Recently I taught a Sunday morning message on the human conscience. Afterwards a seasoned Christian told me that in all his years he had never heard anybody talk about the conscience. As I reflected over my 45 years of following Christ, I, too, have never heard anyone speak about it. So, in this post I make the case for paying attention to our conscience, developing a healthy one, and if you are a pastor or teacher, teaching on it.
What is the conscience? We intuitively understand it as that part of us that reminds us when we do wrong. We use conscience in our vocabulary: he has no conscience, I had a guilty conscience, she has a clear conscience. The word conscience (suneidesis in Greek, a combination of two words: together + know) was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite words. He used it over 20 times. Scripture records one of his most famous uses in Acts 24.16 when he stood in his own defense at a trial and said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”
Conscience is akin to a moral compass. A conscience controlled by the Holy Spirit points the way that pleases God, although not perfectly for we are fallen creatures. I believe conscience works to our benefit in these three ways.
- Convict us when we have sinned. That is, the Holy Spirit uses it to cause the unpleasant sensations in our bodies when we feel guilt or remorse over sin.
- Commend us when do right. Again, the Holy Spirit uses it to give us an emotional sense of peace and joy when we do the right thing.
- Serve as a moral GPS to warn us when we are about to cross a moral or ethical line.
In summary, our conscience is a silent but deeply felt witness to spiritual and moral truth, behavior, and the satisfaction of choosing right over wrong. It is a God given capacity of our minds and souls that we exercise through our bodies when we make both good and bad choices. It monitors our beliefs and attitudes against our behavior and signals our bodies and souls when we are aligned with or out of alignment with biblical values. We can strengthen our conscience, desensitize it, or destroy it.
Five inputs that fashion and form our conscience.
- Nature: our genes. Some people are simply born more sensitive to right and wrong (the rule keepers).
- Nurture: our parent’s influence. How our parents raised us impacts the health and accuracy of our conscience, especially as it relates to whether or not we experienced a stable and consistent attachment to them.
- Daily experiences of life.
- Our spiritual maturity.
- Our body’s physical state: if we are tired or sick
Why does conscience matter?
- Because without it we would have no moral guide.
- Because a clear conscience gives us confidence before God (2 Cor. 1.12).
- Because a clear conscience gives us confidence in our relationships. Without we have to hide.
- Because a clear conscience gives us personal peace.
- Because a clear conscience promotes real love. With a clear conscience we are most free to truly love someone else (1 Tim 1.5)
The 7 kinds of consciences:
- Natural. Every person is born with a conscience. A natural conscience would be one of a person who is not a follower of Jesus. To a degree our conscience is hard-wired. Most people intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. It’s called natural or general revelation. (Rom 2.14-15). When a person comes to faith, however, the Holy Spirit makes his or her conscience come alive to the things of God.
- Weak. A weak conscience is an underdeveloped and uninformed one. Paul speaks of this kind of conscience in 1 Corinthians 8 in his discussion about new Christians who struggled with more mature Christians who ate meat offered to idols. At the point in their spiritual growth, they still hadn’t separated meat from idol worship when meat was eaten after those pagan ceremonies.
- Tired. When we resist temptation, our willpower to resist it soon thereafter is drained a bit. It’s called ego depletion (and a related term decision fatigue) Read more about decision fatigue here. Our conscience gets tired and less able to function when we don’t rest and sleep properly.
- Seared. Repeatedly refusing to listen to the voice of our conscience degrades and desensitizes our conscience to the things of God (1 Tim 4.2, Eph 4.19).
- Shipwrecked. The inevitable result of a seared conscience is what the Apostle Paul described as a conscience that shipwrecks faith (1 Tim 1.19). Such a person, because he continually refused to heed the Spirit’s promptings through his conscience, destroys his faith, now approving of what at one time he readily admitted was sin.
- Hypersensitive. This person lives with a perpetual vague or even an acute sense of guilt, even though he or she is not guilty. They constantly second guess themselves, ruminating over experiences and wondering if they offended someone or did something wrong.
- Clear. This is what we all desire, what Paul said he strived to keep. A clear conscience gives us a lightness to our soul, freedom with others, and confidence to be ourselves since we have nothing to hide or conceal. Peter wrote about having a good conscience toward God. (1 Pet 3.21)
When we understand more about our conscience and apply such truth, I believe we can most please God, bless others, and experience personal peace.
Have you ever heard a message on the human conscience? What did you learn that you could share?