The Bible’s Viewpoint
Should You Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide?
AS YOU walk down a busy street, you pass an elegantly dressed woman who unknowingly drops a roll of money. As you stoop to pick it up, you see her swiftly stepping into a limousine. What will you do? Call out to her or quickly stuff the bills in your pocket?
The answer depends on your conscience. What would it tell you to do? More important, can you trust what it tells you? Can you safely let your conscience be your guide?
What It Is
The conscience has been described as a natural sense of what is right and wrong, just and unjust, moral and immoral. The Bible explains the operation of the conscience at Romans 2:14, 15: “For whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused.” Thus, your conscience is designed to enable you to evaluate situations, make right choices, and judge yourself on the choices you have made. But can you trust it?
That depends. After all, there is ample evidence to prove that an errant conscience can lead one into wrong conduct. The fact that one’s conscience allows certain conduct is no guarantee that God condones it. For example, before he became a Christian, Saul of Tarsus led in the persecution of Christians. He even approved of and shared complicity in the murder of the Christian martyr Stephen. In all of this, his conscience did not condemn him.—Acts 7:58, 59; Galatians 1:13, 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-16.
In Nazi Germany during World War II, many SS troops said they were just following orders when they inflicted torture and death on millions in Hitler’s concentration camps. Their consciences allowed them to do it. But world judgment—not to mention God’s judgment—did not condone their acts. Rightly, they were condemned.
Why Doesn’t It Work Properly?
Why would something created by God not work properly? The Bible explains. Because of man’s fall into sin through the disobedience of Adam, sin is said to “rule as king,” compelling men to obey its desires. (Romans 5:12; 6:12) Man’s conscience, which was originally perfect, became warped; the driving force of sin now competes with it. (Romans 7:18-20) This set up the conflict so familiar to us: “I find, then, this law in my case: that when I wish to do what is right, what is bad is present with me. . . . I behold in my members another law warring against the law of my mind and leading me captive to sin’s law that is in my members.”—Romans 7:21-23.
In addition to this inherited weakness, our consciences are also affected by external stimuli. For example, peer pressure evidently distorted or suppressed the consciences of the Nazi SS troops mentioned earlier. (Compare Proverbs 29:25.) Further, feeding the mind on unwholesome things, such as immorality and violence on TV and in movies and books, likewise has an effect. If we are regularly exposed to such things, they will eventually not seem so bad, and our conscience will be weakened. Put differently, “bad associations spoil useful habits.”—1 Corinthians 15:33.
If a person is trained to know and respect the laws of God, his conscience will obviously be a more reliable guide than if he was not so trained. Nevertheless, even a person with understanding and keen appreciation of God’s ways may on occasion still find that because of inherited sin and imperfection, and perhaps external influences, his conscience is not a reliable guide.
What Can We Do?
Can a conscience be changed, made more sensitive to right principles? Yes. Paul counseled Christians that they could “through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” (Hebrews 5:11-14) Such use and training includes studying the Bible, giving special attention to the perfect model left for us by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:21, 22) Thereafter, as we use our perceptive powers in making decisions, our consciences will steer us away more and more from wrong thoughts and actions and will prod us to do what is honorable and right.
Even so, we must never become self-righteous or say that if something “does not bother my conscience,” it is all right. The proper and safe use of the conscience in imperfect humans can be illustrated by the cautious practices of a safe driver. When a driver wants to change lanes, he instinctively glances first in his rearview mirror. If he sees a car, he knows that it is unsafe to move to the other lane. However, even if he sees nothing, the prudent driver realizes that there are certain blind spots—not everything can be seen at all times by depending just on the mirror. Therefore, he does not simply look in the mirror. He turns his head to look, making sure the lane is clear before making his move. The same is true of the conscience. If it warns you, heed it! But even when it does not at first sound an alarm, be like the wise motorist—check further to make sure there is no danger.
Examine your thinking to see if it harmonizes with God’s thinking. Use his Word as a sounding board to evaluate your conscience. Proverbs 3:5, 6 wisely says: “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding. In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.”
So it is wise to listen to your conscience. But it is wiser still to compare all that we do with God’s will as revealed in his Word. Only then can we say with assurance, “We trust we have an honest conscience.”—Hebrews 13:18; 2 Corinthians 1:12.
[Picture on page 26]
“Conversion of St. Paul”
Painting by Caravaggio: Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.