Though all people are created with conscience—the ability to sense the difference between right and wrong, or good, better, and best—it is possible for to become so hard-hearted that is seems one does not even have a conscience.
Conscience is part of the hard wiring of human beings created in God’s image. Romans 2 says that all people have consciences and inner thoughts that sometimes accuse, sometimes excuse. Some people are plagued with a sense of supposed guilt, of active shame.But there are people who have so closed themselves to the voice of conscience that they function as amoral creatures. In an extreme case, the sociopath shows absolutely no regard for other people, indifferent to suffering, which they themselves may inflict, perhaps because he or she suffered severely at the hands of someone else. Human beings can have “seared” consciences. Hard hearts. Corrupted minds.
This is why we desperately need consciences that are active and healthy and balanced. This is part of the foundation of Christian faith. 1 Peter 3:21 calls baptism “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Hebrews 10:22 says “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 9:14 says that the blood of Christ, his sacrificial death, is what can “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
But like everything else about us, the conscience is fallible. It is possible to have a “weak conscience” (1 Cor. 8:7, 10). The conscience can be “defiled” (Tit. 1:5). Worse, it can be “seared” (1 Tim. 4:2), meaning that all its sensitivity is deadened.
So the question is, how can this God-given inner moral responsiveness be protected and refined?
If one of your car’s warning lights comes on, you would do well not to ignore it. Instead, you have a mechanic check it out, who may tell you it is a good thing you heeded the warning because your radiator has a leak, or your engine has burned up most of its oil, or your brake line is clogged. But it is also possible the mechanic will tell you that everything is fine, and that the warning light was malfunctioning.
This is the way it is with conscience. When we are deeply troubled, when our minds are troubled about something we did or said, when our stomaches are twisted in knots, we need to work the issue and figure out whether or not we are guilty, and what needs to happen for rectitude. What matters is figuring out whether we, by objective standards, are guilty, not merely whether we feel guilty, or ashamed. This distinction is frequently forgotten today: being guilty versus feeling guilty, the objective versus the subjective.
If we are guilty of something, it is appropriate that we feel guilty or ashamed of what we did.
(More on this in Overcoming Guilt and Shame by Daniel Green and Mel Lawrenz.)
Conscience is a God-given moral sensitivity that sometimes delivers a sense of being right, and at other times of being wrong. The question then becomes: is the voice of conscience, right here, right now, delivering an accurate message?
Many people suffer from an overly-sensitive conscience which troubles them unnecessarily. Some people really suffer with this. They have been put to shame by important people in their lives for long stretches of time. They have perpetually troubled hearts. They have a hard time resting in the forgiveness of God. They may take Christian faith as a whole system of shame imposed on them. They may feel as though they need to live under restrictions that are not necessary (which is approximately what Paul meant by the “weak conscience” of some in 1 Corinthians 8).
The young Martin Luther was like this. He said he labored under “an extremely disturbed conscience” that was misplaced and exaggerated. After he discovered the real meaning of the gospel of grace his conscience was liberated. And he would need it. Years later he would stand before the most powerful leaders of his day who were demanding that he recant what he had written about the grace and truth found in Christ. But his conscience would not let him take back what he had written. His famous words before an emperor and other powerful men still echo today:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason–for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
Some see in Luther’s brave stand the exemplar of modern man, asserting personal conscience above all other people or leaders or institutions. But that misses Luther’s main point. He said his conscience was “captive to the Word of God” not that his conscience was its own lord and master.
It is not good to be tortured by an overly-sensitive conscience. And it is disastrous to hurt others because we have “seared” consciences. Living the Bible means one’s conscience is submitted to God’s word in the fullness of its grace and truth. This will happen when we read Scripture without bias or preference—regularly, thoughtfully, intelligently—asking the Spirit of God to shape us from the inside out.