Summary: My conscience isn't a reliable guide in determining the difference between right and wrong
“Let Your Conscience be Your Guide”
We turn back to our series called Mythbusters this morning. We’ve been looking at some spiritual myths that people believe and live their lives by. Spiritual mythology is dangerous. It will always lead you down the wrong path.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say the same thing in counseling sessions. I was ordained as a minister of the Gospel in June of 1986 – 30 years ago next month – so it’s been a bunch. They rationalize their bad choices by saying, “I let my conscience be my guide.” And then they ask, “Isn’t that why God gave me one?”
In the 1940 Disney animated movie, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket sang a song to Pinocchio that said, “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.” That’s our spiritual myth for today: let your conscience be your guide.
Puritan Richard Sibbes who wrote in the seventeenth century defined the conscience as “the soul reflecting upon itself.” Conscience is at the heart of what distinguishes the human creature. People, unlike animals, can contemplate their own actions and make moral self-evaluations. That is the very function of conscience.
Your conscience is basically your understanding of what you believe is right and wrong. But here’s the problem – that voice in your head is not necessarily God’s voice. Sometimes your conscience may be theologically incorrect.
The apostle Paul told the Jewish leaders in Acts 23:1 – “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” Then, a short time later, Paul testified before the Roman governor and the Jewish king Agrippa in Acts 26:9 – “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.”
How could the apostle Paul say that he had served God well in all good conscience and yet oppose the very Son of God? It’s because our consciences are not always our best guide.
So many people have bought into the Jiminy Cricket School of Morality. They trust their own conscience above all else. They’re convinced that it is the best and most trustworthy guide to morality. As long as they have a clear conscience and a sense of inner peace about their decisions, to them the matter is closed.
Before we judge these people too hard, we should probably consider that we – you and I – have probably made many of our own decisions and moral judgments using almost the same rationale and core assumptions. It’s just that we’ve applied them to a different set of information and issues.
Many of us have been taught to trust our conscience as a God-given, internal indicator of right and wrong. Faced with a tough moral dilemma, we turn to it. If we have peace about our decision or action (what is really an absence of guilt), we assume it must be okay. Otherwise, our conscience would surely have let us know that something was wrong.
That kind of reasoning reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of our conscience and how it actually functions. The idea that our conscience is a trustworthy moral guide is a myth based on faulty assumptions. It’s another spiritual urban legend that, though widely believed, finds no support either in the Bible or in the way life really works. The myth is: I can trust my conscience at all times.
The problem is that a lot of us imagine that our conscience is a spiritual thermometer. We assume that it can be placed into any situation and it will tell us the moral temperature – too hot, too cold, or just right. But that’s not how our conscience works. It’s not a spiritual thermometer, it’s a spiritual thermostat.
The difference between a thermometer and a thermostat is important. Thermostats don’t define hot or cold. They reflect our definitions of hot and cold. We set them to respond however we like.
I have a concept of what I think is comfortable in the temperature of a room. What I think is stuffy, you might think is too cold. What I think is nice and cool, you might think is an arctic blast. That’s why sometimes we find ourselves engaged in a thermostat tug of war.
You see, thermostats are designed to reflect the temperatures we program into them. I would program it one way. You might program it another. Whoever sets the thermostat defines what is warm and what is cool.
That’s how our conscience works. It’s a spiritual thermostat. We set it to the standards that we choose. We determine when it kicks on and when it stays idle. Our conscience doesn’t tell us if we’re violating God’s standards. It tells us when we’re violating our own standards. The problem is that we can reset our consciences at any time.