“Maintain a good conscience.”—1 PETER 3:16.
1, 2. Why do you need a guide when you are in an unfamiliar place? What guide has Jehovah given us?
IMAGINE that you are walking across a vast desert. The landscape keeps changing as strong winds blow the sand in different directions. You could easily get lost. How will you know which direction to go? You need someone or something to guide you. It could be a compass, the sun and stars, a map, a GPS (Global Positioning System), or even a person who knows the desert well. Having a guide is important, because knowing where to go can save your life.
2 We all face many challenges in life, and at times we could easily feel lost. But to guide us, Jehovah has given each one of us a conscience. (James 1:17) Let’s find out what the conscience is and how it works. Then we will learn how we can train our conscience, why we should care about the consciences of other people, and how a clean conscience can make our life much better.
WHAT IS OUR CONSCIENCE AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
3. What is our conscience?
3 Our conscience is a wonderful gift from Jehovah. It is the sense of right and wrong that we have inside us. The Greek word used in the Bible for “conscience” means “knowledge with oneself.” When our conscience works well, it helps us examine the person we really are. It can help us to be honest about our deepest thoughts and feelings. It can guide us toward good and away from bad. And it can make us feel happy when we make a wise decision or guilty after we make a bad one.—See Endnote 5.
4, 5. (a) What happened when Adam and Eve ignored their conscience? (b) What are some Bible examples of how the conscience works?
4 Each of us can choose whether or not we will listen to our conscience. Adam and Eve chose not to listen to their conscience, and as a result they sinned. Afterward they felt guilty, but it was too late. They had already disobeyed God. (Genesis 3:7, 8) Even though they each had a perfect conscience and knew that it was wrong to disobey God, they chose to ignore their conscience.
5 On the other hand, many imperfect humans have listened to their conscience. Job was a good example. Because he made good decisions, he could say: “My heart will not condemn me as long as I live.” (Job 27:6) When Job spoke of his “heart,” he referred to his conscience, his sense of right and wrong. David, though, ignored his conscience at times and disobeyed Jehovah. Afterward he felt so guilty that it was as if his heart were “striking him.” (1 Samuel 24:5) This was David’s conscience telling him that what he had done was wrong. By listening to his conscience, he could learn to avoid making the same mistake again.
6. Why can we say that our conscience is a gift from God?
6 Even people who do not know Jehovah usually realize that there are things that are right and things that are wrong. The Bible says: “By their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.” (Romans 2:14, 15) For example, most people know that it is wrong to murder or to steal. Though they may not realize it, they are actually listening to their conscience, the sense of right and wrong that Jehovah put inside of them. They are also following God’s principles, or the basic truths Jehovah has provided to help us to make good choices in life.
7. Why may our conscience sometimes be wrong?
7 But our conscience can sometimes be wrong. For example, it could be damaged by our own imperfect thoughts and feelings and could guide us in the wrong direction. A good conscience does not come automatically. (Genesis 39:1, 2, 7-12) It needs to be trained. To help us, Jehovah gives us holy spirit and Bible principles. (Romans 9:1) Let’s examine how we can train our conscience.
HOW CAN WE TRAIN OUR CONSCIENCE?
8. (a) How can our feelings affect our conscience? (b) What should we ask ourselves before we make a decision?
8 Some people think that listening to their conscience simply means following their feelings. They think that they can do whatever they want as long as they feel good about it. But our feelings are imperfect, and they can mislead us. Our feelings can be so powerful that they affect our conscience. The Bible says: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) So we may begin to think that something is right even though it is wrong. For example, before Paul became a Christian, he viciously persecuted God’s people and believed that what he was doing was right. In his opinion, he had a good conscience. But he later said: “The one who examines me is Jehovah.” (1 Corinthians 4:4; Acts 23:1; 2 Timothy 1:3) When Paul learned how Jehovah felt about what he was doing, he realized that he needed to change. Clearly, before we do something, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What does Jehovah want me to do?’
9. What does it mean to fear God?
9 When you love someone, you don’t want to displease him or her. Because we love Jehovah, we don’t want to do anything that will displease him. Our fear of displeasing Jehovah needs to be very strong. We see this from Nehemiah’s example. He refused to use his position as governor to get rich. Why? He explained that it was “because of the fear of God.” (Nehemiah 5:15) Nehemiah did not want to do anything that would displease Jehovah. Like Nehemiah, we too are afraid of displeasing Jehovah by doing something wrong. We can learn what pleases Jehovah by reading the Bible.—See Endnote 6.
10, 11. What Bible principles can help us make good decisions regarding alcohol?
10 For example, a Christian may need to decide whether or not he will drink alcohol. What principles will help him to make a good decision? Here are a few: The Bible does not condemn drinking alcohol. In fact, it tells us that wine is a gift from God. (Psalm 104:14, 15) However, Jesus told his followers not to get involved in “heavy drinking.” (Luke 21:34) And Paul told Christians to avoid “wild parties and drunkenness.” (Romans 13:13) He said that drunkards “will not inherit God’s Kingdom.”—1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.
11 A Christian might ask himself: ‘How important is alcohol to me? Do I need it to relax? Do I drink alcohol to feel more confident? Can I control how much and how often I drink?a Can I still have a good time with friends if there is no alcohol served?’ We can ask Jehovah to help us make wise choices. (Read Psalm 139:23, 24.) In this way, we train our conscience to be sensitive to Bible principles. But more is involved, as we will see.
WHY WE CARE ABOUT THE CONSCIENCES OF OTHERS
12, 13. Why might our conscience be different from the consciences of others? How can we handle these differences?
12 Not everyone’s conscience is the same. Your conscience may allow you to do something that someone else’s does not. For example, you may choose to drink alcohol, while another person feels he should not. Why might two people feel differently about this?
13 A person’s feelings about something are often influenced by where he grew up, how his family viewed it, his own experiences in life, and other factors. When it comes to alcohol, perhaps someone who had trouble controlling his drinking in the past chooses not to drink at all. (1 Kings 8:38, 39) So if you offered someone an alcoholic drink and he refused, how would you react? Would you feel offended? Would you keep insisting? Would you demand to know why he refused? No, because you respect his conscience.
14, 15. What situation existed in Paul’s day? What good advice did Paul give?
14 In the apostle Paul’s day, a situation arose that showed how consciences can be different. Some of the meat sold in the markets had been used in false worship and offered to idols. (1 Corinthians 10:25) Paul didn’t think that it was wrong to buy and eat this meat. To him, all food came from Jehovah. But some brothers who had worshipped idols in the past felt differently. They felt it was wrong to eat the meat. Did Paul think: ‘It doesn’t bother my conscience. I have the right to eat what I want’?
15 Paul did not think like that. The feelings of his brothers were so important to him that he was willing to give up some of his personal rights. Paul said that we should not “be pleasing ourselves.” He added: “For even the Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:1, 3) Like Jesus, Paul cared more about others than about himself.—Read 1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:23, 24, 31-33.
16. Why shouldn’t we judge our brother for what his conscience allows him to do?
16 But what if another person’s conscience lets him do something that seems wrong to us? We need to be very careful not to be critical and insist that we are right and he is wrong. (Read Romans 14:10.) Jehovah gave us our conscience to judge ourselves, not to judge others. (Matthew 7:1) We never want our personal choices to cause division in the congregation. Instead, we look for ways to promote love and unity.—Romans 14:19.
WE CAN BENEFIT FROM A GOOD CONSCIENCE
17. What has happened to some people’s conscience?
17 The apostle Peter wrote: “Maintain a good conscience.” (1 Peter 3:16) Sadly, when people keep ignoring Jehovah’s principles, eventually their conscience does not warn them anymore. Paul said that such a conscience has been “seared as with a branding iron.” (1 Timothy 4:2) Have you ever been badly burned? When that happens, your skin becomes so scarred that you cannot feel anything there. If a person continues to do wrong things, his conscience can become “seared” and, in time, stop working.
18, 19. (a) What do feelings of guilt or shame teach us? (b) What can we do if we feel guilty about sins for which we have repented?
18 When we feel guilty, our conscience may be telling us that we have done something wrong. This can help us to identify what we did and to stop doing it. We want to learn from our mistakes so that we do not repeat them. For example, though King David sinned, his conscience moved him to repent. He hated what he had done and was determined to obey Jehovah in the future. David could say from personal experience that Jehovah is “good and ready to forgive.”—Psalm 51:1-19; 86:5; see Endnote 7.
19 But long after a person has repented of a sin, he may still feel guilty about what he has done. Feelings of guilt can be painful and can make someone feel worthless. If this is how you feel at times, remember that you cannot change what happened in the past. Whether or not you clearly understood at the time what was right or wrong, Jehovah completely forgave you, and those sins were erased. You are clean before Jehovah and know that you are now doing what is right. Your heart may still condemn you, but the Bible says: “God is greater than our hearts.” (Read 1 John 3:19, 20.) This means that his love and forgiveness are stronger than any feelings of guilt or shame we may have. You can be sure that Jehovah has forgiven you. When a person accepts Jehovah’s forgiveness, his conscience will be at peace and he can be happy serving God.—1 Corinthians 6:11; Hebrews 10:22.
20, 21. (a) What is this publication designed to help you to do? (b) What freedom has Jehovah given us? How should we use it?
20 This publication is designed to help you train your conscience so that it can warn and protect you during these difficult last days. It will also help you apply Bible principles to various situations in your life. Of course, this publication will not give us a list of rules for what to do in every situation. We live by “the law of the Christ,” which is based on God’s principles. (Galatians 6:2) We do not use the fact that there is no specific law about a matter as an excuse to do what is wrong. (2 Corinthians 4:1, 2; Hebrews 4:13; 1 Peter 2:16) Instead, we use our freedom to show our love for Jehovah.
21 When we meditate on Bible principles and apply them, we learn to use our “powers of discernment” and think as Jehovah thinks. (Hebrews 5:14) The result is a trained conscience that will guide us through life and help us remain in God’s love.
a Many doctors say that it is especially difficult for alcoholics to control how much they drink. Doctors suggest that they do not drink alcohol at all.