Do you know why you do the things you do? If you have plans for today, do you know why you made them? Quick answers to these questions are usually superficial. Human motivations are complex. If we really want to understand why we do things, we have to spend time thinking about it. This can be painful, but it’s often very revealing…and rewarding. God would like for us to have a moral reason for all that we do. He does, and He wants us to enjoy the kind of purposeful life that He enjoys.
Making the moral choices that lead to discovering our purpose is an activity that takes place in that part of our being we call conscience. Conscience is the place where we weigh good and evil, the place we make choices about right and wrong. It’s one part of our being that we’ll definitely take to heaven and not leave behind. Conscience divides our activities into rights and responsibilities. Rights are what we’re allowed to do; responsibilities are what we’re supposed to do. These rights and responsibilities grow and change with age and with decisions we make. For example, marriage dramatically increases both the rights and responsibilities of the parties to each other. When we do something we don’t have the right to do, our conscience bothers us. The moral pain calls our attention to this sin of commission. When we fail to do something we have a responsibility to do, our conscience likewise pains us over this sin of omission. This moral compass we call conscience isn’t an infallible guide to rights and responsibilities, but in navigating the seas of life nothing else can take its place.
The amount of time we spend in our conscience has something to do with how we live our lives. If we heed our conscience, we find it comfortable to go there. We can find comfort in reflecting on our actions. If, however, we disregard what our conscience tells us, we avoid the place just like a criminal avoids the police. For this reason, some people have a conscience that if we were to see it, would appear like an abandoned shack. That is, no one lives there anymore.
Other people use their conscience only to assess the activities of other people. They become like the landlord of a tenement slum. You’ve seen these kinds of people. They know what everyone else is doing wrong. They know just how people should change to make the world a better place. The problem is, they themselves are a pain to live with because they spend so little time in their own conscience. They’re so busy passing judgment on others they have no time left over to reform themselves.
The Proper Use of Conscience
The first and best use of our conscience is to house and judge the thoughts and activities of our own individual lives. As such, it’s a place to seek moral pleasure and avoid moral pain. Compare it with physical pleasure and pain. We learn physical pleasures much earlier in life. We enjoy a good meal. We delight in a good night’s sleep. We can become enraptured with the colors and intricacy of a flower. The world is full of physical pleasures that are neither fattening nor sinful. We also learn quickly about pain. In fact, we come into the world crying. And there can be many reasons to cry right up until the time we leave.
Moral pleasure and pain come from nerve endings that can’t be seen. They come from spiritual, not physical, senses. Moral pleasure is what you feel inside when you give the shirt off your back to someone in need. It’s what you feel when you know you could get away with something dishonest, but refuse to do it just the same. The greater good that you do, the greater the pleasure that comes from doing it. This pleasure has nothing to do with other people’s awareness of your good deeds – it’s an internal thing. It’s between you and God.
Moral pain is likewise a personal and internal experience. We experience moral pain when we do things that are wrong. As the pain intensifies, we either obey the dictates of our conscience and abandon whatever activity was causing the moral pain…or else we repress the pain, make our hearts a little harder, and thus mute the voice of conscience in the future. Do this enough and your conscience becomes dead. Sadly, there are some people in the world who have rendered their consciences useless. (The good news here is that Jesus Christ can heal any conscience – even if it’s dead; see God Wants a Loving Relationship with You.)
Moral pleasure, on the other hand, is enjoyable. In fact, it’s more than enjoyable – it’s strengthening. It gives us the inner strength to live life well, even when physical circumstances are going against us. The Bible says that Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” The joy was the moral pleasure that He received from knowing He was sticking to His purpose in life in spite of vehement and violent opposition. He was keeping His promises when there were all sorts of reasons why He should forget them. He took no delight in the way He died; He despised the shame of the cross. Rather, He took delight in the moral rightness of His course – a course that would lead out of earthly shame into heavenly honor.
Your promises are very important, too. Maybe the whole world doesn’t ride on them (as it did with Jesus’), but some of the world does. Will you keep your promises to your wife or husband? Will you keep your promises to raise your children? Will you keep your promises to everyone else? I don’t mean to make you feel inferior; we’ve all broken promises. If, however, we can take our promises more seriously, we can find tremendous moral pleasure in keeping them. And the moral pleasure will strengthen us to keep them even when we’re sorely tempted to let them go.
Much of the moral pain in the world today is due to broken promises. I’m not talking about the little ones like “I’ll take you to the store” as much as the big ones like “I’ll spend my life with you.” Even though we don’t explicitly make promises to our children at birth as we do our spouses at marriage, still there is an implied promise in bringing them into the world. By conceiving them, we imply that we will take care of them until they can take care of themselves. The multiplied broken homes today are signs of multiplied broken promises. The moral pain and despair that seethes beneath the surface of society can be transformed into pleasure and hope if we will only begin to remember that our word was meant to be our bond.
Don’t give up on making promises just because you’ve broken them in the past. Perhaps you should make them a little more slowly, but don’t quit making them altogether. For one thing, others need your involvement to enrich their own lives. For another, you deprive yourself of the moral pleasure than can come from making a promise and keeping it. Start small. Make a promise this morning that you can keep this afternoon. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll work up to God’s level: making a promise like heaven that requires keeping day after day…for years without end! (Can you imagine the moral pleasure that comes from that repeated faithfulness!)
The Transition to Maturity
One of the great transitions in life comes when we can learn to make moral pleasure more important than physical pleasure, and moral pain more important than physical pain. To make this transition means achieving a spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity isn’t a function of how old you are. It’s a function of your decision to regard virtue as more important than physical gratification. The crown of thorns and the cross itself were physically painful to Jesus. However, He subjected His physical feelings to His moral ones and showed us a maturity to which we can aspire.
Young people in love but unready to marry, are at a crisis that will move them toward spiritual maturity or push them farther from it. If physical gratification is postponed until marriage, or if marriage is entered because physical gratification can’t be postponed, then a measure of spiritual maturity has been achieved. This maturity will benefit every other area of their lives. The maturing doesn’t hang on whether they marry or not. It hangs on whether they behave in a way that is consistent with what they decide about marriage.
Knowledge of consequences would indicate to the two young people the proper choices, but that might result only in their doing what’s right for fear of getting into trouble. Deciding out of motives cleansed by conscience, however, would bring the additional benefit of moral pleasure. This is the transition from living based on fear to living based on love. Fear of negative consequences is self-oriented; it seeks to protect me from trouble. Love is others-oriented; it seeks to protect them from trouble even though it costs me in the process.
Doing things from a motive of love not only helps us make good decisions every day, it leads us closer and closer to discovering and fulfilling our purpose in life. I used to think that I needed to discover my purpose in life so that I could fulfill it. I have come to see that it’s in fulfilling my purpose that I discover it. As I live day by day, trying to do what is right in God’s sight, I am drawn closer and closer to the purpose God has for me. That purpose is love, and the specific expression of it my circumstances allow me to be. My purpose is something I continually discover as I continually fulfill it. My purpose is love…and reasoning with my conscience is how I find it…one day at a time.
Meeting with God
The conscience is more than a place for deciding what’s right and wrong. It’s a place for meeting with God. Now don’t get spooked on me. I know that “hearing from God” is a touchy subject. People have done some mighty strange things in the name of “God told me such-and-such.” But since we don’t throw away our good money when we hear that someone’s passing counterfeit, I don’t think you should throw away your right to hear God just because someone else misuses theirs. Besides, God usually talks to us in ways so subtle and personal that it’s hard to pass on to others anyway.
If you’ve ever “heard” the “still small voice” which is something beyond conscience then you know the experience that sensitive humans felt at the Second Coming. All over the world, whether they were Christians or not, people who tried to live right and keep a good conscience began to sense Another’s presence when Jesus came again. While He was “coming” in heaven He was “coming” to human hearts. Not a genie that you could keep in a bottle, but gentle and majestic whisperings that took moral pleasure to new heights. (For more explanation, see the post Jesus Christ Has Already Come Again, which includes a link to an online book Whatever Became of Jesus Christ?)
It is God Himself who is the ultimate reason to live. It is knowing Him that is life itself. And for this reason, Jesus called knowing God “eternal life.” The most wonderful thing about knowing that we’re going to heaven is that we can know better the One who made us…while we’re still here. And therein we find a reason not just to live…but to love. Only through Him do we know what love really is. Only through personal awareness of Him can we attain the moral life described in this essay. On our own, we are powerless to live a life of good works. (For help, see the post Practicing the Presence of God.)