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What's the conscience?

A reader asked what our conscience is. The usual meaning of the word "conscience" is seen in passages like Romans 2:15, John 8:9, 1 Peter 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 10:29. A person’s conscience is a person's ability to make a judgement on his or her behaviour (or attitudes and such). A person in judging him or herself approves or disapproves, accuses or excuses. When we see a person engaging in that kind of activity we say their conscience is at work.

If we see a person exercising their ability to reason we say they are "reasoning" but we have no verb to describe what they are doing when we see them morally accusing/excusing themselves. If we invented a verb to cover it we might say the person is "conscienceing". It’s an ugly invention and who’d want it? But for us it makes the point that "conscience" is a word we use to cover our ability to render self-judgement on moral issues either to approve or disapprove.

For the conscience to work, you understand, a person must have accepted some standard they believe to be binding on him or her. That standard is not the conscience but it is the thing the person feels he or she has or has or has not remained true to. If a person can say within himself, "I have been true to my convictions then we say his conscience approves him in that matter. The standard may have come to him in any one of a hundred ways but however it came he received it as the standard he must live by or suffer self-recrimination. We speak of conscience only when the question arises, "Did you or did you not keep to the standard?" If in the end the person believes that they have stayed faithful to the standard they excuse themselves (they have a "clear conscience"; that is, they have no inner cloud hanging over them). If they conclude that they have been faithless to that standard they accuse themselves (they have a "bad conscience"). The fruit of a good conscience is peace and the fruit of a bad conscience is misery (of varying degrees).

We aren’t always careful in our speech (and who wants to live talking like a lawyer in daily life?) so we use phrases like "reason tells us" as if reason were something independent of us or some autonomous compartment in us. We say "for the conscience to work" which leaves the impression that the conscience is an independent and autonomous piece of us or something other than us doing something. It isn’t! Conscience is a word that covers something that humans can and do practice. The conscience is a person acting as moral judge on him or herself, either accusing or excusing him or herself for keeping to or going against a standard he or she accepts as binding.

It doesn’t matter that the standard the person accepts is true or false. A person may accept as true something that is untrue. When we speak of the conscience at work the only thing in view is if we are or are not being faithful to that standard. In Romans 14 some good Christians thought it was sinful to eat certain meats. Paul said they were mistaken. But despite the fact that they were mistaken they would have violated their inner integrity had they eaten while they thought they should not. Had they eaten they would have disapproved of themselves (their consciences would have condemned them) for going against the standard they felt bound by.

So the conscience is essentially the capacity of a person to be able to relate to him/herself. It is the capacity for self-reflection but it is more particularly self-reflection that assesses if a person is living up to what he expects of himself. It's interesting though not surprising, that there is less "wrestling" with the conscience when the duty is clear. The person knows whether has has done what is right or not. Where we're uncertain just how we should act there is a lot of self-questioning. The NEB renders 1 Corinthians 4:4, "I have nothing on my conscience." The conscience has done its job and in this area, Paul says, it has no work to do.

As all the above suggests, the conscience is shaped by what a person has learned and come to believe. To speak of a "Christian" conscience is simply to say that that person has been shaped by Christian teaching. Because that is true we need to acknowledge the limits of conscience "as a guide". It would appear that some Corinthians were saying that they could do some things without a conscience problem and therefore what they did must be alright but Paul would insist that a "good" or an "easy" conscience is not enough. It may be working on the basis of untruth and certainly, in the Corinthian case, it often worked on a limited sense of obligation to their brothers and sisters. Narrow your obligation to others down to a minimum and the conscience might be clear but if we see our obligation to others in light of the call of Jesus Christ on us maybe we won't enjoy as much peace. On the other hand, our life, though more complicated and perhaps more difficult, will be richer and more like His.

Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan