Our minds are a challenge to understand at times. As believers we want a clear understanding of God’s will and how He can lead us throughout the day, but so many thoughts enter our minds that we can get confused as to which thought is from God or from another spirit, or just our own self-talk about our situation.
Our minds are constantly active as we try to comprehend about our environment and situation. We may feel guilty for saying something that hurt another or guilty for not responding when we should have taken a stand for Christian values or for not sharing the gospel in school or work. We can allow our internal conversations to lead us into critical, sensual or egotistical thoughts, which we do not want anyone to know about. Good or bad thoughts often repeated find acceptance and eventually lead to acting them out with a free conscience.
Where do these thoughts come from? How are we to understand them and how should we respond to them? Are we talking to ourselves or are we listening to an outside source speaking to our conscience?
Importance of the conscience
Conscience is an internal sense of right and wrong. It is like a computer that responds to what has been recorded in its memory. It can become “seared” (1 Tim 4:2) by repeatedly listening to lying or deceiving spirits in the mind (4:1).
The conscience is always taught or programmed by one’s worldview and accepted set of values, whatever they may be. The conscience gives a positive response to situations that fit our value system and a guilty or negative response to what is contrary to our beliefs. As a result, the absence of a sense of guilt can be misinterpreted as “peace” or a “clear” conscience yielding a “green light” to a behavior that may in fact be a wrong signal to follow leading to disaster.
Limitations of the conscience
Paul wrote “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (1Co 4:4 NLT). Even a clear conscience for Paul was not adequate within himself to be certain he was right. The conscience is not the voice of God assuring us of His will; that is, the absence of guilt by itself does not justify an action as being right or God’s will.
A person may be convinced he has no guilt about pre- or extra-marital sex, but that does not mean that it is acceptable before God. Our conscience is submissive to the value system we have come to believe. If our beliefs or values are contrary to God’s Word, we will not be convicted about wrong doing; rather we will naively assume it is okay to commit even immorality because we no longer feel guilty.
Conscience merely reflects our worldview values
In 1 Cor 8-10 Paul uses a practical situation in the Roman Empire to illustrate the importance of keeping the conscience sensitive and guided by biblical principles. Paul dealt with the issues of what believers should do about food, drink and practices related pagan temple practices. (Missionaries face similar problems today).
Paul demonstrated how our knowledge (worldview, values and beliefs) controls our conscience (8:7, 10; 10:25, 27-29). The designation of “weak” or “strong” was relative to the degree their biblical beliefs and worldview had changed in regard to the temple practices. If their knowledge of God’s Word and new perspective was flawed or not yet clear, their conscience would be likewise defective and misleading.
The “strong” believer had the right perspective to guide his conscience: the believer knows there is no other god, rather merely empty idols (8:4). In this context, however, the “strong” believer lacked the additional selfless commitment to give up his biblical rights and freedoms to eat things sold by the temple, so as to not encourage the “weak” believers to violate their sensitive consciences. They still believed that any association with pagan temples was contaminated with false gods or demons they had always believed to be there.
A new believer might believe everything associated with his former unsaved lifestyle to be evil by association, i.e., playing pool or yoga. In time the believer learns that not all associations are sinful and idols are not gods to fear, but this can take time. It is one thing to know a truth and another to have the truth affect our conscience. It is a process.
The “stronger” or knowledgeable believer is to be patient and not encourage others to violate their consciences until the new biblical perspective changes the understanding of the “weaker” brother, lest his conscience become seared and he loses this vital “tool” for walking in obedience. Everyone’s conscience is important and we must help protect it in each other.
Categories of values and beliefs
The conscience will help us remain consistent with the new perspectives and beliefs we learn as the Word of God begins to transform our values and convictions.
First, we must learn the universal obligatory moral values communicated in the commands of the NT. Jesus told us to “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” (Mat 28:20 NLT). Since there are hundreds of these commands we must constantly be reviewing them so our conscience can help us walk in this way.
Second, each of us lives or works in a community, ministry or institution that has values and moral beliefs that may not be explicit sins, but they are important for the testimony of the community. For example: wine drinking may be technically permissible, but many ministries forbid the practice for the sake of influence. For the benefit of the community and the avoidance of being a “stumbling block” (1 Cor 8:9) one foregoes his biblical rights.
Third: believers develop personal values and beliefs as they mature. For example: how one spends his time, Bible study, prayer time, acceptable music, hobbies or contribution to the kingdom of God. These personal convictions program our consciences to keep us disciplined.
The conscience does not discriminate. It seeks to hold us to our personally chosen values, even if those values are wrong or a violation of a command or ministry value. We can thus convince ourselves we are in the right, when, in fact, we might be wrong. This is why we need each other and continual exhortation and biblical teachings.
The conscience does not create our beliefs or values – we do. These depend on what we tell ourselves is true in our own mind. We must be careful that what we repeat in our minds is truly biblical. The conscience seeks to guide us to live consistently within our beliefs. To violate the conscience can eliminate a major tool for God’s guidance in our lives.
Our understanding of God’s Word and His expectations of us must be accurate or our conscience will be defective and lead us into moral chaos, often without remedy.
Paul described this process of programming our beliefs as developing a “transformed mind” (Rom 12:2). This begins with a thorough awareness and trust in the commands of Christ for the believer. By learning to think biblically we train the conscience with the tools to lead us into His will and the way to consistently live with Him.