Hold a Good Conscience
What is conscience? How should it work?
“LET your conscience be your guide,” many say. By this they mean that your conscience will guide you to do what is right.
However, what kind of conscience? Trained by whom, by what set of circumstances, environment or teaching? In harmony with whose concept of “right” will it guide you? The “wise” saying does not answer these critical questions.
The conscience of the thief enables him to rob. The conscience of the liar enables him to lie. The conscience of the murderer enables him to murder. Obviously, it makes a big difference what kind of conscience one has. There is a bad conscience as well as a good one. A bad conscience is acquired by feeding the mind on bad information and by continually going against what one knows is right. The conscience then becomes dulled, calloused, until it may finally become inoperative in distinguishing right and wrong. Instead, what is expedient or profitable may replace it as the guide to one’s conduct.
CULTIVATE A GOOD CONSCIENCE
Conscience is the internal recognition of right and wrong as regards one’s motives and actions. It is that faculty of the mind that impels one toward doing or not doing what is right and avoiding or not avoiding what is wrong.
Surely the lover of righteousness wants to avoid what is wrong, for wrongdoing means the loss of God’s favor and even one’s life prospects. The apostle Peter warned: “Many will follow their acts of loose conduct . . . But as for them, the judgment of ancient times is not moving slowly, and the destruction of them is not slumbering.”—2 Pet. 2:2, 3.
But how is a good conscience developed? God’s Word counsels: “Keep your minds fixed on the things above.” (Col. 3:2) By keeping the mind centered on God’s ways, on the wisdom that comes from Him, a person can begin to cultivate a good conscience. This wisdom comes from the knowledge of God’s purposes found in his Word, the Bible. The apostle Paul showed this when he stated: “Clothe yourselves with the new personality, which through accurate knowledge is being made new.”—Col. 3:10.
To cultivate a good conscience a person must take in accurate knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. But he must also live up to it. Not doing what one learns is right eventually dulls the good conscience he is acquiring. He will then find himself lapsing into bad ways of thinking and acting. Doing, not just hearing, is vital, as the disciple James noted: “Put away all filthiness and that superfluous thing, moral badness, and accept with mildness the implanting of the word which is able to save your souls. However, become doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves with false reasoning.”—Jas. 1:21, 22.
GOOD CONSCIENCE AT WORK
Like the rudder of a ship that steers it through troubled waters, a conscience trained in obedience to God’s Word steers us correctly through the troubled seas of humanity and conflicting standards of right and wrong. It acts as a goad to keep us in God’s right ways and pricks us when we have done wrong.
No doubt you have experienced this by being troubled over something you did that you knew was wrong. It caused you great anguish. You may have lost sleep over it, perhaps even been brought to tears by it. This is conscience at work, exerting its influence in you, helping you by chastening you for past mistakes so you will avoid future ones. It is like the case of the person who failed to pay his income tax as he should have, but who, years later, sent the tax bureau the money because his conscience bothered him all that time! So conscience, trained in right ways, is a powerful force for good.
In the process of building and holding a good conscience, it is vital to recognize God’s great mercy in forgiving past errors. A person should not be tormented in his conscience perpetually by the wrong he has committed before he acquired a good conscience, or by the wrong for which he has asked forgiveness after acquiring a good conscience. God’s marvelous promise is: “I shall forgive their error, and their sin I shall remember no more.” (Jer. 31:34) Also, through Isaiah, God assured: “‘Come, now, you people, and let us set matters straight between us,’ says Jehovah. ‘Though the sins of you people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow; though they should be red like crimson cloth, they will become even like wool.’” (Isa. 1:18) Let us take this loving, merciful God at his word and have confidence that he forgives past errors as we sincerely ask forgiveness and continue serving him.
Another important point to recognize is that, while God’s Word gives us the accurate knowledge needed for right thinking and right acting, it does not set out a detailed list of precise situations in which we may find ourselves, with a pointed answer as to exactly what each person should do. However, it does give us principles that fit every occasion. Each Christian needs to train his conscience so he will be able to apply these principles correctly and not have to have somebody else tell him what to do each time a decision is required relative to right and wrong. Indeed, Christians are under obligation to God to progress toward maturity in making decisions. They must “become full-grown in powers of understanding.”—1 Cor. 14:20.
NOT HOW CLOSE, BUT HOW FAR
Some reason that if a thing is not specifically forbidden by God’s Word or by God’s visible organization, then it is all right to indulge in it. But, just because a thing is not forbidden, that does not mean it is for Christians. Jesus said of his followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14) Hence, the Christian does not try to see how close he can get to the world and its bad ways just because some things are not pointedly forbidden, but he trains his conscience to see how far away he can get from what is bad so as not to be contaminated by it.
A person may know that it is wrong to commit fornication, to steal, to become drunk or commit other grievous sins. He feels that he never wants to be a practicer of those things the Bible plainly speaks against. But does he allow himself to participate in activities that could lead to them, just because there is no specific rule against these activities? If a person does not want to commit fornication, does he yet permit himself to come into close contact with those of the opposite sex other than his marriage partner? This is not the way to hold a good conscience, for he allows himself to have it severely tested, perhaps beyond endurance.
A person who wants to hold a good conscience will avoid, not only what is clearly bad, but also what can lead to bad. He will demonstrate that the law of God is in his heart and that he does what is right because he loves what is right, not because he ceremoniously follows a long list of do’s and don’t’s. (Jer. 31:33; Matt. 6:33) He will have the same mental attitude as Jesus Christ, of whom it was said: “You loved righteousness, and you hated lawlessness.” (Heb. 1:9) If one is to keep away from immorality, for example, he should keep away from intimate association with one not his mate. He will be careful not to seek out the company of the opposite sex when he is too young to marry. Later, when courting for the purpose of marriage, he will hold his good conscience by remembering that courtship is not a license for loose sexual behavior.
Anyone who wants to do what is right will also stay away from associating with persons who are not interested in God. For a certainty, “bad associations spoil useful habits.” (1 Cor. 15:33) The more one associates with those who are not striving to hold a good conscience, the more he will have his own eroded toward badness. It is inescapable. “Do not be misled: God is not one to be mocked. For whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap.” (Gal. 6:7) God’s Word plainly shows that bad associations spoil useful habits. Do not mock him by saying or behaving as if you do not believe it.
DO NOT VIOLATE CONSCIENCE
As you work toward holding a good conscience, you need to keep in mind the effect of your own behavior on others. For instance, your good conscience may not be disturbed at doing a particular thing that is proper by God’s standards, but another’s conscience may be disturbed. You may like to drink wine, eat certain foods, or do other things that the Bible shows are perfectly permissible. But what if another, weaker in conscience, is offended? Then it would be better not to insist on your rights, but to forego what offends another’s conscience. Heed Paul’s warning: “When you people thus sin against your brothers and wound their conscience that is weak, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat flesh at all, that I may not make my brother stumble.”—1 Cor. 8:12, 13; 10:24, 25.
The opposite can also be true. You may be disturbed at what does not disturb another mature Christian. That does not mean you should try to do what he does at the expense of violating your conscience. If you feel it is wrong for you to do some particular thing, then as long as your refraining is not a violation of Godly principles, do not do what you feel is wrong. Later you may see things as the other person does. Then it is time enough to do what he does, this time without violating your conscience. When in doubt, do without. No harm will come by not taking an action that pricks your conscience, but harm may come if you ignore the warning, as it can pave the way for more serious violations of your conscience.
No, do not let just any conscience be your guide. Work hard toward building and holding a good conscience trained by God’s Word. Do not let go of it, even though you may be surrounded by those with bad consciences. Do not thrust aside your good conscience, as some have, for that would mean the shipwreck of your faith and the loss of God’s favor. (1 Tim. 1:18-20) If you love what is right and if you want to live in the righteous new order of things promised by God, then by all means “hold a good conscience.”—1 Pet. 3:16.