How Can You Maintain a Good Conscience?
“Maintain a good conscience.”—1 PETER 3:16.
1, 2. Why is a compass a vital instrument, and how may it be likened to the conscience?
A MARINER steers his ship through the waves of a vast ocean; a hiker treks across a lonely wilderness; an aviator guides his aircraft as it soars above layers of clouds that stretch from one horizon to the other. Do you know what these individuals have in common? Each in his own way might be in big trouble without a compass—especially if other modern technology is not accessible.
2 A compass is a simple instrument, usually just a dial with a magnetic needle that points northward. When it is working properly and especially when it is used in conjunction with an accurate map, it can be a lifesaver. In some ways, it may be likened to a precious gift that Jehovah has given us—a conscience. (James 1:17) Without a conscience, we would be hopelessly lost. Used properly, it can help us find our way and keep to the right path in life. So let us consider what the conscience is and how it works. Then we can discuss these points: (1) How the conscience may be trained, (2) why we should consider the consciences of others, and (3) how maintaining a good conscience brings blessings.
WHAT THE CONSCIENCE IS AND HOW IT WORKS
3. What is the literal meaning of the Greek word for “conscience,” and what unique capacity in humans does it describe?
3 In the Bible, the Greek word for “conscience” literally means “co-knowledge, or knowledge with oneself.” Unlike all other earthly creatures, we possess a God-given capacity to know ourselves. We can, in a sense, stand back and look at ourselves and make moral judgments. Acting as an internal witness bearer, or judge, our conscience can examine our actions, our attitudes, and our choices. It may guide us toward a good decision or warn us against a bad one. Afterward, it may comfort us for choosing well or punish us with sharp pangs for choosing poorly.
4, 5. (a) How do we know that Adam and Eve each had a conscience, and what resulted because they ignored God’s law? (b) What examples show the conscience at work in faithful men of pre-Christian times?
4 This faculty was built into man and woman from the very beginning. Adam and Eve each showed that they had a conscience. We see evidence to that effect in the shame they experienced following their sin. (Genesis 3:7, 8) Sadly, a troubled conscience could do them no good by then. They had deliberately ignored God’s law. Thus they knowingly chose to become rebels, opponents of Jehovah God. As perfect humans, they knew what they were doing, and there was no turning back.
5 Unlike Adam and Eve, many imperfect humans have heeded their conscience. For example, the faithful man Job was able to say: “I will maintain my righteousness and never let it go; my heart will not condemn me as long as I live.”a (Job 27:6) Job was truly a conscientious man. He was careful to listen to his conscience, letting it guide his actions and decisions. Thus, he could say with real satisfaction that his conscience did not condemn him with shame and guilt. Notice the contrast between Job and David. When David showed disrespect for Saul, Jehovah’s anointed king, “afterward David’s heart kept striking him.” (1 Samuel 24:5) Those sharp pangs of conscience surely benefited David, teaching him to avoid such disrespect thereafter.
6. What shows that the conscience is a gift to all mankind?
6 Does this gift of conscience belong exclusively to servants of Jehovah? Consider the apostle Paul’s inspired words: “When people of the nations, who 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 by their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.” (Romans 2:14, 15) Even those who are completely unfamiliar with Jehovah’s laws may at times be moved by this internal witness bearer to act in harmony with divine principles.
7. Why may the conscience be wrong at times?
7 However, the conscience may in some cases be wrong. Why? Well, if a compass is placed near a metal object, it may be influenced to point in a direction other than north. And if it is used without an accurate map, the compass may be nearly worthless. Similarly, if unduly influenced by the selfish desires of our heart, our conscience may point us in the wrong direction. And if it is used without the sure guidance of God’s Word, we may be unable to distinguish between right and wrong in many important matters. Really, in order for our conscience to work properly, we need the guidance of Jehovah’s holy spirit. Paul wrote: “My conscience bears witness with me in holy spirit.” (Romans 9:1) How, though, can we make sure that our conscience is in harmony with Jehovah’s holy spirit? It is a matter of training.
HOW THE CONSCIENCE MAY BE TRAINED
8. (a) How may the heart affect the conscience, and what should matter most in our decisions? (b) Why is a clear conscience not always sufficient for a Christian? (See footnote.)
8 How do you make a decision that is based on conscience? Some, it seems, simply look within, examine their feelings, and decide what to do. They may then say, “Well, it doesn’t bother my conscience.” The desires of the heart can be very strong, even swaying the conscience. The Bible says: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) What our heart desires, then, should not be the most important consideration. Rather, we want to consider first what will please Jehovah God.b
9. What is godly fear, and how may our having it affect our conscience?
9 If a decision is truly based on our trained conscience, it will reflect our godly fear, not our personal desires. Consider a case in point. The faithful governor Nehemiah had a right to exact certain payments and dues from the people in Jerusalem. Yet, he held back. Why? He hated the very thought of risking Jehovah’s displeasure by oppressing God’s people. He said: “I did not do that because of the fear of God.” (Nehemiah 5:15) Sincere godly fear, a wholehearted fear of displeasing our heavenly Father, is essential. Such reverential fear will move us to seek direction from God’s Word when we have decisions to make.
10, 11. What Bible principles bear on the matter of drinking alcoholic beverages, and how may we get God’s guidance in applying them?
10 For instance, consider the matter of alcoholic beverages. Here is a decision that many of us face in social settings, Will I drink or not? First, we need to educate ourselves. What Bible principles bear on the matter? Well, the Bible does not condemn the moderate use of alcohol. It praises Jehovah for the gift of wine. (Psalm 104:14, 15) However, the Bible condemns heavy drinking and wild parties. (Luke 21:34; Romans 13:13) Moreover, it lists drunkenness among other very serious sins, such as sexual immorality.c—1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.
11 A Christian’s conscience is educated and sensitized by such principles. So when we face a decision about drinking at a gathering, we ask ourselves such questions as these: ‘What kind of gathering is being organized? Is it likely to get out of hand, becoming a wild party? What are my own tendencies? Do I long for alcohol, depend on it, use it to control my moods and behavior? Do I have the self-control needed to limit my drinking?’ As we ponder Bible principles and the questions they evoke, we do well to pray for Jehovah’s guidance. (Read Psalm 139:23, 24.) In this way, we are inviting Jehovah to guide us with his holy spirit. We are also training our conscience to be in tune with divine principles. There is another factor, though, that should weigh in our decisions.
WHY CONSIDER THE CONSCIENCES OF OTHERS?
12, 13. What are some reasons why Christian consciences differ, and how should we deal with such differences?
12 You may find yourself surprised at times by the degree to which Christian consciences differ. One person finds a practice or custom objectionable; another enjoys it and sees no basis for condemning it. In the matter of social drinking, for example, one finds delight in having a drink with a few friends as they relax together for an evening; another is troubled by the practice. Why are there such differences, and how should they affect our decisions?
13 People differ for many reasons. Backgrounds vary greatly. Some, for instance, are acutely aware of a weakness that they have struggled with in the past—perhaps not always successfully. (1 Kings 8:38, 39) When it comes to alcohol, such individuals would likely feel particularly sensitive. If such a person comes to your home for a visit, his conscience may rightly move him to refuse the offer of a drink. Will you be offended? Will you insist? No. Whether you know his reasons or not—reasons that he may choose to keep private in this setting—brotherly love will move you to be considerate.
14, 15. Over what issue did the consciences of those in the first-century congregation differ, and what did Paul recommend?
14 The apostle Paul saw that consciences often varied widely among Christians in the first century. Back then, some Christians were troubled about certain foods that had been sacrificed to idols. (1 Corinthians 10:25) Paul’s conscience did not object to such foods that were subsequently sold at markets. To him, idols were nothing; idols could never own food that originated with Jehovah and belonged to Him anyway. Yet, Paul understood that others did not share his view of this matter. Some might have been deeply involved with idolatry before becoming Christians. To them, anything even formerly connected with idolatry was offensive. The solution?
15 Paul said: “We, though, who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those not strong, and not to be pleasing ourselves. For even the Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:1, 3) Paul reasoned that we should put the needs of our brothers ahead of our own, just as Christ did. In a related discussion, Paul said that he would rather not eat meat at all than stumble a precious sheep for whom Christ had given his life.—Read 1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:23, 24, 31-33.
16. Why should those with a more restrictive conscience avoid judging those whose conscience differs from theirs?
16 On the other hand, those with a more restrictive conscience should not be critical of others, insisting that all view matters of conscience just as they do. (Read Romans 14:10.) Really, the conscience is best used as an internal judge, not as a license to judge others. Remember Jesus’ words: “Stop judging that you may not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) All in the congregation want to avoid making an issue of personal matters of conscience. Instead, we seek ways to promote love and unity, building one another up, not tearing one another down.—Romans 14:19.
HOW A GOOD CONSCIENCE BRINGS BLESSINGS
17. What has happened to the consciences of many today?
17 The apostle Peter wrote: “Maintain a good conscience.” (1 Peter 3:16) A conscience that is clean in the sight of Jehovah God is a tremendous blessing. It is not like the consciences of so many today. Paul described those “whose conscience is seared as with a branding iron.” (1 Timothy 4:2) A branding iron sears the flesh, leaving it scarred and insensitive. Many have a conscience that is, in effect, dead—so scarred and insensitive that it no longer sends out warnings, protests, or pangs of shame or guilt over wrongdoing. “Good riddance,” many today seem to say to such feelings as guilt.
18, 19. (a) Feelings of guilt or shame may have what value? (b) What can we do if our conscience continues to punish us for past sins for which we have already repented?
18 In truth, feelings of guilt can be the conscience’s way of telling us that we have done wrong. When such feelings move a sinner to repent, even the worst of sins may be forgiven. King David, for example, became guilty of grave wrongdoing but was forgiven largely because of his sincere repentance. His hatred of his wrong course and his determination to obey Jehovah’s laws from then on led him to see firsthand that Jehovah is “good and ready to forgive.” (Psalm 51:1-19; 86:5) What, though, if intense feelings of guilt and shame persist after we have repented and have received forgiveness?
19 Sometimes the conscience can be overly punitive, beating a sinner with guilt long after such feelings stop serving any useful purpose. In such cases, we may need to assure the self-condemning heart that Jehovah is greater than all human feelings. We need to believe in and accept his love and forgiveness, just as we encourage others to do. (Read 1 John 3:19, 20.) On the other hand, a cleansed conscience brings inner peace, serenity, and a profound joy that is rarely found in this world. Many who were once involved in serious sin have experienced this marvelous relief and are able today to maintain a good conscience as they serve Jehovah God.—1 Corinthians 6:11.
20, 21. (a) What is this publication designed to help you to do? (b) As Christians, we enjoy what freedom, yet how should we use it?
20 This book is designed to help you find that joy, to maintain a good conscience throughout the rest of these troubled last days of Satan’s system of things. Of course, it cannot cover all the Bible’s laws and principles that you need to think about and apply in the situations that arise day by day. Furthermore, do not expect simple, black-and-white rules on matters of conscience. The purpose of this book is to help you educate and sensitize your conscience by studying how to apply God’s Word in your daily life. Unlike the Mosaic Law, “the law of the Christ” invites its adherents to live more by conscience and principle than by written rules. (Galatians 6:2) Jehovah thus entrusts Christians with extraordinary freedom. However, his Word reminds us never to use that freedom as “a cover for doing wrong.” (1 Peter 2:16) Rather, such freedom affords us a marvelous opportunity to express our love for Jehovah.
21 By prayerfully considering how best to live by Bible principles and then putting your decisions to work, you will continue a vital process that began when you first came to know Jehovah. Your “powers of discernment” will be trained “through use.” (Hebrews 5:14) Your Bible-trained conscience will be a blessing to you every day of your life. Like the compass that guides the traveler, your conscience will help you to make decisions that please your heavenly Father. This is a sure way to keep yourself in God’s love.
a No specific word for “conscience” appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, the conscience is clearly in evidence in such examples as this one. The expression “heart” generally refers to the inner person. In such instances as this, it evidently points to a specific part of the inner man—his conscience. In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the Greek word rendered “conscience” occurs some 30 times.
b The Bible shows that having a clear conscience is not always sufficient. For example, Paul said: “I am not conscious of anything against myself. But by this I am not proved righteous; the one who examines me is Jehovah.” (1 Corinthians 4:4) Even those who persecute Christians, as Paul once did, may do so with a clear conscience because they think that God approves of their course. It is vital that our conscience be both clear in our eyes and clean in God’s eyes.—Acts 23:1; 2 Timothy 1:3.
c It should be noted that many doctors say that controlled drinking is not really possible for alcoholics; for them, “moderation” means not drinking.