscience keeps pricking when unethical activities are overlooked. Not speaking up can give you sleepless nights. The right thing to do would always be to speak up against integrity drifts. However, for whistleblowers, the path ahead is extremely lonely.
Deep conflict accompanies the sense of guilt. The initial impulse to stifle guilt by silence simply thrust it into the subconscious, but it seeped out in symptoms of physical distress. Sleep does not bring cessation from such profound disharmony. Its persistence is an indication of the inescapable hand of God's righteousness. "Our consciences take no notice of pain inflicted on others, until it reaches a point where it gives pain to us."
While silence continues on the part of the sinner, the hand of God is heavy on him. When confession is made, sinner finds the heart of God and is healed. Songs replace sighing. The yielding of the will is what God seeks.
The story of a person with uneasy conscience goes like this: He wanted to ease his conscience and wrote as follows to the Income Tax Office: "Enclosed please find a cheque, which is a part of my tax liability. If I cannot sleep tonight, you will receive more." Is this not similar to what we do quite often? When man acts in conformity with his convictions, he is said to have a good conscience. "Conscience asks, Is it safe? Expediency asks, Is it politic? Vanity asks, Is it popular? Conscience asks, Is it right?"
It is possible for the conscience to be hardened with time. Those who continue in sin, against the voice of conscience, will become hardened. Our hearts become hard through repeated refusals to yield to God. The conscience can also be confused. For example, some feel guilty about corruption, but are perfectly at ease receiving gifts for favours granted. This is because conscience adopts itself to the norms and customs of society. Conscience must therefore be adjusted to conform to the standard, the Word of God. It needs to be led by the Holy Spirit (Rom.9:1). "Conscience is a walkie-talkie set by which God speaks to us."
The apostles walked with a good conscience. They rejoiced in the testimony of their good conscience (2 Cor.1:12). Paul trained his conscience to be clear before God and man. He had a clean conscience, living what he professed (Acts 24:16, 1 Tim.3:9). The faith is to be held in an obedient conscience, not defiled by disobedience. When you act with good conscience, if you are defamed as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct will be ashamed (1 Pet.3:16). A surrendered heart and a good conscience will together give peace, when people accuse us falsely.
We also read that, by putting away their faith and good conscience, some made shipwreck of their lives (1 Tim.1:19, 1 Tim.4:1-2). Satan filled the heart of Ananias to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for himself (Acts 5:3); he fell down and breathed his last. Good conscience does not allow us to be defiled by sinful practices contrary to the Word of God. It is possible for a person to maintain sound doctrine, while living in hidden sin; this is the way to spiritual shipwreck. A pure conscience becomes a defiled conscience and can become a seared conscience without any spiritual sensitivity. "Faith cannot exist and abide with and alongside of a willed intention to sin and to act against conscience."
The blood of Christ is capable of purging our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb.9:16). The Old Testament sacrifices brought about ceremonial cleansing for the body, but could never reach into the heart and conscience. But, the blood of Christ, shed once and for all, purges the conscience and gives the believer an unchanging and perfect standing before God. Therefore, "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb.10:22). Calvary is God's answer; and it is enough.
Conscience is a gift of God. It is a guardian of morality, justice, and decency in the world. It is also an irrefutable testimony to the existence of a just God, who is the Creator. Cardinal Newman said, "Conscience is the true vicar of Christ in the soul; a prophet in its information; a monarch in its preemptoriness; a priest in its blessings or anathemas, according as we obey or disobey it." "A person of honour would prefer to lose his honour rather than lose his conscience."
Billy Graham said, "Most of us follow our conscience as we follow a wheelbarrow. We push it in front of us in the direction we want to go." "It is not sufficient for a Christian to walk in the light of his conscience; he must walk in sterner light, in the light of the Lord." Martin Luther said, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God." How about yours?