“Can’t I just trust my conscience on this one?”
By “this one,” he meant his recent decision to end his marriage. He’d met someone who made him “feel happier and more fulfilled,” he said, feelings he hadn’t enjoyed in many years.
His logic went something like this: “I feel good about this decision I’ve made to end my marriage. Surely God wants me to be happy and fulfilled. Since I feel it’s right, it must be right.”
Not so fast.
The conscience is a wonderful gift from God. He has generously placed His standards of right and wrong in the mind of every person. He’s done this to lead us into the best life possible.
Without a conscience, we’d have no ability to function in community. Travel the world, and you’ll find there’s general agreement across cultures that we ought not take each other’s stuff without permission, murder, or lie. Rare exceptions do not disprove the rule.
That’s because we’re all born with a conscience.
On the same trip around the world, you’ll also notice that the human conscience doesn’t always work very well. Theft, murder, and deceit are sadly commonplace – regardless of culture.
That’s because our consciences are defective, made so by something else we’re born with – a selfish, sinful nature that is easily deceived and prone to self-justification.
With all due respect to Disney’s Jiminy Cricket, we cannot always let our conscience be our guide. Defective consciences allow us to feel guilt when we should not, and to feel something is right when it’s wrong and harmful.
God warns us about this dilemma: “What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil,” says Isaiah 5. “What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever.”
The conscience is a bit like a GPS. It’s got to be activated, rightly informed, and properly maintained. Otherwise, we’re far more likely to be wise in our own eyes – fools thinking ourselves clever.
Our conscience gets activated the moment we repent; we turn from our sin and our natural selfishness and turn to God’s loving remedy for sinners – Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a righteous life that we have not lived, and cannot live, and offered Himself as our substitute at Calvary.
When we trust in Christ for our right standing with God, our conscience is divinely activated. God gives us a new, sincere desire to live for him, not merely ourselves, and our conscience can work the way it’s designed to work.
“But I’ve even prayed about this,” he said. “And I still feel good about divorcing her.”
And there’s the catch: we’re not meant to live by feelings, but by truth. We don’t arbitrarily decide what is right and true, we discover truth from God in his word, the Bible.
Jesus made this very clear when he prayed for all who would be his followers, just before his death on the cross: “Make them holy by Your truth… Your word is truth.”
That brings me back to the fellow who called seeking approval from a religion writer he didn’t even know for his selfishly motivated divorce. (Happily, he eventually saw that his phone call proved his conscience was not at ease after all).
He’d missed an important third step toward a legitimately clean conscience: our conscience must be properly, and constantly, maintained. Ignore the clear warnings of conscience enough times and you’ll simply not hear the warnings anymore.
As the Apostle Paul said to Timothy: “Cling to your faith in Christ and keep your conscience clear.”