Thursday

Why do we have a conscience?

Throughout history, the involvement of conscience in the affairs of mankind is enormous. Many men and women suffered for what they considered to be right rather than taking the easy way out. They fought for justice and sought to help the oppressed. They stood up what they considered to be wrong and influenced the laws of their land. Some even gave their lives. And then there is each one of us. Don’t we expect our brothers and sisters in Christ to have a conscience when dealing with one other? After all, we are supposed to have the mind of Christ. Just imagine what the world would be like if there were no such thing as a conscience! But then, what exactly is that conscience? Do all people have it, or only some? Is it a part of us from birth (nature), or is it acquired through our upbringing (nurture)? Why do some people have extremely sensitive consciences while others seem to have no conscience at all? These are interesting questions.

Allport, for example, wrote of a generic conscience that enhances ones life, Freud parallelled it with his idea of superego (a source of morality and moral judgement), and Fromm distinguished between two different types conscience: a fear-based, authoritarian infantile sense of right and wrong, and a more mature, rational, sensitive, humanistic one. But despite their differences, Psychologists would agree that everyone is born with the capacity to develop a moral character, which influences our conscience, and which progressively takes on shape as our cognitive capacities develop from infancy to adulthood and beyond. This capacity, which enables us to make judgements based on values, develops as a result of interactions between our own desires to earn acceptance and avoid punishment, and the influence of socialising agents such as parents, peers and wider society.

The Bible gives a more definite explanation as to the origin of our conscience. At the very beginning of mankind’s history, God gave Adam the following command: of the tree of the knowledge of good an evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen.2:17). And Satan added “…God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen.3:5). Adam and Eve may have believed that God wanted to deprive them of something good, that he wanted to withhold knowledge from them, but in reality His prohibition was meant for their protection. Why? Because once they knew both good and evil, they would not be able to abstain from doing evil. Contrary to what Satan had said, they would not be like God, because He alone is capable of doing good only and not evil. Jesus confirmed this by saying that No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matt.19:17).

When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, their conscience was activated immediately: “…the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (Gen.3:7). Their conscience told them that they had done wrong, and they “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God” (Gen.3:8). And ever since then, mankind has been hiding from God. After all, who likes to have their wrongdoings exposed? It’s so much easier to blame others, just as Eve blamed the serpent (Satan), and Adam blamed Eve and ultimately God by referring to “the woman whom YOU gave to be with me” (Gen.3:12-13 - emphasis mine).

Our conscience is therefore the inbuilt knowledge that some behaviour is good and other behaviour is evil. It is a God-given moral potential rooted in the image of God, which progressively unfolds as our cognitive capacities develop. We cannot escape the fact that we are moral beings, and the Bible is clear on this point: when Gentiles, who do not have the [Jewish] law, by nature do the things contained in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my [Paul’s] gospel” (Rom.2:14-15).

But here is an interesting phenomenon: although everyone has this faculty called conscience, the judgements determined by it can vary greatly. A native person might be honoured for being a headhunter, but severely punished for something we would consider a small offence, or no offence at all. Another tribal person may be honoured for being utterly deceitful, but may be despised when being honest (I once saw a missionary documentary concerning such a tribe). This proves that all human beings distinguish between good and evil, but that their perception of what is good and what is evil can vary greatly. Even gangs and outlaws have a set of values and their own code of conduct.

Our conscience is therefore a moral capacity we are born with. It only develops into specific values and ideas as we grow up and are influenced by people and culture. This learning takes place as we socialise with persons that are important to us. We internalise their expectations (standards, ideals) and merge them with own individual desires and innate moral consciousness, until we finally we end up with our own perceptions of right and wrong. But these are by no means fixed. If the impact of external factors is strong enough, and a person has the necessary internal motivation to change, their moral code can be adjusted.

Why is it that the shaping of our conscience is so dependent on our surroundings? Two strong motivators make us take in parental ideals and expectations from an early age: love and fear. We love and admire our parents (or some other significant person), and we fear their punishment or rejection if we fall short. But as we grow older, we will increasingly look to other sources for our values and tend to take on board the standards of our peers and broader society. We normally experience a good conscience when we do what we have learnt to be right.

Unfortunately, people can also develop a false bad conscience, which is unhealthy. Therapists are all too aware that angry, unloving and punitive environments are likely to foster emotions of false guilt. When people that are important to a child display unloving, punishment driven attitudes, the child takes these on board and merges them with its own inherent sense of moral justice. As a result, the child then develops inappropriate corrective attitudes and emotions. Severe false guilt feelings, for example, are often found in depressive and obsessive compulsive personalities. When child education focuses on loving disciplinary actions, on the other hand, it will produce a love-based set of corrective attitudes in the child and enable him or her to experience true guilt when s/he has done something to hurt another person. Problems of conscience are usually the result of developmental disturbances, as people fail to internalise acceptable standards, or as they repress their inherent moral nature and develop antisocial or sociopathic personality styles because of inappropriate values.

The attitudes of our conscience are therefore shaped by upbringing, education, and other external influences. Unfortunately, this also means that the media, advertising and associated peer pressure, easily exploits children, teens, and even adults. How important it is to be selective in what we allow to enter our minds and affections, so that our conscience can be shaped according to Godly values instead of the values of secular society!

The Bible emphasises the upbringing of children. The Old Testament advises parents to teach them the Law of God in and through all of life’s circumstances (Deut.11:18-21), and the New Testament entreats God’s children not to be conformed to this world, but to be conformed instead to God’s standards. This requires a renewing of the mind in accordance with Scripture (Rom.12:1-2) and a focus on those things that are true, noble, just, lovely and praiseworthy (Phil.4:8). It is in following this advice, and by having their conscience directed by Him, that His children can prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The Bible also teaches that the functions of conscience are to convict us of wrongdoing (Jn.8:9) and to bear witness to our doing right (Rom.9:1), thus guiding our behaviour. However, some people may have a weaker conscience than others due to a lack of understanding. We find an example of this in 1 Cor.8:7-12, where the eating of meat offered to idols is seen as unlawful by some, but not by others. Paul understood that this is not a problem before God because idols have no power (1 Cor.8:4-6), but he insisted that love would not force this understanding on another brother or sister to make them act against their own conscience, which would be sin.

But best of all, the Bible teaches that when we put our faith in Christ, our conscience is cleansed from (our own) dead works by His blood (Heb.9:14), so that we can serve God in full assurance of faith with a CLEAR CONSCIENCE (Heb.10:22). This is our positional standing before God when we are His children!<>

2 comments:

burningisles said...

Thank you Margaret for you last post on the conscience, it was good to see someone point to God's word for answers rather than what man thinks when referring only to themselves. 2 Corinthians 10:12
I was interested to read your testimony of how you trusted in Christ especially because my wife and I are members of New Tribes Mission having only just returned from PNG after 8 years.
If you get the chance and if you have not already read it I would recommend a great book for your encouragement, it is called "Christ Esteem" by Don Matzat. It is a little hard to get now but I am sure you can find a copy on the internet someplace.
In Christ,
Trevor ("Burning Isles" blog spot)

Margaret said...

Thanks for your comment, Trevor. I searched the net for the book you recommended, and it's available as a FREE pdf file from Don Matzat's church website (Zion Lutheran Church) at http://www.zlcb.org/index.html There's a link on the home page, or it can be accessed via the Pastor's Page, then Books. I downloaded it but haven't had a chance to read it properly. Thanks for your input - much appreciated!

In our Lord's service,
Margaret