Christian Counseling: The Conscience: A Force For Good And Ill

Anyone who has a conscience (a sense of right and wrong) and has thought about it knows the power it can wield over feelings, thoughts and behavior for good or ill. It is one's personal sense of morality and developed primarily by an individual's knowledge, experience and beliefs. It is also formed by God in that "the Law is written in their hearts" (Romans 2:15).  Scripturally, the conscience is meant to be the personal law that guides one beyond those issues about which the Bible is silent or limited in explanation. Examples would be the details of keeping the sabbath or honoring one's parents, both of which are scripturally sketchy.

Human conscience is never exactly like God's, if we can ascribe that to Him. At least we can say His understanding of right and wrong is beyond our understanding. Human conscience is either underdeveloped or over developed. Either it has too few personal rules to guide one's life or too many rules that translate into a mountain of have to's, must's and should's. 

Those who have an underdeveloped or "seared" (1 Timothy 4:2) conscience typically have a greater sense of freedom to do what they want and don't often experience guilt. Our prisons are filled with these people. Our society's secular, underdeveloped, collective conscience says most anything is permissible, as long as it doesn't hurt others, such as: using illegal substances, having sex or children outside of marriage, being gay, and aborting a pregnancy. Some of these people believe that to have opposing laws infringes on individual rights. But there is no such thing as absolute liberty. Everywhere there must be some order and instructive laws because evil or sin rests in the hearts of people. In the end, at the final judgment, it is the conscience of God that will reveal and clarify what is truly right and wrong.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who consciences are overflowing with rules. These are hypercritical, often judgmental and at least somewhat rigid about morality (for the very rigid, morality for everyone is determined by the rigid's own personal conscience). Most often these people are guilt-prone, self-flagellating or hard on themselves, perfectionistic, black and white thinkers, limited in joy, strict and can be legalistic. This type of conscience can lead to anxieties and depressions. Paul warns about attempting to live primarily by the law and not by the Spirit (Galatians 3:1-5). The conscience is a fallible guide, not God nor a perfect law, but very necessary.

The Christian's job is to maintain a "clear conscience" (1 Timothy 3:9) and respect it is the second law (the Bible is first) that instructs us about moral decisions and how to live. But equally important to keeping it clear is the full recognition that everyone's conscience (beliefs, morality) must continually be challenged, changed and grow into the likeness of God's sense of right and wrong. All the while knowing we can never achieve a perfect conscience. Therefore, we should never settle for the conscience we have or believe it is good enough because there is always another critical and sturdy rung on the ladder of a good conscience to climb.

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