Thinking it through

The Christian conscience – a reliable guide?

The Christian conscience – a reliable guide?
Stephen Rees
Stephen Rees Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.
05 March, 2024 14 min read

Ralph wanted to see me. He wanted to let me know that he was leaving Rosalind. (Not, of course, their real names). They’d been married 33 years. But the time had come for them to go their separate ways. Why?

‘Well,’ he explained, ‘neither of us have really been happy since the children left home. You know, we don’t really have a lot in common. Okay, we’re both Christians, but apart from that, we mostly go our own ways. And we seem to be quarrelling a lot these days. I know this may come as a bit of a shock to you, but I’m sure it’s the right time.’

And then the killer blow. ‘I know what the Bible says about divorce. But it can’t be right to stay together when our marriage has really died. It would be against my conscience.’

He obviously thought that settled the matter. If his conscience was clear, what was there for me to say? A Christian has to follow his conscience, doesn’t he?

I’ve had the same conversation so many times. It’s not always been about a failing marriage. It could be about almost any decision that someone has made or is in the process of making. Angie spells it out: ‘I’ve decided that churches aren’t for me. I feel that I’ll get more benefit out of worshipping at home on my own. So I’m resigning my membership. I’ve got to follow my conscience.’

Simon shares his news: ‘I’ve just got engaged to a girl I work with. She’s not a Christian, but she’s very open. And my conscience is telling me it’s the right thing.’

Maria puts me in the picture: ‘We’re going to be taking our lad to football practice on Sunday mornings. We really think it’s important that he should use his gifts. It’s a matter of conscience for us.’

For all these folk, an appeal to conscience was final. Conscience is a compass that points infallibly to God’s will.

A little voice within?

I can remember being taught about the importance of conscience when I was growing up. ‘Conscience is like a little voice speaking inside you. It tells you whether something is right or wrong. God has given you your conscience. It’s actually his voice speaking to you. And you must never go against your conscience.’

Looking back now, I can’t remember anyone explaining to me just how this inner voice of conscience would speak to me. I knew that my teachers weren’t suggesting that I would hear an audible voice speaking words into my ears. But should I at least expect to hear a voice in my head, speaking in words and sentences: ‘This is wrong’ or ‘This is right’?

‘No’, they assured me. ‘That’s not the way conscience works – at least not normally.’ So, I wanted to know, how does conscience speak? It was hard to get a definite answer to that question. When it came down to it, my friends seemed to be saying that I would just know what was right and what was wrong.

They seemed to be describing what non-Christians would call ‘intuition’ – an instinctive awareness. Or even more vaguely, a feeling. I would just feel that something was right. Or that something was wrong. If it was something that I was thinking of doing in the future, I would either feel confident about it, or I would feel uneasy and troubled. If it were something I was already doing, or that I had done in the past, I would feel guilty it was sinful; at peace if it was a godly thing to do.

Sometimes the language used would be more spiritual-sounding. ‘You will know that God is smiling. Or that God is frowning.’ ‘You will sense that you are grieving the Spirit or that you are in step with the Spirit.’ But however it was phrased, I was left with the impression that following my conscience really meant being guided by my feelings.

And looking back on my conversations with Ralph, Angie, Simon, Maria, and so many others, I realise that they too thought that way. If they felt right about something, it was right. If they felt wrong about something, it was wrong. That was their conscience speaking, and they could trust it to guide their steps.

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