Chapter 4: Respecting Conscience
Since conscience is a moral faculty, given by God, through which He speaks to us, our attitude towards it is of the utmost importance. We must handle it with the greatest possible respect because we are absolutely dependent upon it for knowing what God has to say to us personally with respect to our relationship with Him.
The Lord Jesus Christ warned His hearers Take heed, how ye hear. This text relates to the voice of conscience, for while it is not infallible (for it must be instructed and enlightened by the Word of God) the Holy Spirit speaks to us through this faculty.
Christ warned His hearers that if they did not respond to the Word they would lose the very light that they had (Luke 8:18). Similarly, if we do not respect the word He speaks to us through conscience, our minds will be darkened and we shall become confused and ignorant about Gods will for us. The matter is terribly solemn.
Once we have grasped the fact that without this faculty we cannot hear the voice of God we can understand the fearful condition of those who have gone on resisting the Holy Spirit. We read in Scripture of those who have reached a condition beyond which there is no hope. This relates to their attitude towards the Holy Spirit, as a number of Scriptures indicate. But it also relates to the conscience, through which the Spirit speaks. Hence we read of those who have their conscience seared with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4:2). They have rendered it incapable of feeling. They have destroyed the very faculty by which God speaks. They are utterly hardened, and have wrecked the means of communication whereby they might appreciate the news of salvation.
We recognise readily that there are men in such a dire condition, but because our hearts are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, we can mishandle this means of communication also, and fail to hear Gods Word clearly spoken. We must, therefore, pay very great attention to precisely what conscience says to us. It is the best friend that we can have. It tells us the most important things we should know.
When we read that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12), this speaks of the Scriptures applied by the conscience to our own hearts. We must have the Word of God applied by conscience before we can hear truly what God has to say. Either one is not sufficient on its own. The puritans described conscience as a mirror to catch the light of Gods Word and apply it to our own case.
Conscience illuminates the pages of Scripture and applies them to the reader; conscience tells a man in the pew that God is speaking to him personally when he hears the message; conscience may be telling you as you read these very words that you must be careful to examine yourself as to whether you are being neglectful in this vital matter.
Out of Condition
Furthermore, the strength and power of Gods voice depends on the condition of conscience. You may indeed hear God speaking to you, but only faintly, because you have neglected conscience. We may pay great attention to the health of our bodies or minds because we know the great difference it makes to our enjoyment of life, and our ability to carry on our work and pleasure. How much more important it is to recognise that if we are anxious to know precisely what God has to say to us, we must respect our consciences and handle them with the utmost care.
King Jehoiakim did not like the message delivered to him by Jeremiah, so he cut it put and threw it into the fire. It made no difference, of course, since God had indeed spoken, but the King was shutting his ears. However, what he did is typical of human nature. Conviction of sin is like a painit is un-human nature. Conviction of sin is like a painit is unpleasant, and we naturally protect any sore place so that the amount of hurt we feel is minimal. However, pain is a precious indicator that something is wrong.
Nevertheless the natural heart is unwilling to accept the verdict of conscience. Sometimes though, the persistency of the conviction may stir a man to do something. When conscience says all is not well, and pronounces a man guilty, he may determine to do something to pacify it, conscience speaks again and urges him into action, so he improves his life outwardly. Conscience still condemns him and h e may even make a profession of faith. But then, if there is no genuine response, but he has only been driven by a guilty conscience, he will soon lose that precious conviction. His actions have been intended, though he did not realise it, to silence conscience. They may have led to an amendment of life, but the real intention was to pacify conscience.
Eventually, conscience does not trouble him; he goes back to his old life, but he is worse because his conscience has been severely damaged. He is no longer troubled as he was formerly. Though he might sometimes be concerned, it is not as it once was, and does not lead to any serious response. John Bunyan describes conscience under the name of Mr. Recorder of the town of Mansoul, and how He was much degenerated but would now and then link upon shaddai (the Lord) and have dread of His law upon him. Conscience may still alarm the ungodly to his dying day, but because of his disinclination to hear what it has to say its strength to speak is seriously weakened.
Christians have the same deceitful and desperately wicked hearts, which try all the tricks imaginable to protect themselves from the arrows that convict. We can imagine that our greatest need is for instruction and comfort, rather than reproof and correction. We can believe our greatest problems are other people and our outward circumstances. We can find fault with others in the church and apply the very messages which are suited to our case to others.
When conscience speaks to us we may subtly reason with it and try to confuse simple issues, or else we may promise ourselves that at some time we will act. We become sluggish and weak spiritually. We only listen when conscience shouts at us, and have to hear the same thing said again and again. We may be like a child in bed, whose mother has great difficulty in arousing itshe has to keep shouting at it to get up. It is very reluctant, and will only do so when the persistent voice becomes so unbearable that it wants to silence it by getting up.
Our wicked hearts can violate our consciences by depriving ourselves of the books we need; we refuse the medicine that will do us good. We may leave a church because the ministry convicts us and disturbs us, though we argue with ourselves that it is the minister that we do not like. We change our friends because we find their conversation convicting and their lives condemning.
We are, in fact, violating our consciences because we are depriving them of the help they need to speak to us accurately, but we achieve our end. The conscience doesnt trouble us as it used to. The preaching is more to our taste; the books make us feel more spiritual; the friends make us feel we are making good progress in the Christian life. But because we are the Lords people something happenswe are chastened, and then with horror we realise how far we have slipped.
God speaks to us loudly and clearly by giving our conscience some tremendous factor to humble us, whether it is personal sin or some shattering event. We had been violating conscience for a long time but we did not realise it.
The opposite danger is to damage conscience by assuming that it is speaking loudly and clearly on a very inadequate basis. We may want to do something very badly and so we announce to people that God has told us that we are to do certain things and that it is His will that we should behave in such a way. We may argue on the basis of certain verses that occur in our Scripture reading. We are persuading conscience to give us the support for certain things we really want to do.
We dont want to debate with conscience, we simply want conscience to give us the O.K., but sooner or later it is evident that we have been mistaken. However, we fail to retrace our steps and consider where we went wrong, but do precisely the same thing again. Thus we violate the conscience and wander in a confused path. Pride will not allow us to admit that we have made a mistake; it is too humiliating. We would rather damage the conscience than to admit we have taken a wrong turning and go back to the crossroads.
Conscience is such a precious faculty, and it needs to be handled so carefully that Paul speaks very strongly about the danger of damaging another persons conscience. In Romans 14 he insists that those whose consciences are strong must submit to those who are weak in faith and abstain from things that would offend the weak conscience, because to offend conscience is to sin, for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. How careful we must be not to offend our own consciences because if we act without their consent, we sin. Conscience must never be violated.
It is not enough simply to obey conscience in order to give ourselves peace of mind. Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:31), If we would judge ourselves we should not be judged. It is through conscience that we can judge ourselves. If we positively use this faculty to this end we shall save ourselves the judgments that will surely come to us if we are slack. David, in Psalm 139, considered the wonderful knowledge that God possessed because He was everywhere. At the end of the Psalm he applied the message to himself and asked God to search his heart and know his thoughts. He knew that his gaze upon his own heart was not enough, but that God could see things hidden from his eyes.
He was so anxious to please God that he wanted the Omniscient One to show him things he could not see. This attitude could not be more positive. We are not to conclude, as some would, that he did not search himself and left it to God, but rather that he was not satisfied with his own ability to search out iniquity, but wanted God, who could see everything, to perform this great task.
We may find many examples in the world of methods whereby people who are determined to achieve an objective, discipline themselves, but we may also read in the biographies of great saints of former ages about their determined efforts to keep short accounts with God, and keep their consciences in a healthy state. The use of resolutions, covenants and diaries were found to be of great assistance to the greatest saints. In our busy lives these appear to have no usewe are more spiritual than they, apparently! However, we know that the Word of God is the chief means of exercising our conscience. We must, therefore, be positive in our reading of Scripture.
We must ask God to apply the message to ourselves. We must listen to the preacher with a readiness to hear something that applies to ourselves. This is not to condone the morbid attitude of one who is always ready to inflict punishment upon himself. If we are careful in our handling of conscience we will know when we are simply allowing needless fears to alarm us, or where the Word of God clearly applies to our case. Conscience will not simply frighten us, but will instruct us and point our sin on the basis of specific texts of Scripture and deductions from Scripture.
Some have made the mistake of thinking the Christian can attain to some form of perfectionism, but others have reacted from this to the opposite extreme and represent a healthy Christian life as a condition in which one is constantly overwhelmed with a sense of innumerable sins! It is clear from Scripture that the Christian can and should be happy and joyful in the knowledge that he is living a life pleasing to God; is abiding in Christ, walking with his Lord and led of the Spirit. This is not perfection, but rather following the appointed path, being taught, and growing in grace. God, through conscience, applies lessons one by one. He tells a man as much as he can bear and no more. He takes us on the pathway step by step.
While we will never be perfect in this life, we may live a life of obedience and grow in godliness. This close walk with Christ gives more happiness than anything this earth can afford, but at the same time gives life and meaning to everyday events. Just as a healthy man can take pleasure in physical activity; can bear strain, fight off germs, so a man with a healthy conscience can enjoy the good things that God gives him. He can endure hardness and bear trials joyfully. An unhealthy conscience spoils everything; it makes a Christian gloomy. But a good conscience that is well-instructed enables a man to rejoice at all times. It enables a man to sleep in peace. The who has respected his conscience all through his life will find it the best friend in death.
As we conclude this booklet the final word must be simply this: consider the Scriptures that have been used and see for yourself whether or not they have been handled in a Biblical way. Do not accept the writers word; Scripture alone is our guide. Then apply these words to the understanding of your own conscience. Give conscience work to do in telling you about itself and your attitude towards it.
Give conscience the material to work on that you might know its nature and function, then listen very carefully to whether it condemns you in your attitude towards it, and respond to whatever recommendation it may make, that you may be more careful in future to give it the respect it deserves. We shall one day stand before the Lord Jesus Christ, whose eyes are as a flame of fire. He is the Judge of all, and we shall see ourselves ten in the clear light of His holiness and justice, and He has given us a judge which will prepare us for that day. Let us praise Him for this precious gift, and use it fully for His glory.