The Crisis of Conscience

The conscience was once the great moral gate-keeper. For hundreds of years, the Judeo-Christian ethic provided the moral framework for Western Civilization and attending personal morality was regulated by a divinely endowed ‘original’ conscience. But as the influence of this ethical framework is slowly being deconstructed, a new morality seeks to fill the moral void and with it a new form conscience.          

The ‘new’ morality might be described as self-referencing moral pragmatism: A morality where the human subject determines his/her own values and then practically applies those values in an entirely self-benefitting manner—under the supervision a self-styled conscience. The person embracing such a view on the moral life, simply determines for themselves what is true, lives according to that manufactured truth, then governs it with an artificially created conscience—wishfully hoping to get away with it!

Invariably, a crisis ensues when the self-styled conscience fails to alert the unwitting subject of the ‘real’ consequences of such a tenuous approach to life—the end being all too predictable. Of course, the Bible puts it much more bluntly, ‘There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death.’ Proverbs 14:12 (ESV)

But does the nature of one’s conscience really matter that much? Is there really much difference between the original conscience and this new self-created conscience?  

In order to answer these questions, we must turn to that reliable and ancient source of human morality—the Bible.  In the Bible, the subject of conscience is comprehensively addressed in various pastoral settings. Holy Scripture not only provides sufficient content to ascertain conscience’s true nature, but offers  supporting information on the various forms or variations of conscience—a good conscience, a weak conscience, an evil conscience, a seared conscience, a defiled conscience, and so on.

What then is conscience?  

The conscience is that deep sense of right and wrong that emotionally alerts humans to reconsider the rightness of their actions with reference to divinely governed consequences. In its ‘original’ form, it is an innate moral faculty hardwired into the human constitution by God’s creative act. Necessarily bound to God’s will, the right and wrong that the conscience sensibly references is inextricably integrated with God’s moral law.  This is why the Apostle Paul, when discussing Gentile morality against the backdrop of Jewish law, relates the conscience with ‘the law written on their hearts’ (Rom 2:15). Hence, in its original God-intended function, the conscience brings the moral law of God to bear on the emotional intelligence, serving to regulate against any deviation from God’s moral will and alerting to moral subject to the material consequences—short and long term. Simply put, the conscience was created by God to protect you from your sinful self!     

However, like the fallen mind and heart, the divinely implanted original conscience is prone to malevolent human intervention.  

Yes, the inner moral law can become distorted to the point that people can think they are wrong when they are actually right, or conversely believe they are right when they are actually wrong! Indeed, moral corruption redefines the fundamental reference points of the conscience such that its original function is effectively disabled. When God’s inner moral compass is exposed to the magnetic pull of false ideas, erroneous beliefs, and bad habits that emanate from, both, the individual and collective sinful human nature, the conscience is no longer able to accurately or sensitively guide the human subject toward God’s ‘true moral north’—it is no longer able to protect the true self from the sinful self!

The apostle Paul, fully aware of the corrupting influence of both the individual and collective sinful nature on the inner morality, wrote the following to the Roman Christians…

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools… Romans 1:18, 21-22 (ESV)

Paul is suggesting that when the truth is suppressed though a rebellious spirit, the mind becomes futile in its reasoning capacities; which, in turn throws a dark shadow of ignorance over the inner reaches of the human self and its innate capacity to know, discern, and regulate truth.   

Paul further elaborates on the nature of this deep corruption when discussing a pastoral issue with the Corinthian Christians, among whom some had a previous history of idol worship (which incorporated offering animal sacrifices to demons). Following the idolatrous ritual, the meat that served as the offering was sold commercially—marketed as butchered meat! For most Christian consumers it was simply meat, but some, having a previous association with this idolatry, were unable to disassociate the actual practice of idolatry from the defunct material objects of that practice and, as such, considered the market meat morally contaminated—intrinsically evil!

In describing this phenomenon, Paul writes…

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience being weak, is defiled. 1 Corinthians 8:7 (ESV)

So, as a result of their former association with idolatry, and being plagued by the lingering effects of these false beliefs and practices, the conscience of these believers was weakened. In this case, this weakness translates as a belief that eating meat was immoral, even though it was not, ‘For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.’(1Tim4:4 NIV). So, if these weak brethren were emboldened to eat the meat by someone who had no background in these idolatrous practices, they became unnecessarily burdened with guilt, or worse still, tempted to return to their old pagan habits. As you can see, their conscience was defiled by the false assumptions that lingered from their former lifestyles.   

On the other hand, within the very same Corinthian congregation, there were also those whose consciences were so corrupted by malevolent sinful behaviour that they felt ‘no’ shame or guilt at all—not even in matters of gross immorality…

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.  And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 (ESV)

In this particular case, adultery was not only tolerated, but the universally taboo practice of incest was shamelessly embraced. In this instance, we are dealing with ‘seared’ conscience; that is, a conscience so desensitized by constant sinfulness that it is no longer able to feel guilt—not even for even for the most heinous of sins.

As you can see, these cases demonstrate how the original conscience can be corrupted by flawed human ideas and sinful practices, to the degree that its original purpose is disabled and repurposed in line with self-oriented human agendas.  Of course, the weak conscience and the seared conscience are simply forms of the self-created conscience and merely represent two examples among many, of how the deluded human self creates its own moral regulating system, forming a conscience no longer informed by God’s innately planted morality, and no longer serving God’s intended purpose of human self-preservation.    

Granted, the self-created conscience may well prompt ‘me’ to be true to ‘myself’; often colloquially represented in terms of authenticity. But being true to oneself or authentic in some self-referencing manner, whilst appearing  virtuous, will certainly not help a person meaningfully deal with the practical fallout of bad moral decisions or fortify them when they stand before God on judgment day to give an account of their life—the inevitable destiny of every human.    

In light of all this, can this deluded self-created conscience be saved from itself? Can God’s original conscience, the governor of moral truth, be recovered from human suppression and be reinstated to its rightful place of soul-protector within God’s scheme of human deliverance?

Yes, with God there is always hope. A misaligned conscience can be recalibrated, a weak conscience can be fortified, a seared conscience re-sensitized, a misinformed conscience can be re-informed, and a guilty conscience cleansed. The solution is to return to the source of true morality and the power that animates it, to consistently and dynamically re-expose the corrupted conscience to original truth—divine truth!

Firstly, rectifying the flaws of conscience begin with an attitude of humble and practical submission to God’s authoritative word, the materially accessible foundation of the conscience’s moral code, and  exposing one’s self to this source of truth on a regular (daily) basis.

The original conscience, being created by God, is founded on God’s law, and through knowledge of and obedience to that law, the conscience can be restored to its original function. Recalibrating the conscience begins with realigning the mind with God’s moral truth, which simply means educating it with God’s revealed will. Of course, that will is most readily available in the form of God’s written word—the Bible. Reading the bible, listening to it being taught, ingesting its truths on a regular basis is a sure way to begin healing any wayward conscience and set it back on its original course.

However, a word of warning, partaking in the Word of truth irregularly or in a piecemeal fashion will not suffice, indeed it may even add to pre-existing distortions when the Word is erroneously mixed with our sinful ideas—even used to validate them. Like a healthy diet, this spiritual food needs to be ingested regularly, consistently, and heartily. The words of that great saint George Muller lend considerable weight to this affirmation, “The power of your spiritual life will be according to the measure of the room that the word of God takes up in our life and in our thoughts. After an experience of fifty four years, I can solemnly declare this…The day is lost to me, on which I have no rounded time for enjoying the word of God.” (George Muller, The School of Prayer)

Secondly, restoring the conscience to original normality is further fortified by actually practicing the truths revealed within the Word.

It is not often appreciated just how powerful practices and habits are in shaping moral choices. Indeed, transformation of a distorted conscience must deliberately address the malevolent practical habits that invariably reinforce deeply held beliefs. For those beliefs to be changed, the habits that reinforce them also must be changed. For example, a person whose conscience is affected by watching violent movies will never transform the ingrained disposition of conscience that desensitizes them to the heinous nature of gratuitous violence, until they ‘actually’ break the habit of watching those kinds of movies.

Because the human mind is so accustomed to confusing intellectual knowledge with moral discernment, deliberate practical application of truth is absolutely necessary to enable the transformative effects of the theoretical truths learned from Holy Scripture.  Jesus stated, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matt 7:24 (ESV). In making this point, he was affirming that a sound Christian faith is more than intellectual knowledge, but constitutes truth grounded through intentional and specific practices. Only truths practiced are truths known!

Biblical knowledge that is not grounded by obedient practice represents little more than a false hope (Matt 7:25), and knowledge without practice can actually serve to reinforce the distorted conscience!

Thirdly and finally, having taken the first two steps, the Christian desiring a transformed conscience is now able to move into the next stage of full transformation; full sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s direct moral intervention—life  in the Spirit.

The apostle Paul knew that life under the moral law of God was good, but the law really had a provisional purpose, ‘Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.  So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.’ Gal 3:23-4 (NIV) Yes, the law informs the conscience, but also can bind the conscience when there is no way of being released from the ‘power’ of sin. Having come to faith in Christ through the quickening of the Spirit, the Christian is encouraged to move into a sphere of existence where the Spirit not only initiates faith, but empowers a life of faith; a life  that is characterized by a intuitive moral conformity to God’s will, a phenomenon Paul calls ‘walking in the Spirit’…

‘For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.’Galatians 5:14-18 (|ESV)

A conscience informed by the law of God is good, but a conscience controlled and led by the Spirit is better still, for in this state  the Christian person is dynamically led to do God’s will, and in so doing has no need to be governed by or burdened with a law-informed conscience. Of course the law-informed conscience remains behind the scenes as a moral regulator, should the Christian falter and grieve the Spirit. Nevertheless, this life in the Spirit is the freest and best form of morality any human can experience, and should be eagerly sought by all desiring to please God.

So, how does your conscience fare?

Perhaps its time to take a fresh look at it, and ask yourself, ‘What is informing or guiding my conscience?’ If it is wayward, remember there is hope of restoration, hope of a moral existence that transcends the futile self-referencing moral pragmatism so prevalent in our times. As we have seen, this hope leads to a practical submission to Word of God and a willingness to be regularly guided by it, it is then fortified by practical obedience to the Word, and finally fulfilled by the indwelling empowerment of God’s Spirit.

May God bless your time of reflective transformation.

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