Benefiting From Your God-given Conscience
“The law of his God is in his heart; his steps will not wobble.”—Psalm 37:31.
THOUGH God has not given Christians an extensive code of laws, he has provided us with some laws, or direct rules, and many principles to apply in accord with our faith and conscience. But it is one thing to have a conscience, and another thing to benefit fully from it. Many persons feel that ‘if something does not bother my conscience, it is all right.’ Is that thinking correct?
2 The Bible shows that because of our sinful flesh our conscience can mislead us; it can be weak, misguided or defiled. We can better appreciate the danger of the view “let your conscience be your guide” by considering the first-century inhabitants of Crete, who were known for being “liars, injurious wild beasts, unemployed gluttons.”—Titus 1:10-12.
3. What effect did conscience have on the Cretans?
3 As with all peoples, the Cretans had inborn consciences. But they were not benefiting from these. Writing to Titus in Crete, the apostle Paul said: “All things are clean to clean persons. But to persons defiled and faithless nothing is clean, but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Titus 1:15; Romans 2:14, 15) Most Cretans had insensitive consciences that were not helping them to do what was moral or clean. (1 Timothy 4:2) ‘Nothing was clean’ to many Cretans. How so? With defiled consciences they looked on each situation as an opportunity to do what was wicked. They might have said, ‘It does not bother my conscience.’ But it should have! However, some Cretan Jews or proselytes were in Jerusalem for Pentecost 33 C.E. Their spiritual knowledge would have helped them to avoid being liars, injurious or gluttonous. And those accepting Jesus were further helped by his teaching to have good, working consciences.—Acts 2:5, 11; Titus 1:5; 2:2-5; 3:3-7.
4, 5. What can we learn about conscience from the case of Paul?
4 Conscience, though, can mislead even a person who is exposed to God’s Word and wants to do right. Saul, or Paul, was acquainted with the Scriptures and zealously worshiped according to the Law. Yet he failed to keep up with the progressive outworking of God’s will. After the Messiah arrived, preached and died in fulfillment of prophecy, Paul continued to practice Pharisaic Judaism. His conscience did not prevent him from “persecuting the congregation” and “breathing threat and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”—Philippians 3:4-6; Acts 9:1, 2.
5 These examples show that our conscience can misguide us. Since we face many decisions that are not covered by specific Bible laws but that are matters of conscience, we need to know how we can train our conscience and benefit most fully from it. There are three areas that we will now consider.
What Does God’s Word Indicate?
6, 7. What is one way in which God’s Word can help us in matters of conscience?
6 The perfect Word of God contains much that can enlighten us as to God’s thinking, or principles, and educate our conscience. As already noted, Joseph had no written law of God against adultery. But Joseph’s conscience was educated correctly. He no doubt had reasoned on the fact that God purposed for husband and wife (“the two”) to be one flesh, without intrusion of any adulterous third party. And Joseph certainly knew of the experience involving God’s friend, Abraham, which gave indication of God’s position on adultery.—Matthew 19:5; Genesis 2:24; 20:1-18.
7 We can benefit similarly. For example, we might face a decision about accepting an invitation to have a meal or do business with someone of a different nationality, race or background. That is something for personal decision. If, though, we have absorbed from the Bible God’s attitude of impartiality and fairness, our educated conscience will counteract any prejudice that might have surrounded us as we grew up. We will act accordingly. (Acts 10:34, 35; James 2:1-4) Thus Bible principles can help us also.
8. When facing a decision of conscience, what should we do?
8 When we need to decide a matter so as to “hold a good conscience,” we should seek what Jehovah says that relates to the matter, for that can and should affect our conscience and our decision. (1 Peter 3:16) In addition to looking for outright laws, we ought to be interested in whether there are any Biblical principles relating to it. Did Jesus do or say anything indicating his thinking on such a decision? We can do research in Bible study aids that discuss the matter. And we can consult with fellow Christians who might help us to locate relevant Bible principles. Of course, this step should not be taken with the idea of their bearing our responsibility, nor should we ask, ‘If it were up to you, what would you do?’—Galatians 6:5.
9. What is our goal in deciding on conscience issues?
9 In situations where a personal decision must be made, sincere Christians ought to follow a course that will leave them with a clean and untroubled conscience before God. They should cherish the ability to say: “Our conscience bears witness . . . that with holiness and godly sincerity . . . we have conducted ourselves in the world, but more especially toward you.” (2 Corinthians 1:12) How much a Christian loves Jehovah and his principles may be displayed in what he decides on questions of conscience.
How Will Others Be Affected?
10, 11. A question about food in ancient Corinth illustrates what second aspect as to questions involving conscience?
10 Since Christians want their consciences to motivate them to imitate God, loving concern for others should be a major influence in decisions involving conscience. This aspect came into the picture when Paul wrote about various matters relating to food.
11 In the Corinthian congregation concern arose about meat that had been sacrificed to idols. It would have been idolatry for a Christian to eat sacrificial meat during an idol ceremony. But Paul explained that it was not a sin to eat leftover meat sold in restaurant-like businesses connected to a temple or in public meat markets. (1 Corinthians 8:10; 10:25; Acts 15:29) Nonetheless, some Christians who had previously worshiped idols were sensitive (had weak consciences) about eating such meat even when it was sold publicly with no religious connections. While not condoning weak consciences, Paul urged others to consider these brothers. It would have been unloving to do what might cause these to stumble or to feel conscientiously free to share in idolatry again.
12, 13. Why should the views and consciences of others be considered? Illustrate.
12 Paul displayed the attitude that we all need: “If food [or anything else] makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat flesh at all.” If, on a matter that is up to our conscience, and we therefore have freedom to act, we ignore the conscience of others and thus ‘ruin our brothers for whom Christ died,’ we could lose our good standing with God. Paul asked: “Why should it be that my freedom is judged by another person’s conscience?” (1 Corinthians 8:3, 11-13; 10:29) Even though an individual feels it is a ‘personal matter of conscience,’ if it damages others it can lead to his receiving Jehovah’s adverse judgment. This shows how deceptive it can be to think ‘if it is up to my conscience, it is all right.’
13 Consider the experience of a couple who were having a Bible study, attending meetings and approaching baptism. An elder in the congregation told the man of his having enjoyed a certain motion picture. The man replied, ‘What! Do you go to see R-rated movies?’a The elder tried to excuse his actions, saying that certain of these films (considered questionable even by the world) have value if the objectionable aspects are ignored. But it appears that the man was affected. After that he progressed more slowly than his wife. Had the elder reflected on texts such as Colossians 3:2-8, Ephesians 5:3-5 and Matthew 7:12, they might have affected his conscience and his conduct.—1 Corinthians 9:22, 25-27.
14, 15. How might the conscience of the body of elders have a bearing on certain personal matters?
14 Considering others also involves not asking them to approve of something that is against their consciences. For instance, the congregational elders are responsible for permitting wedding ceremonies in the Kingdom Hall, how these will be conducted, how the hall is decorated, and so forth.b The elders in one congregation write: “In one wedding all the bridesmaids walked down the aisle fanning themselves. The next wedding had to outdo the first, so the bridesmaids walked down the aisle twirling umbrellas. The next had to be bigger and better; they wanted twenty bridesmaids and twenty ushers. The hall was starting to be used as a circus.”
15 Was this ‘a matter of conscience’ for private decision? No. Even if an engaged couple’s consciences would permit something excessive or outrageous, the collective conscience of the elders could not be ignored. While not wanting to impose their personal tastes, they have at heart the peace, harmony and spirituality of the whole congregation. And they should be conscientiously aiding persons to ‘know how to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is a pillar and support of the truth.’—1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Corinthians 10:31.
16. If you have to decide a matter that is up to your conscience, what should you consider?
16 So, when facing a decision on ‘a matter of conscience,’ we need to reflect on, (1) what God’s Word says relating to it, and (2) how our decision might affect or involve others. There is an important third aspect, though.
How Will We Ourselves Be Affected?
17. How did conscience influence a brother in New York City?
17 Natural History magazine of August 1981 contained an article on New York City’s bicycle messengers who deliver urgent packages and letters to businesses around the city. Among examples of men who have taken up this form of work, we read: “Donald, a 41-year-old messenger, is able to support his wife and 15-year-old son on his earnings. Donald was a film processor, but abandoned his profession because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he could not condone the role he played in producing pornographic material. As a messenger, not only does he feel his conscience is clear but he can also leave work at his own discretion to devote more time to proselytizing.”
18. (a) How might this brother have reached his decision? (b) What lesson can you learn from this?
18 Various factors bear on employment decisions (see box on page 26). Similar to Donald’s case, a Christian might be working for a firm that processes films—snapshots, home movies, advertising films, commercial motion pictures. Gradually it takes on some pornographic material. At some point the Christian’s conscience will begin troubling him. He may find that he himself is being forced into involvement with pornography or other illegal activity. Whether because of being identified with a firm handling pornography or because of what he is being asked to do, he may find that he must quit in order to remain “irreprehensible,” which would be of special concern to persons having or seeking privileges in the congregation. In searching for other work, he may confidently look for Jehovah’s blessing. (1 Timothy 3:2, 8-10; Romans 13:5) Doubtless there are many Christians who have left such jobs rather than let uncleanness undermine them. (Compare Matthew 5:28.) Hence, when we face a decision of conscience, we should ask: ‘If I do this thing or refuse to do it, how will it affect me?’ We certainly should not ignore our conscience, searing it and thus making it easier to do what is bad in the future.—1 Timothy 4:2; Jude 10; Ephesians 4:18, 19.
19, 20. (a) How might both conscience and faith exert an influence as to our ministry? (b) Wealthy or not, what should be our desire?
19 Reflecting on the conscientious decision that Donald made, we should note that in addition to his seeking an approved relationship with Jehovah, he desired to proclaim his faith more. This agrees with Paul’s linkage of conscience and faith: “The objective of this mandate is love out of a clean heart and out of a good conscience and out of faith without hypocrisy.”—1 Timothy 1:5.
20 It is commendable when a person’s faith and desire for a good conscience move him to make adjustments so that “his steps will not wobble” and so that he can give more time and attention to spreading “all the counsel of God.” (Acts 20:26, 27) How, though, should we view others whose circumstances appear to allow them to do more preaching but who do not do so? They might have a large income from their jobs or businesses and seem already to have finances ample for a comfortable life in this system. Yet, instead of rejoicing in disciple making full time as pioneers, they keep working on expanding their businesses, homes and comforts.c (Compare Mark 10:17-22; Luke 12:16-21.) It is not for us to judge others in such an area, for “each of us will render an account for himself to God.” Rather, let our faith unhypocritically move us to serve God to the full so that we can enjoy a clean conscience.—Romans 14:1-4, 10-12.
Guided by a Good Conscience
21. What positive effect can our conscience have on us?
21 A properly educated and sensitive Christian conscience will guide us to do what is good. It did so in the case of Paul. He was so interested in ‘his brothers,’ fellow Jews, that he wrote: “My conscience bears witness with me in holy spirit, that I have great grief and unceasing pain in my heart.” (Romans 9:1-3) Yes, he did all he possibly could to share the good news of Christianity with them.
22. Why can conscience motivate us even beyond what rules might do?
22 It should be the same with us. If we appreciate the value of our God-given conscience, we will not be inclined to think just in terms of rules. Rules might set out minimum requirements, or goals. But a conscience stimulated by love and faith likely will make even greater demands on us, moving us to greater sacrifices and unselfishness. In that way we certainly will benefit from our conscience. It will keep us from the things that might result in God’s disapproval, and it will aid us in doing things that he definitely approves. Particularly is that so as our conscience guides us toward having a larger share in proclaiming the good news. What greater benefit could there be than what Paul mentioned to Timothy? He said: “Pay constant attention to yourself and to your teaching. Stay by these things, for by doing this you will save both yourself and those who listen to you.”—1 Timothy 4:16.
a In the United States films rated R are deemed unsuitable for persons under age seventeen (unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian) because of the theme or the degree of sex, violence or profanity.
c The local congregation would benefit from more pioneers. However, many interested persons who hunger spiritually are located in areas to which few can move because there are no job opportunities. What a blessing it is when Christians who are financially secure respond to these calls for help!—Acts 16:9, 10.
Can You Recall?
□ Why is it dangerous to feel that ‘if something does not bother my conscience, it must be all right?’
□ When faced with a question that is up to your conscience, what are three factors that you should seriously consider?
□ What bearing should conscience have on your praising God publicly?
[Box on page 26]
Employment Factors to Consider
When a Christian must make a decision about a certain employment, he should give thought first to what he would actually be doing. He might consider these two points:
Is the particular work condemned in the Bible?
The Bible condemns things such as stealing, idolatry and the misuse of blood, so a Christian could hardly engage in work where he directly promoted such things.
Would doing the work so closely link a person with a condemned practice that he would be a clear accomplice?
Beyond what a person would actually be doing, some additional factors may have a bearing on the overall picture:
Is the work a human service that is not Biblically wrong?
A postman performs the service of delivering mail to homes and businesses. Would a Christian be condemned if among the places where he delivers mail are a few homes of thieves or a firm selling idols?—Matthew 5:45.
To what extent does one have authority over what is done?
A Christian owning a store would not stock and sell idols or blood sausage. He is not in the same situation as an employee at a supermarket that sells cigarettes or blood pudding among thousands of other items.
To what degree is the person involved?
An employee working as a cashier and only occasionally handling cigarettes might conclude that his situation is not the same as another employee who stocks these on the shelves almost all day.
What is the source of the pay or the location where it is done?
In a land where the government gives a church oversight of all social programs, a man might get his paycheck from a religious corporation. But actually his work of maintaining public parks is not on church property. Nor is it religious in nature or viewed as promoting false worship.
What is the overall effect of doing certain work?
[Picture on page 23]
A fellow Christian may help you to locate what God’s Word says on a matter of conscience
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Consider how your decisions or actions may affect others