Can You Trust Your Conscience?
UNDER normal circumstances, the compass is a trustworthy instrument. Its needle, oriented by the earth’s magnetic field, consistently points north. Travelers can thus rely on the compass for direction when there are no landmarks to guide them. But what happens when a magnetic object is placed near the compass? The needle will swing toward the magnet instead of pointing north. It is no longer a reliable guide.
Something similar can happen to the human conscience. The Creator implanted this faculty in us to serve as a reliable guide. Since we are made in God’s image, the conscience should consistently point us in the right direction when we need to make decisions. It should move us to reflect the moral standards of God. (Genesis 1:27) Frequently, it does. For example, the Christian apostle Paul wrote that even some who are without God’s revealed law “do by nature the things of the law.” Why? Because “their conscience is bearing witness with them.”—Romans 2:14, 15.
Nevertheless, the conscience does not always speak up when it should. Because of human imperfection, we are inclined to do things that we know are wrong. “I really delight in the law of God according to the man I am within,” admitted Paul, “but 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 7:22, 23) If we give in to wrong inclinations often enough, our conscience may gradually become dulled and eventually cease telling us that such conduct is wrong.
Despite imperfection, however, we can align our conscience with God’s standards. Indeed, it is vital that we do so. A clean, properly trained conscience not only leads to a warm, personal relationship with God but is essential to our salvation. (Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 1:15, 16) Furthermore, a good conscience will help us to make wise decisions in life, which will lead to our peace and happiness. The psalmist said of a person with such a conscience: “The law of his God is in his heart; his steps will not wobble.”—Psalm 37:31.
Training the Conscience
Training the conscience involves more than simply memorizing a list of laws and then strictly adhering to them. That is what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did. These religious leaders knew the Law and had developed a detailed tradition, supposedly to help the people to avoid transgressing the Law. Thus, they were quick to protest when Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath and ate the kernels. And they challenged Jesus when he healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:1, 2, 9, 10) Both of these acts, according to the Pharisees’ tradition, constituted a violation of the fourth commandment.—Exodus 20:8-11.
Clearly, the Pharisees studied the Law. But were their consciences aligned with God’s standards? Hardly! Why, just after nitpicking about what they thought to be a shocking infraction of the Sabbath regulation, the Pharisees took counsel against Jesus “that they might destroy him.” (Matthew 12:14) Imagine—these self-righteous religious leaders bristled at the idea of eating freshly plucked grain and of healing on the Sabbath; but they had no qualms about plotting Jesus’ death!
The chief priests manifested similar twisted thinking. These corrupt men felt not a twinge of guilt when they offered Judas 30 pieces of silver from the temple treasury to betray Jesus. But when Judas unexpectedly returned the money, throwing it back into the temple, the consciences of the chief priests were confronted with a legal dilemma. “It is not lawful,” they said, “to drop them [the coins] into the sacred treasury, because they are the price of blood.” (Matthew 27:3-6) Evidently, the chief priests were worried that Judas’ money was now unclean. (Compare Deuteronomy 23:18.) Yet, this same group of men saw nothing wrong with spending money to buy the betrayal of God’s Son!
Being Attuned to God’s Thinking
The above examples show that training the conscience requires more than filling the mind with a list of dos and don’ts. Granted, knowledge of God’s laws is essential, and obedience to them is necessary for salvation. (Psalm 19:7-11) However, in addition to learning God’s laws, we must develop a heart that is attuned to God’s thinking. Then we can experience the outworking of Jehovah’s prophecy through Isaiah, which states: “Your eyes must become eyes seeing your Grand Instructor. And your own ears will hear a word behind you saying: ‘This is the way. Walk in it, you people,’ in case you people should go to the right or in case you should go to the left.”—Isaiah 30:20, 21; 48:17.
Of course, this does not mean that when we are faced with a weighty decision, a literal voice will tell us what to do. Nevertheless, when our thinking is attuned to God’s thinking on matters, our conscience will be better equipped to help us make decisions that will please him.—Proverbs 27:11.
Consider Joseph, who lived during the 18th century B.C.E. When Potiphar’s wife urged him to commit adultery with her, Joseph refused, saying: “How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9) In Joseph’s day, there was no written law from God condemning the act of adultery. Furthermore, Joseph was living in Egypt, far from family discipline or patriarchal rules. What, then, enabled Joseph to resist temptation? Put simply, it was his trained conscience. Joseph adopted God’s view that a husband and wife were to be “one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) He saw that it would therefore be wrong to take another man’s wife. Joseph’s thinking was attuned to God’s thinking on the matter. Adultery violated his moral sense.
Today, there are few people like Joseph. Sexual immorality is rampant, and many feel no responsibility to their Creator, to themselves, or even to their spouses to remain morally clean. The situation is much like that described in the book of Jeremiah: “There was not a man repenting over his badness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each one is going back into the popular course, like a horse that is dashing into the battle.” (Jeremiah 8:6) Thus, there is a greater need than ever for us to be attuned to God’s thinking. We have a marvelous provision to help us do so.
An Aid to Training the Conscience
The inspired Scriptures are “beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) A study of the Bible will help us to train what the Bible calls our “perceptive powers,” in order to distinguish right from wrong. (Hebrews 5:14) It will enable us to develop a love for the things that God loves and a loathing for the things that he hates.—Psalm 97:10; 139:21.
The goal of Bible study, then, is to get the spirit and substance of the truth rather than just the technical framework. In its issue of September 1, 1976, The Watchtower stated: “In our study of the Scriptures we should endeavor to capture a sense of God’s justice, love and righteousness and implant these deep into our hearts so that they become as much a part of us as eating and breathing. We should try to awaken more fully to a sense of moral responsibility by cultivating a keen awareness of what is right and what is wrong. More than this, we should make our conscience feel strongly its responsibility toward the perfect Law-Giver and Judge. (Isa. 33:22) So while learning things about God, we should be trying to imitate him in every aspect of life.”
Acquiring “the Mind of Christ”
A study of the Bible will also help us to obtain “the mind of Christ,” the mental disposition of obedience and humility that was manifested by Jesus. (1 Corinthians 2:16) Doing his Father’s will was a joy, not simply a routine to be followed automatically, without thinking. His attitude was prophetically described by the psalmist David, who wrote: “To do your will, O my God, I have delighted, and your law is within my inward parts.”*—Psalm 40:8.
Acquiring “the mind of Christ” is vital to training the conscience. When on earth as a perfect man, Jesus reflected his Father’s qualities and personality to the fullest extent possible within human limitations. Thus, he could say: “He that has seen me has seen the Father also.” (John 14:9) In every situation he faced on earth, Jesus did just what his Father wanted him to do. Therefore, when we study the life of Jesus, we are getting a clear picture of what Jehovah God is like.
We read that Jehovah is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness.” (Exodus 34:6) Time and again, Jesus manifested these qualities in dealing with his apostles. When they repeatedly argued over which one was greater, Jesus patiently taught them by word and by example that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your minister, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:26, 27) This is just one example to show that we can become attuned to God’s thinking by considering the life of Jesus.
The more we learn about Jesus, the better equipped we will be to imitate our heavenly Father, Jehovah. (Ephesians 5:1, 2) A conscience that is attuned to God’s thinking will steer us in the right direction. Jehovah promises those trusting in him: “I shall make you have insight and instruct you in the way you should go. I will give advice with my eye upon you.”—Psalm 32:8.
Benefiting From a Trained Conscience
Knowing the waywardness of imperfect humans, Moses warned the Israelites: “Apply your hearts to all the words that I am speaking in warning to you today, that you may command your sons to take care to do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 32:46) We too must write God’s law upon our hearts. If we do so, our conscience will be more likely to direct our steps and help us to make right decisions.
Of course, we must be careful. The Bible proverb says: “There exists a way that is upright before a man, but the ways of death are the end of it afterward.” (Proverbs 14:12) Why is this often the case? Because, as the Bible puts it: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Therefore, there is a need for all of us to follow the admonition of Proverbs 3:5, 6: “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.”
In his letter to the Hebrews, the apostle Paul applied the words of the 40th Psalm to Jesus Christ.—Hebrews 10:5-10.
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Like a compass, a Bible-trained conscience can point us in the right direction
Compass: Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.