It begins with a gentle utterance, an inborn feeling that something is not as it should be. Its voice rises until it cannot be ignored, drawing our attention to the object of its cries. Later, if it is repeatedly dismissed, its sound slowly fades into the background, stirring occasionally but lying mostly dormant as we continue in the course of action that we had begun.
I’m speaking of our conscience.
Vincent Van Gogh said “Conscience is a man’s compass.” It is a compass whose needle points us toward what is good and right. Simply put, the conscience is the moral barometer of our thoughts and actions that tells us we ought to do what is right.
Everyone has a conscience because God has imprinted the knowledge of His nature and law upon us in our creation. (Romans 1:20) It is part of our being made in His image. We all have a conscience, an inborn knowledge of right and wrong.
For the Christian, however, conscience is much more than just a general sense of moral judgment. It is a tool that God uses as part of our sanctification. The Holy Spirit works through our conscience to alert us to moral danger or chastise us for moral compromise. The purpose of this is that we should avoid evil and become mature Christian believers, attaining “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)
Conscience is mentioned many times in the New Testament. The biblical authors considered it to be very important. Paul, in his trial before the Sanhedrin, said that he had lived his life “in all good conscience.” (Acts 23:1) He wrote to Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5) Peter also spoke of the importance of a good conscience in our testimony to the world. (1 Peter 3:16)
Our conscience, being an important gift from God, is used by Him for our growth and betterment as followers of Christ. There are a few things, however, that we need to know about our conscience.
Our conscience can never be casually ignored
When it was demanded of Martin Luther under threat of death that he renounce his writings that led to the Reformation, he replied, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Luther knew that it was a dangerous thing to violate one’s conscience. Likewise, we ignore conscience at our own peril.
Our conscience must be taught by God’s word
Paying close attention to conscience is very important, but you are probably like me, having seen people do terrible things and yet say, “My conscience is clear.” As fallen, sinful people, we have an immense capacity for self-justification. Many people want to live by their own rules and claim that they have no sense of guilt over what they have done. Our personal feelings of right and wrong must always come under the governance of God’s word. Only the Scriptures provide an infallible guideline for moral and ethical conduct. Our feelings are not enough unless our conscience, as Luther said, is held captive to God’s word.
Overriding our conscience places us on dangerous ground
When our conscience is stirring against something that we are doing or intending to do, we should play close attention to it. In violating the warnings of conscience, we sow seeds for trouble in our lives. One compromise leads to another and each time the guilt becomes less and less. Seemingly minor transgressions progress to major ones without a second thought. The result of an overridden conscience is often personal ruin.
Jeb Stuart Magruder was an aide to former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal that forever changed the way Americans look at the Presidency. Looking back at what happened, he said:
“We had conned ourselves into thinking we weren’t doing anything really wrong, and by the time we were doing things that were illegal, we had lost control. We had gone from poor ethical behavior into illegal activities without even realizing it.”
The consequences for Magruder were great. He served time in prison.
This highlights another problem of an ignored conscience. The resulting ruin in our lives slanders the name of Jesus Christ and holds Him up for reproach from the world. It is hard to proclaim Christ as our Savior when our actions work against our witness.
In summary, God has given us a conscience to be our guide and to play a great role in our sanctification as believers in Christ. However, it can be overridden if we do not submit to the leadership of the Holy Spirit and the revelation of God’s word.
The screaming whisper of our conscience is a voice to which we should all be very attentive.