Conscience tells us to do right, but does not tell us what is right

The matter of conscience is an important one, but consciences can also be de-sensitized.

The matter of conscience is an important one. Dictionary.com says conscience is, “An inner feeling or voice acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior.” That’s a bit too subjective, isn’t it? Whose inner feeling or voice? Mine, yours or the neighbour’s?

When India became part of the British Empire, the British determined that some culturally accepted practices in that land should be abolished. One of them was the ritual of burning the widow of a deceased man on the funeral pyre with him. The British simply introduced legislation abolishing the practice.

However, religious leaders, of the Indian population, came to a top British leader and said, “Our conscience tells us that widows must be burned.” The leader promptly replied, “And our conscience tells us that if you do it, we will hang you!”

The problem is obvious. Conscience, from person to person, and culture to culture, will tell us that we should do right…but will not specifically tell us what is right. At least not in any consistent or universal fashion. As someone said, following our conscience is like pushing a wheelbarrow…we direct it wherever we want it to go and simply follow behind.

Consciences can also be de-sensitized. As children, we would go barefoot in the summer. At first, sharp stones would cause us to wince in pain, but we became impervious to those same stones over time, because the soles of our feet grew tough and calloused. The same thing happens to our conscience as we gradually build a tolerance for things we once considered unacceptable. Robert Goddard once sarcastically said of an acquaintance, “She doesn’t listen to her conscience, because she can’t take advice from a total stranger.”

I define conscience as, “A God given, inbuilt sense of right and wrong, which either accepts or rejects our thoughts, motives and actions.” “Conscience” is used 31 times in the New Testament and indicates that consciences may be weak or strong (1 Cor. 8:7 – 12), good or evil (Acts 23:1; Hebrews 10:22), pure or defiled (1 Timothy 3:9; Acts 24:16) and is capable of condemning or confirming (Romans 2:15).

1 Timothy 4:2 explains that as people depart from truth and godliness, “…their conscience is seared with a hot iron.” This suggests that a healthy conscience will be maintained by biblical principles and sustained through a warm and growing relationship with God.

Paul said in Acts 24:16, “I always try to maintain a good conscience before God and everyone else.” The best way to do this is to sincerely emulate David’s petition to God. He prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

“Preserve your conscience always soft and sensitive…” Isaac Watts


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