The Development of a Personal Conscience

1 The Paediatric Conscience Vital Early Influences

How is that conscience developed that “renders to God the things that are God’s”? Parents, especially mothers, have a crucial role and responsibility in developing the consciences of their children, teaching them from their first months of life to consistently put a difference between right and wrong. Eventu¬ally in a time of war this same conscience may be tested in the law courts.

At first we steer and nudge our children in right paths, discouraging wilful behaviour. We teach them boundaries. A little later we also tell our children, “No matter where you are there is somebody who can see you”. Our children may wrestle with this, as we adults still do. The child mind thinks, “But God can’t see me because the sky is cloudy!” With parental persistence the child will learn Jonah’s lessons we cannot hide from God (cf Hymns 46, 41 [v4], Christadelphian Instructor Questions 15–19). Though necessary, taking this negative view of God as the “policeman” is limited. Fear of consequences is initially an important weapon in the armoury required to train up a child. However, conscience is not a fear of consequences. Even the domestic dog’s behaviour is controllable by fear of immediate consequences. The voice of conscience does not say, “It’s OK as long as I don’t get caught”. This applies equally to the child and the adult. Development has been stunted if our sole reason for good behaviour is that if we don’t obey we might be punished by missing out on the kingdom.

2 Ongoing Conscience Development in the Young

A better way for children of all ages to develop a good conscience is to learn to act out of love for God, not wanting to hurt Him (cf Gen 6:6 mankind grieved God). This individual development must be supported by the family example and role model:
• teaching respect for parents and so engendering respect for God (Eph 6:1–4).

• the young ones learning by observation “But, Mummy, why did you tell the man on the phone that Daddy wasn’t home, when he was?” Learning that Mum and Dad speak truth, even when the other person can’t find out, will assist the child to do likewise.

• young ones detecting the ambience of the home and learning whether or not God is central to family life, and if separation from the world is a way of life. Moses’ famous advice to constantly focus on God (Deut 6:4–9) is the method par excellence of developing a consciousness of God essential for development of conscience. The definition of right and wrong must be taught from the Scriptures as the basis for a good conscience, itself a basis for a right personal relationship with God as the child grows.

3 Conscience in the Mature Adult

The objective of conscience development is to create in the adult a mature conscience working by principle, wanting to please God. This conscience needs to be an individually held rather than a second-hand ‘institutional’ or ‘ecclesial’ conscience. Conscience needs to progress beyond simply adhering to the “thou-shalt-nots” to be also strongly governed by the “thou-shalts”. Furthermore, a

God created us with an intellect capable of choosing between right and wrong. He is honoured when we voluntarily choose to use this intellect to do right. But we live in a society in which the concepts of moral right and wrong are fast being replaced by “democratically decided values”. The world’s guide is that if an action doesn’t obviously hurt others it is acceptable. These values, originating from the imaginations of wicked hearts and dictated by the fashions of this evil age, are no basis for the operation of conscience. By contrast we must develop conscience based on the absolute authority of God. A Christadelphian “should unhesitatingly place God first and obey His laws because they are His laws, and not simply because they are convenient and helpful to human society” (Conviction and Conduct, pp81,82).

What is Conscience?

In English we understand the word “conscience” to mean the moral sense of right and wrong. It is derived from con meaning “with” and scio meaning “to know”. Conscience is a common New Testament term. The Greek word means ‘a knowing with oneself’. By this we distinguish right from wrong to govern our lives.

In one way conscience is analogous to a balance wheel or regulator in a spring driven clock, which mechanism ensures the clock keeps correct time. While our will is responsible for carrying out our actions, our conscience is responsible for regulating the performance of that will to conform to Godly ways. However, conscience extends further than this. Though related, it is not simply the consciousness of the moral quality of the action. It is also that within us, which judges the rightness or wrongness of our past actions or thoughts and approves or condemns us accordingly. It also judges what we should do in the future. Romans speaks of it bearing witness or acting as an ‘inner mental dialogue’ which defends or accuses (2:15;9:1).

Conscience: Good, Void of Offence and Pure

The New Testament speaks often (six times) of a good conscience as a quality of great value. This conscience is one which is good in character, beneficial in its effect and obeyed at all times. Being closely linked with faith (1 Tim 1:19) it is a Scripturally informed or educated conscience, understanding God’s commandments for personal conduct and in matters of relationship to the state. The Apostle Peter shows that the possessors of good conscience will be innocent of charges levelled by their ridiculers. In fact, those who are freed from sin will have a good conscience before God Himself (1 Pet 3:16, 21).

The Apostle Paul was a brother of highly developed conscience in relation to God and this world. He trained as hard as any athlete to always have his conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men (Acts 24:16). In his daily life he abstained from privilege so as not to damage another’s conscience.

Paul’s pure conscience toward God was not simply one which knew nothing against itself, ie which was not conscious of having been unfaithful, for this alone does not justify a man (1 Cor 4:4 it is God who judges). His conscience was clean before God because he was forgiven of sins, and so purged from dead works. Consequently, though he had performed dead works (eg his involvement in Stephen’s death) he could accurately say that he served God from his forefathers with pure conscience (2 Tim 1:3). For us struggling against the flesh as we also do, a conscience free of accusation and stain only comes by God’s forgiveness of our sins, when our hearts have been purified by faith. We all are called to hold the Truth in a pure conscience (1 Tim 3:9).

Conscience: Weak, Defiled, Evil, Seared

Then there’s the evil conscience, one causing pain and sorrow. King David experienced the self-destructive effects of this extremely defiled conscience, polluted with guilt. His state prior to forgiveness is graphically described: “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psa 32:3 RSV). Now the point of rejoicing for the sons of God is that they really have been relieved of the effects of such a conscience, having hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience burdened with sin (Heb 10:2, 22).

The extreme of damaged conscience, sadly seen in professors of Christ, is one seared with a hot iron (1Tim 4:2). Such a conscience has been cauterised or rendered insensitive to spiritual things, and is no longer able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Possessors of such a conscience are reprofully developed conscience will not be limited to the specific commandments, laws or rules about doing right but will always be governed by the principles of right behaviour. This conscience will be victorious when confronted with things lawful but not expedient. The common legalistic justifications, “I’m allowed to” and, “What’s wrong with that”, will not operate in this conscience. This mature conscience will only be found in individuals who by reason of habitual use “have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:12–14). Constant practice will always be required to maintain spiritual faculties to distinguish good from evil.

The Daily Operation of Conscience

How we would maintain good conscience if only we practised what we preached to our children! We tell children they can’t fool God, but all too often we try to do the same. Perhaps we demand more truthfulness of our children than we ourselves live. Let us reflect on a few examples of the challenges that our consciences may face daily:

• Do those who “ought to obey God rather than men” steal at tax return time or by short-changing God by carefully contributing to the collection bag as little as their miserly conscience will allow them to get away with?

• Given the daily flesh parade in the city streets are the urban strangers and pilgrims often drawn to commit adultery in the heart? In all good conscience Job could say, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl”, and he kept that covenant! Job controlled his eyes by the integrity of his heart, ie conscience, and not by law (Job 31:1; cf 27:6). In Joseph’s case, unseen by his family in Egypt, God was alive in his mind. “How then can I… sin against God?” (Gen 39:9) This incident is a classic illustration of Peter’s words that it is a beautiful thing if a man for conscience toward God endures undeserved suffering (1 Pet 2:19). Notice that it is commendable if a servant endure from a sense of God, because he is conscious of God. Brethren, God knows our minds!

• And what of the Christadelphian youth who gives an affirmation that he will speak truth in the court? How will he cope with this hypothetical situation? He has accepted an invitation to attend a friend’s birthday party Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile his best friend has invited him to an exciting outing that same afternoon. He has waited all summer for this! What should he do? Clearly the principled thing to do is to keep his word. Why? Because God keeps His word and he is endeavouring to copy Him.

• And what of those who have the conscience of Abraham? What role should conscience play in their purchase of material things, where there are no specific Scriptural benchmarks? They have free choice to exercise their personal conscience to determine their own material standards but awareness of others’ personal consciences will be very important for intra-ecclesial harmony. Are we still conscientious objectors when it comes to feathering our nests or looking after ourselves? Can we honestly say with Jesus, “My kingdom is not of this world”?

Conclusion

How can the followers of right win the battle over the flesh’s natural brilliance at self justification, the deceiver of many a good conscience? By allowing the entrance of God’s word to give light, ammunition is stored. But to parley with the flesh is dangerous. “There must be no reasoning on the harmlessness of conforming to the world. Its enticements without, and the sympathizing instincts of the flesh within, must be instantly suppressed” (Elpis Israel p68).

We need to accept that we can with God’s help “refuse the evil, and choose the good” if we are prepared to go on a life-long diet—of butter and honey, the good teaching which nourished the conscience of the Son of God (Isa 7:15). This teaching needs to be written on the heart to help control our habits and thoughts. This will produce a divinely educated conscience, essential to fear God and keep His commandments. Solomon hints that in vetting our actions now our own conscience will pave the way to a favourable judgment by God Himself (Eccl 12:13–14). Even so, our awareness of God’s standards of right and wrong always needs developing. May we so regularly train our minds that whether we stand before the judgment councils of this world or the world to come we may truthfully say with the Apostle Paul, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1).