The Good Conscience

If you’ve read some of the earlier articles on this website, then you know that I talk about the difference between morality and spirituality at some length. And just in case you don’t remember or you’re not quite clear on the distinction, let me refresh your memory.  Most religious people seem to think morality and spirituality is the same thing.  They’re not.  Morality is man-made.  It’s based on what man thinks is right or wrong.  It’s in a constant state of flux, so that what was thought to be wrong in the past could be perfectly acceptable at the present.  Morality is what religion promotes.  All religious groups have their moral standards, and those standards differ somewhat from group to group.  And all religious groups teach their followers in varying degrees that accepting their moral standards and following their symbolic rituals is the same as having a relationship with God (it isn’t).

On the other hand, true spirituality is from God.  It’s based on what He thinks.  It doesn’t change (because He doesn’t change); though, as we’ll see later in this article, the standards of conscience can be slightly different for each individual.  It is only understood through a consistent and determined relationship of personal submission and obedience to God and the will to maintain a good conscience.  And since maintaining a good conscience is essential to spirituality, I think it is a subject worth discussing.

Let’s start by defining conscience.  The English word "conscience" comes from the Latin word conscire, the combination of con, meaning, with or together and scire, to know, literally, "to know together".  The NT Greek word is suneidesis, and means, to know the same thing or to agree.  The application is obvious – conscience means, to know the standards of God and agree with Him.  The conscience is a God-given reference point or point of comparison for our lives.  When we’re faced with a decision, it gives us direction and helps us know what is right for us.  Paul describes it as "God’s law written in their hearts" ("heart" is psuche, soul or understanding).  Every soul that comes from God at the moment of birth (see Point One in the article Grace, Faith and the Plan of God) is imprinted with His standards for that individual.

In order to understand how the conscience works, we need only to examine Paul’s comments in Romans 2:14-15.  This is what he says: "When the Gentiles, who have not the Law, instinctively do the things required by the Law, they show that they have a law for themselves, even though they don’t have the Law.  In this, they prove the essential requirements of the Law are written in their hearts (fixed and operating there), their consciences witnessing with themso that their thoughts between them (and their conscience) either continually accuse or excuse them."

The conscience continually watches what we think or do and compares it with the standards God has put there.  It then brings thoughts to our mind making us conscious of whether we have thought or acted in agreement with what God had originally imprinted in our conscience, or not.  Then, according to the last part of verse 15, the conscience either accuses or excuses what we do.  If the thought or action is in agreement with God’s standard for us, the conscience judges it and excuses or defends.  In this case, the conscience is clear and the matter closed.

On the other hand, if the thought or action is not in agreement with God’s standard, it violates the conscience and the resulting judgment accuses us of wrongdoing.  THIS IS IMPORTANT.  When the conscience accuses and we refuse to reverse our course, consciously dismissing it and thus rebelling against God’s standard, it continues to accuse us; the matter is not closed. The result is ongoing guilt that we must either admit to and deal with or consciously try to suppress.  When more and more issues are left unresolved, a guilty conscience eventually leads to fear and anxiety, which can then lead to frustration and even anger, or several types of emotional paralysis (what the world calls mental illness - depression, paranoia, schizoid behaviors.  The obvious problem with all of this is that none of our wrong thoughts, feelings or actions will affect our conscience (except to weaken it).  We cannot change what God has put there.  So, it continues to accuse and we continue to feel bad, causing a downward spiral that can lead to more severe problems.

The principle is illustrated in Genesis 4:3-8.  Cain was willfully disobedient (verses 3-4); it resulted in a guilty conscience, and left unresolved, this caused him to be angry and depressed (verse 5); the Lord then confronts Cain (verses 6-7) and tells him if he does what is right, he will feel better (his conscience will be cleared and will stop accusing him); He also tells Cain in the latter part of verse 7 that if he continues to refuse to do what is right it is because of unresolved sin and that sin wants to destroy him (the downward spiral I just mentioned), so he must control (resolve) it; then when Cain further refuses to reverse his course, he spirals into unrestrained and irresponsible rage and kills his brother (verse 8).  The state of our current culture tells us that if this happened today, a psychiatrist would put him on medication to dull his feelings and a good lawyer would manipulate the system and get him off.

The conscience also vindicates our actions.  In II Corinthians 1:12 Paul is rejoicing because his conscience had confirmed that he had conducted himself properly with regards to the church at Corinth, even though his words and actions had been criticized and even rejected by many there.  At times our words or actions can cause others to reject or criticize us.  When that happens our conscience will either vindicate us, telling us we were right, or it will accuse us, telling us we were wrong.

Here are some further observations.  (1) The function of the conscience is involuntary, that is, you cannot consciously control it.  It operates whether you want it to or not and you cannot manipulate or determine for yourself how it will judge your thoughts, intentions or actions.  It operates independent of your normal thought processes.  This is important, because it tells you that your conscience is something God has put in you to protect you, to help you control your flesh and lead you to Him.  It’s not a result of evolution or something we developed on our own, because we wanted it.  (2) The conscience cannot make decisions; that is the responsibility of the will; the conscience only passes judgment.  Free will is a universal principle God will not overturn.  (3) This judgment is unbiased and final; the conscience will not reconsider the circumstances or your feelings.  (4) The conscience is strictly categorical, that is, it gives no reasons or explanations regarding its judgment.  These last two things (3 and 4) are true because the standards in your conscience are reflections of God’s own unchanging character and nature, and are not subject to your feelings, circumstances or what you think or want.  (5) As previously mentioned, the conscience is individual.  One person’s conscience cannot judge for another person; your conscience can only judge you.  You cannot impose your standards on others, as that would be a direct violation of their own conscience.  (6) Your conscience can be weak or seemingly silent; depending on how you have followed it in the past (the conscience can be clear, evil, seared, defiled or weak – all to be discussed later).  When you habitually suppress or ignore your conscience, you enter a downward spiral that negatively affects your self-image, what others may think of you, how you think God relates to you, causes you to try to justify your wrong behavior, makes you feel bad and damages your conscience (however, it can be repaired).  (7) The conscience is present and active in both believer and non-believer, although it should be stronger in the believer.  There are obvious contradictions to this.  Many who claim to be believers have severely damaged consciences.  And, there are many unbelievers who have rejected God, yet strive to live moral, ethical lives by following the conscience God gave them.  However, absent true spiritual consciousness and the guidance and perspective that it gives, they tend to be biased towards world viewpoint.  And world viewpoint will gradually weaken their conscience in some areas.  (8) Sometimes the conscience will convict even when the thought or action does not appear to be wrong or is generally accepted by others – this is simply because it is not God’s desire for you.

Earlier I said the conscience judges what we think and do, then either accuses or excuses us according to the standards God has put there.  Let’s look at what the conscience judges in a little more detail.  (1) What we say and how we say it.  Our conscience judges according to both the truthfulness of our words and the kindness and humility expressed by them (for an accurate definition of humility, see the article by that name on the website). (2) What we think.  Since thoughts lead to actions, the conscience warns us of wrong thoughts and whether we’re inclined to reject them or harbor them (see part f. (1) below).  (3) What attitudes we may have.  These are feelings generally just below the level of conscious thought that rise up to influence thought.  For example, when we should feel sympathy, a wrong attitude can lead us to be cold and uncaring.  If left unchecked, this can lead to hurtful words or actions.  (4) What our motives are.  Motives determine why we do what we do.  If we’re motivated by resentment or selfishness, for example, our actions will be wrong and our conscience will warn us.  Our human (sin) nature, more often than not, influences our words, thoughts, attitudes and motives.

Then it might be helpful to understand when our conscience functions.  (1) Before the contemplated action (when it is just a thought), the conscience sorts out ideas, reasons, impulses, attitudes, etc.  At this point the battle is in the mind.  It is, then, what is harbored in the mind that influences our decisions and determines our behavior.  This is explained in James 1:12-15, we have to recognize temptation, recognize it as a test, reject it, not let it conceive a plan of action and follow it.  If we reject it, the matter is closed; our conscience excuses us.  (2) If we follow through with it, our conscience is usually at its weakest point during the action, because our mind is occupied with the activity.  (3) After the action is completed our conscience is usually the loudest.  It can now bear witness to the completed act and can judge according to its specific point of reference.  In many instances it is supported by an emotional response (guilt – fear) and even a physical response (knot in the stomach, slight rise in body temperature).  These are God-given warnings to amend the action (apologize, make restitution – if others are involved; confess, repent – if others are not).

And, as I mentioned before, there are five different descriptions of conscience given in Scripture.  (1) Paul describes himself as having a clear conscience in Acts 24:16.  This is a corrected translation:  "Therefore I always endeavor to have a blameless conscience before God and men."  In the KJV you find conscience being defined as "void of offense".  This is from aproskopos, meaning, to stumble or fall.  Paul is saying he is free from anything that his conscience could have condemned him for.  He has not stumbled or fallen over anything that would have brought accusation or guilt, but has protected himself by following the dictates of his conscience.  (2) In Hebrews 10:22 we find the description of an evil conscience.  "Evil" is poneros and is sometimes translated malicious or mischievous.  An evil conscience is the result of doing wrong, hurtful actions that cause others to experience pain or sorrow. Most translations call this a guilty conscience.  This is not a description of a conscience that is evil, but of a person who rejects the urgings of his conscience and does evil or destructive things to others.  Those who possess an evil conscience knowingly and willingly do things they know will hurt others; but do them anyway, because it gives them a distorted or perverted sense of power or gratification.  (3) Then there’s the seared conscience in I Timothy 4:1-3.  Here, "seared" is kausteriazo, to brand with an iron, from which we get our English word, cauterize.  If you burn (brand) yourself with an iron, first comes pain, then numbness, then scar tissue that has no feeling. Therefore, a seared conscience is one that has become insensitive to wrong through the consistent act of ignoring its judgments or accusations.  The example Paul uses here is of those religious types who depart from truth, listen to seducing spirits, become hypocritical (that is, they lie, when they know the truth), and make up rules to impose on others that they know are wrong.  This puts religious deception in the proper context, that is, it is something that is carried out in a calculating, deliberate way.  And that process of continually going against the dictates of their conscience damages it and makes it insensitive.  You can see guys like this every night on the religious TV channels.  (4) The defiled conscience is found in Titus 1:10-16. The word "defiled" is translated from koinos and is used to describe a conscience that has come in contact with something that makes it unclean or defiled, so it becomes corrupt.  If you read the passage, you find the description of those who are disobedient (unruly), idle talkers (gossipers), deceptive, who teach the commandments of men and turn from the truth. They profess to know God, but the things they do make it clear they don’t really know Him (vs. 16).  What Paul describes here is those who follow what is convenient or advantageous to them, instead of the dictates of conscience and truth.  Again, deliberate deception.  You can find plenty of these guys on TV as well.  (5) Finally, there is the weak conscience, found in I Corinthians 8:4-13.  The weak conscience (asthenes, without strength) is one that is vulnerable because of ignorance.  Here, the one with a weak conscience has lived in pagan idolatry, come to Christ, but hasn’t yet learned enough truth to strengthen his conscience and overcome the wrong influences of his past.  A weak conscience can produce false guilt and false guilt can cause immature people to accept rules and standards for themselves that God never intended.  And, if they violate those wrong, self-imposed standards, they will still feel guilty.  The warning here is to be careful and not do anything that would encourage others to violate those self-imposed standards, feel guilty as a result and decide they have failed, that they cannot please God and start a downward spiral that would lead them to forsake their newfound faith.

Finally, this brings us back to the more pragmatic aspect of this article.  In my opening comments I made the statement that maintaining a good (clear) conscience is essential in true spirituality.  The key to having a good conscience or repairing a damaged conscience is personal honesty and transparency before God.  And here is where I jump back up on my soapbox and start preaching (just a little).  You cannot maintain personal honesty and transparency with God unless you consistently spend time alone with Him. And spending time alone with God is not working your way through a prayer list, telling Him what to do, how to do it and who to do it to; it’s not reading a daily devotional or the latest-greatest book from the Christian bookstore; and it’s not plowing through the prescribed number of chapters in your Bible for that day, so you can read it in a year.

In Acts 23:1 Paul makes the statement that he had been living "in all good conscience before God".  The key words here are "before God".  It is not possible to have a clear conscience unless there is a continual, present reality of God’s active participation in your life.  Absent that, your flesh convinces you that you are free to make your own choices, choices that may seem logical or harmless or that you can easily justify, but wrong just the same. We all have to spend personal, quiet time with God, asking Him to reveal anything in our lives that may be a violation of conscience.

And, there are several areas that must be considered.  The first is the more obvious, that is, things we may be doing that are wrong.  We may know they are wrong, or they may be long-standing things that we have justified over time, so our conscience is weak and has grown silent.  Or, they may even be things that we honestly don’t know if they are wrong or not.  But if we’re willing to talk to Him about them, He will eventually let us know if they are or not and what He wants us to do.

Another is less obvious to most.  This is the issue of not doing what is right. Obedience to the things God requires is essential to a clear conscience, disobedience weakens the conscience (remember Cain’s disobedience earlier in this article).  Who among us has not experienced seeing someone in need, made excuse as to why we should or could not help him, then felt regret later.  Or how many have come to a place in their lives when they convinced themselves that they could no longer afford to give to support the ministry that cares for their spiritual well being?  As I point out in the article "Avoiding the Dog and Hog Disease, Part 3, Oh No! He’s Going to Talk About Giving!" the issue of giving in God’s economy is never a matter of being able to afford it, the real issue is trust, obedience and a willingness to reject selfishness and materialism.

My challenge to anyone who reads this article is to spend time alone with God and if you’re not sure what the issues in your life are that you should be talking to Him about then have the courage to ask Him what they are.  I guarantee you He will let you know.  But, if you already know what some of them are and don’t want to talk about them, or you’re not sure what they are and are afraid to find out, then you’ll simply continue to weaken your conscience.  And those who are willing to live with a weak or damaged conscience have nothing more than a pretense of true spirituality.

There are just a couple of additional things I would mention that I think are important in gaining and maintaining a good conscience.  The first is to make Christ the center of your life (meaning, you maintain a true desire to be like Him) and the will and purpose of God your focus (remember, the will of God is that we have a relationship of submission and obedience with Him and the purpose of God is to conform us to the image of His Son through that relationship).  It’s easy to allow the world and your flesh to rule your life. But never forget that this life is nothing more than a short preparation time for the life that is to come.

The second would be to establish the right priorities in your life so they point more towards your spiritual growth than they do the gratification of your flesh.  There are many things we can do that are fun or enjoyable that can become wrong for us, if they cause us to exclude God from our lives or require the improper use of our time or finances.

And finally, determine to take the difficult path (the narrow road).  In order to be obedient to the will and purpose of God, we have to voluntarily make the choices in our lives that put us in a position of having to be dependent on Him.  If our obedience to the will and purpose of God requires suffering and sacrifice (and it does, as we have established in many previous discussions), then we must be willing to experience the pressures and stress of difficult circumstances and needs.  Otherwise, how can we learn to really trust Him?

In I Timothy 1:18-19 Paul tells Timothy that there are two things he must do to fight the good (spiritual) fight.  He has to hold on to his absolute trust and confidence in God and maintain a good (clear) conscience.  Then in the last part of verse 19 he says there are some who have rejected the urgings of their conscience and as a result have destroyed ("made shipwreck" in the KJV) their faith.  Our conscience is a consequence of God’s grace and mercy towards us.  It’s there to help us, to guide us, protect us and lead us to Him.