Psalm 51: 1-13; Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33
March 22, 2015
We've heard this adage for years: “Let your conscience be your guide”. Our question this morning—is that really a good idea? Let's look a bit at our consciences and just how they are developed and we can decide where our guidance should come from.
I want to start with our Psalm, Psalm 51. This is commonly acknowledged as a psalm written by King David after his affair with Bathsheba which was disclosed by the prophet Samuel. David is remorseful as we read his words of confession: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
We've been taught to trust our consciences as a moral indicator of right or wrong actions. When moral decisions have to be made...let your conscience be your guide. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how our consciences actually work. Let's look at two common household items to see how we think the conscience should work and how it actually works. You are familiar with thermometers and thermostats. Thermometers read the temperature, thermostats allow us to set the temperature we want.
The common expectation of our conscience is that it will tell us the moral temperature of any situation—too hot, too cold or just right. But in actuality, our conscience is much more like a moral thermostat. Thermostats don't tell us what is too hot or too cold; they reflect what our definition of hot and cold is.
Now if you are anything like Julie and me, it is hard to agree on what the thermostat should be set at. When she's cold, I'm often hot. Nowhere is this more evident than when we are traveling in the car. The sun is beating down, I can hardly breath and she's likely to turn the thermostat higher cuz she's cold. We may have saved our marriage when we got dual controls in our cars. The thermostatic controls don't determine who's definition of too hot or too cold is correct. They reflect our personal standards of hot and cold—Julie's got hers, I've got mine. And truth be told, that is how how consciences work. It is our spiritual thermostat; it doesn't kick in when we are breaking God's standards, it kicks in when we are breaking our personal standards; what we have learned is too hot or too cold morals-wise.
And for most of us these standards can be reset—either intentionally or unintentionally. Consider the standards which this church taught us years ago. Playing cards, dancing, movies were all taught as sinful actions. And if that's what your conscience was taught, chances are your conscience warned you when you were in danger of violating these prohibitions. But I'd guess that we could take a poll here this morning and no one would consider these activities sinful done in moderation. Those activities were, perhaps, signs of an overly strict set of personal standards; the thermostat was set too low. But the other extreme is also in play here. There are consciences that won't kick in at any level below murder perhaps. Even King David didn't stop at murder to cover his sin. And our reading in Hebrews tells us that “Jesus LEARNED obedience”. If even Jesus had to learn obedience we can conclude that even his conscience wasn't pre-programmed. If Jesus had to learn obedience, that certainly suggests that we need to learn to set our “moral thermostat” to align better with God's will so that we too learn obedience.
Another look to Jesus before I move on. Listen to his words from today's gospel as he considered his path toward glory. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-- `Father, save me from this hour'?” Could it be that his soul being troubled was his conscience speaking? As a human being, he feared the suffering ahead; his human conscience told him “this is wrong”. But, as we know, he chose to follow God's leading. And that brings us to how we learn to handle our conscience's lack of moral pre-adjustment. We need to train our consciences to follow God's way and not our own.
Many consider the apostle Paul the greatest Christian who ever lived. Listen to what he wrote about his own conscience. In 1 Corinthians 4: 3-4, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” He admits that even though his conscience is clear, it doesn't make him faultless. It is the Lord who judges. And that suggests why our conscience can't always be trusted; we are influenced by many things besides the Lord. Theologians tell us we are born with a sin nature...we have a natural tendency to sin. The power of Christ overcomes the power of the sin to bring death but it doesn't eradicate our sin nature. This nature clouds our judgment. This clouded judgment helps explain all the different denominations in the church, we don't agree on all aspects of theology. It explains how the Presbyterian Church can approve same-sex marriage while it is mostly disapproved of in the pew. It explains how we can share communion with certain churches and not others. We study scripture but we don't get a clear picture, one we can all agree on. Our sin nature also means that we will have blind spots so we don't recognize our own failures in judgment. Back to the apostle Paul. When we read his accounts in scriptures, we discover that this wonderful, powerful disciple at times misread the leading of the Lord, he prayed for things that God didn't want for him to have, he grew discouraged and even despaired of life itself. He failed to show grace to Mark when Mark went home during a mission trip and we could list more. Don't you think that if Paul's conscience failed him at these times, it is understandable that we will struggle as well. We need to understand that our conscience is not the arbiter of right and wrong but a system to give us a warning when we may be getting too close to the line.
So how does the conscience determine where that line is? Let's look at a computer's software for comparison. A computer is only as good as the data entered into it. Garbage in—garbage out as the saying goes. Same with our conscience. It is no better than the data we enter; the standards that we have set. If our data is off, our conscience will be off. We can do some very sinful stuff if we have never learned where the line is; sinful--without any resistance from our conscience. The human mind is a powerful force and can justify many things as we reprogram our consciences. We need to enter good data into our lives so that our consciences are in line with God's definition of right and wrong.
Another way our consciences get off track is, to use Larry Osborne's term, if we have a “callused conscience.” This is a conscience that early on gave us warnings about our behavior but as we ignored these warnings, the conscience grew callused and we can do terrible things with a clear conscience. I don't think that describes anybody here this morning, but we certainly don't have to look very hard to find terrible things being done with no apparent remorse accompanying the actions. Child molesters, murderers, adulterers, terrorists, drug dealers...big things done with no remorse. On a smaller scale, we can do some unkind things and our consciences can become callused; we can do little illegal things-blurring the line on taxes, driving techniques that aren't 100% legal, white lies to fit in--and our consciences grow callused. And the trouble with a callused conscience is that it then becomes harder and harder to unlearn the wrong and relearn the right way to behave. A callused conscience is a thermostat set too high and we become convinced that God understands and maybe even approves.
So with all these problems with our consciences, what is it good for? I've hinted at it a few times—it is a great early warning system. It lets us know when we are approaching dangerous actions. That is assuming it has been fed proper data and has not been ignored and become callused. It is a reliable system for warning us when we are about to violate our own value system. Our value system needs to be properly programmed. That's why we bring our children to Sunday school-get an early understanding of God's word. We gather together on Sunday morning for worship...hearing God's word and sharing our concerns. These are good starts. I can't stress enough that God wants to be a part of everything we are involved in. So training our consciences includes extra study of God's word—Sunday morning adult discussion group, The Story Wednesday bible study, PW studies and national gathering, independent studies on your own, reading books, controlling what we allow into our environments.
See, the good thing about your conscience is that it can be reset; it can be adjusted to God's standards. And when that happens, it will warn you when you are about to violate God's will. But our conscience is not to be our ultimate guide. We don't determine right or wrong simply by how we feel. Faith in God's leading, reasoning things out, studying God's word are our guides.
May we like Jesus, learn obedience so that we can avoid the regret and pain of King David. May we seek more of God in our lives that our consciences might aline with God's will and may we make Jesus and his words our guide in all things. Amen.
Hymn: Ancient Words insert