Summary: A look at conscience through the eyes of Paul in 1 Corinthians. Its not just an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.
There’s a song in the animated film Pinocchio that speaks a carefree life to our troubled hearts. When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong. Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle! When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong. Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle! Not just a little squeak, pucker up and blow. And if your whistle’s weak, yell, "Jiminy Cricket!" Right! Take the straight and narrow path and if you start to slide. Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle! And always let your conscience be your guide.
Conscience…how would you define it? We talk about this phenomenon constantly but when faced with explaining it we find ourselves in a quandary. The subject of the conscience is an extremely complex and weighty topic. Philosophers and theologians have struggled with its meaning for centuries. Its usage in psychological analysis was put forward with a sound intuition of the precariousness of an appeal to conscience. The New Testament cites the term on many occasions and that the Holy Spirit influences us through it. Conscience is not our guide but it may be used by God. How do we delineate the appropriate promptings of what we call conscience? How do we deal with people whose conscience gives no promptings at all?
The road to understanding the nature and function of conscience is to discern what role it plays in relation to the value system which we have identified as the product of a transformed mind. The value system is our guide as the only database which can be objectively analyzed. The conscience is a God-given function of our self-awareness (self-consciousness) that witnesses to the dictates of our value system.
Conscience is not a lawgiver. It is a witness to the laws which exist within the frame of reference by which we make judgments about ourselves and our world. Conscience is not some independent entity within our being. It is only one aspect of a human being’s ability for self-aware critique. If we violate the values which we recognize and apply, then the pain we feel is what we call conscience. The term conscience is a word which is logically constructed to explain the inward pain of violation. It is a term of description not ontology. If we contemplate a course of action and we feel no pain, then we assume it is appropriate since our conscience does not alert us. This last scenario, however, is faulty. If the role of conscience is to monitor how we relate to our values, and the value system is not programmed in a certain area, we may not perceive the function of conscience since its function is bound within the realm of witnessing to our value judgments. It does not provide independent judgments, as if outside of ourselves, but it witnesses to the judgments which the value system has already delivered to our self-reflective capacity.
Conscience is a term we hear and use frequently, but for most of us its like an Almond Joy candy bar—indescribably delicious. As we look through the Bible we find no Hebrew term for conscience. But in Ecclesiastes 10:20 we see the parallel though in the Hebrew. Curse not the king, no not even in your thoughts, and curse not the rich in your bedchamber, for a bird of the air will carry the voice and a winged creature will tell the matter. Basically what it says is be careful who you talk about, who you go wrong by in your bedroom, in your most private place because a bird is gon hear it and come back to tell you! That’s why we have that saying “a little birdie told me.”
It ain’t like I let just anybody up in my bedroom…It ain’t like I let just anybody in my innermost thoughts. But God is in your bedroom. He’s in your innermost thoughts! He sees all, hears all and knows all! That little birdie is your conscience! And its God’s way to tell you I know all about it! So while you tryin to hide it! While you tryin to cover it up! While you tryin to go on like it ain’t never happened, I know! And whats done in the dark shall come to light!
Conscience comes from the Latin word conscientia, with the prefix com- meaning with and the infinitive scire meaning to know. So its knowledge from within. In the New Testament chronologically the first usage of the word conscience is in 1 Corinthians. Corinth is a church founded by Paul as the result of eighteen months of labor there. Its safe to say that the Corinthians knew. Paul preached and taught there for a long time. They knew. Yet they allowed themselves to be overtaken by sin and to forget what they knew. Therefore necessity was lain upon Paul to write them this letter and remind them eight separate times about their conscience.