Can You Trust Your Conscience?
Having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck. 1Timothy 1:19, NKJV
How do you think a restaurant would do where people were expected to pay for what they took, and pay as much or as little as they thought it was worth? That is exactly what the owners of one restaurant decided to do. Gene and Grace Valian were owners of the Great American Breakfast and Barbecue House. They decided to try a pay-what-you-want experiment. But it ended in failure. Some people have “just no consciences at all,” they said, explaining that most people paid “just a shade under what they would have normally paid.”
Have you ever wondered why one person can do something with apparently no feelings of a troubled conscience—say, the youth who ate large portions of food and left almost nothing—and there’s the little lady who took almost nothing but left far more than it would have cost? Why can one person do something with a clear conscience and another person struggle vastly with the same issue?
The My Lai incident in Vietnam well illustrates the polarity of conscience that condemns what another’s conscience allows. The sad and grim account of the slaughter of innocent women and children came to light because a soldier’s conscience convicted him. He knew what had taken place and his troubled conscience finally forced him to break silence and tell what happened, yet when the guilty party was brought to trial, he explained that he did this because his conscience was troubled over the death of a buddy and friend.
So, does conscience cause one person to do what another’s conscience condemns? Strange as it seems, the answer is yes. Until the turn of this century, mothers in India would take their first-born infant to the Ganges and throw the innocent newborn baby into the waters, which were thought to be sacred, as a sacrifice to a pagan God. The very thought of this is abhorrent to most women in the world, especially those whose empty arms would desperately like to hold and cherish an infant.
If you can get away with it, does that make it OK? A lot of people think so, and they are not the ones living in a jungle, a generation removed from the stone age culture which is much different from the one in which you were raised.
The fact is that your conscience—apart from an innate sense of right and wrong which comes from your culture—is only as good as the knowledge of right and wrong that you have. What we describe as conscience is more accurately defined as “guilt feelings.” Can a person actually be guilty of something and have no feelings of a troubled conscience? Definitely! But when you know that what you have done is wrong before God then your conscience becomes activated.
I remember the time that I was stopped by a policeman, and having just pulled out of a gas station, I knew that I couldn’t have done much that would get me into trouble. Thoughts of a burned-out taillight, or out-of-date registration loomed as a possibility, but I knew that wasn’t a big deal.
“Do you know what you did wrong?” he asked. “I don’t think I have done anything wrong,” I replied with a clear conscience. “Well,” he began, “you crossed over double-double yellow lines, and that’s against the law.” Ah, so it was. But I didn’t know it. I was guilty in the sight of the law as soon as I did it, but my conscience didn’t bother me until I knew and understood that what I had done was wrong.
That’s why an understanding of how God wants you to live is the only thing in the world that will give your conscience the data it needs to be trustworthy and accurate. The bottom line is not what you think, or your culture will allow, but how God view your life? Remember that He has the final word in saying what is right and wrong.
Resource reading: John 8:2-11.