“Conscience” is referred about 30 times in the Bible, all of them in the New Testament. All are a translation of the same Greek word and its basic meaning is the ability to see both sides of an argument clearly.
From this comes the idea of conscience being the facility which enables us to identify what is right and what is wrong, helping us to control our behaviour.
One Bible student defined its meaning as ”A knowing within oneself”, while another wrote that ”to have a good conscience is to be able to look in the face the knowledge which one shares with no-one but oneself and not be ashamed”.
That is a very challenging observation. If you have a clear conscience you can look in the face the knowledge which is intensively private to yourself – knowledge which you share with nobody else at all, not even those closest to you – and still not be ashamed about anything. That is what a good, clear conscience would feel like.
When the apostle Paul wrote his New Testament letter to the Ephesians he referred to some who were ”past feeling” (Ephesians 4:19). One writer has described them as ”stifling their consciences”. So it seems that some members of the church in Ephesus had apparently ceased to feel, or had deliberately suppressed, the emotions which told them what was right and what was wrong!!
The Greek word Paul used in his letter literally means that the consciences of the Christians he was writing to in Ephesus had become ‘calloused’. A callous is a ”toughened area of skin which has become thick and hard due to repeated pressure”. This callousing, or hardening, had effected their consciences. They had become insensible to the mental discomfort that a more effective and sensitive conscience would have made them feel when they contemplated doing things that were wrong.
When writing another letter, this time a personal letter to the young man Timothy, Paul refers to false teachers whose consciences had been ”seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). The allusion is to the practice of branding slaves to show who their owners were. The effect of branding with heated metal was to burn a mark into the skin, resulting in the affected area becoming permanently scarred and completely insensitive.
The writer J B Phillips translated Paul’s letter to Timothy with the words ”consciences are as dead as seared flesh”, while the Living Bible says they were telling lies ”so often that their consciences won’t even bother them”.
A constant danger
It is a warning to all of us that it is possible to abuse our own conscience and, by our behaviour, the consciences of others – to make them less effective. In fact our consciences may cease to be effective at all.
The basic meaning of conscience – the ability to see both sides of an argument clearly – means that our consciences can only work efficiently if they are fed with the information that will allow them to understand both sides of the argument.
Naturally speaking we are all tempted to do evil things; it’s just part of our human nature:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”(Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV)
So none of us needs to be taught anything about how to be evil. Bad behaviour comes naturally to us all and needs to be kept in check! We are in constant danger of behaving badly. We only have ourselves to blame when we do ‘devilish‘ things.
To stop that happening our conscience needs help. It constantly needs to hear the other side of the argument, the good behaviour that needs to be encouraged.
If our conscience is to be instructed in the good things that do not come to us naturally then we have to do that educating. We have to give our conscience the information it needs in order to help us make the correct decisions when we are in difficult circumstances and are being tempted to do evil. It’s a constant struggle!
Help is at hand
We can help ourselves by learning more about God and His ways from His word, the Bible. The apostle Paul leaves us with powerful advice in one of the speeches he made when he was explaining what he believed:
“I have hope in God…that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men.” (Acts 24:15-16 NKJV)
If the hope that Paul had is to be our hope too, then we need to follow his example and strive to make sure that it’s a ‘clear conscience’ that always governs our lives.