Conscience is our moral muscle. The more we use it, the more it grows. The development of conscience often comes with age, but it’s possible for an 18 year-old to have a more developed conscience than a 40 year-old. It is also possible to strain the conscience, as with a muscle. That is, we overuse it. This frequently happens when someone decides to “turn over a new leaf.” Maximum effort is invested in doing everything right. Sooner or later, the world comes crashing down on that person because no one can do everything right from one moment on. When the crash comes, such a person often then discards conscience altogether, saying, “It doesn’t work for me to try to do the right thing.”
Many people only use their conscience for big decisions. When the conscience is developed with little decisions, however, it can be much more effective for big ones. Other people only use conscience for little decisions, leaving the big decisions to be governed by self-interest. But a conscience being used this way never realizes its potential. The conscience is a spiritual GPS, designed to help us navigate life. That means deciding about all the twists and turns – big and little.
Some people have a stunted conscience. That is, they let other people do the moral thinking for them. If a certain person – be it a spiritual leader, spouse, or sports hero – says that something is okay, then it’s okay. No further questions need be asked. While it is good to have heroes, we can’t let them do our thinking for us. The good heroes would never consent to such an abdication of responsibility. It halts all our growth to let someone else’s conscience govern our own lives.
Conscience Works Best in Private
Conscience is a hidden faculty and it does its best work in privacy. Jesus said that when doing good deeds, we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. That is, there’s a certain detachment that needs to go with living a life of love. I haven’t mastered it, but I’ve come close enough to see how self-defeating it is to meditate on my own goodness – much less hope someone else will!
The first big temptation that comes to those trying to imitate God’s way of life is that other people begin to notice your kindness…and praise you for it. You can’t fault them. God’s pleased that they noticed your change, and that they’re thankful. But before you know it, you’re doing the good thing for the earthly applause it brings instead of the heavenly ovation that’s much harder to hear.
One evening my wife called to me from the other room, “There is no glory in wiping applesauce off my baby’s chair.” It became a proverb for the two of us. It speaks of the lack of earthly glory that is associated with so much important earthly activity. If you’re going to stay motivated to keep a high chair clean, it’s best to have some sense of the heavenly audience that puts the proper emphasis on such things. The more hidden the conscience’s work is from earthly view, the freer it is to let the light of heaven shine on it. And when that happens, the moral pleasure can be its most intense.
People’s approval won’t make your motives any purer, and their disapproval doesn’t taint your motives. God recognizes your hidden reasons for doing things without checking with anyone else first. It’s those reasons that make all the difference to Him. Even actions which are viewed by a large number of people can still be invested with heavenly meaning. Jesus’ ministry was by no means a private affair. However, the workings of His motives were not on display. They were very much a private affair. There are times when our motives should be up front and fully declared. But happy is the person who keeps them at their purest, even when no one but heaven can see them.
The Limitations of Conscience
Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul was one of the religious leaders who thought Jesus and His followers were wrong. He even imprisoned men and women who embraced the teaching of Jesus. After he saw a great light from heaven, he had a drastic change of heart. He immediately embraced the teaching and began promoting it himself. He went from persecutor to persecuted. Years later, when on trial for his faith, he said that he had lived his life with a good conscience. Therefore, it was his conscience that had guided him to persecute followers of Jesus and it was his conscience that guided him to become one of them. What sort of conscience was this? A human one; that is, one in the process of development – and subject to error.
Thus, being confident that you’re right doesn’t make you right. And being unsure you’re right doesn’t make you wrong. If you’ve ever done any parenting you know how hard it is to be sure you’re right. A certain amount of confidence is necessary to be a good parent, but a parent who is always sure of his or her own rightness of opinion is a burden to children.
The fact that even an active conscience, like Paul’s, can be in need of a big adjustment is proof that conscience is not an infallible guide. Our individual sense of right and wrong is not the final authority in the governing of the universe. God Himself is. Because of this, there is always room for us to be humble – no matter how sure we are that we are right.
You can never afford to disregard your conscience, for you never know what the consequences might be. But even if you follow your conscience, you must be prepared for the possibility that God, or others, may see things in a greater light. But even then, God will deal most gently with someone who’s doing the very best they know to do.
If we wait until we have perfect knowledge of what we should do, and full assurance of all the results our actions will bring about, then we’ll never act. If all you have is the slightest sense of the right thing to do, then act. That sense will grow every time you use it. And when that sense needs adjustment, God will intervene. We can figure, for example, that God opened Paul’s eyes precisely because the guy was trying so hard to follow his conscience. Your enlightenment may not come as dramatically as his, but you can trust that God won’t leave you laboring forever under false conceptions if you are seeking Him with an honest heart.
To spend a great deal of time in conscience is to increase our chances of running into God. For conscience is the house where He meets us. You won’t always recognize Him, and sometimes He’s gone as soon as He comes. He’s in a thought, a feeling, a hunch, a leaning. He comes like a gentle breeze…and goes the same way. You can’t put the wind in a bottle, and you can’t dictate how and when God will speak to you. He speaks in the conscience, but He’s distinct from it.
As you can see, the limitation of conscience isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing because that limitation is what leaves room for God. If our consciences were perfectly able to tell us everything we’d ever need to know about right and wrong, then we could live without an awareness of God. Since conscience can only go so far, however, we’re constantly reminded to look for the One who can show up there. And in finding Him, we can’t help learning more about love…because that’s the essence of who He is.