Have you ever stubbed your toe? Or, hit your thumb with a hammer? Maybe you burned yourself playing with fire? When you do so, you feel an immediate, unpleasant sensation. It’s that little thing we call pain. This helps you know that something is physically wrong. A good conscience is a little like that. When you do something morally or ethically wrong, a good conscience will cause you a certain amount of moral or ethical pain.
Pain acts like an advanced warning system that protects you from further problems. If you didn’t feel physical pain when you contacted fire, for instance, you could easily burn yourself up before you knew it. But because it hurts, you quickly withdraw yourself from that dangerous situation. In the same way, moral and ethical pain is an advanced warning system that alerts you to moral and ethical dangers.
How many times have you offended your own conscience? That is, how many times have you done something you know you shouldn’t have done and you felt a sense of guilt and shame afterward? That is the part of man that acts as a moral judge that informs us when we have done wrong, the part that we call the conscience. However, this moral pain only comes when the conscience has been conditioned to respond correctly.
The apostle Paul said he always exercised himself to have a conscience void of offense towards God and man (Acts 24:16). Please note that Paul indicates in this that the nature of the conscience is such that it is under a person’s control. We can exercise our conscience, make it stronger and more sensitive. Some people have a weak conscience (I Cor. 8:7). Such a mind and conscience is easily defiled (Tit. 1:15).
Some people have had their conscience seared with a hot iron so that it is without feeling (I Tim. 4:2). When a person sins, if his conscience is good and has been taught well, he feels a sense of shame. One can draw back when this happens and correct his own misconduct. But, if one chooses to ignore the warning signs, the next time he is tempted the sin will be easier to commit, meaning there will be less pain. Each time one gives in to sin, one’s conscience becomes a little more calloused and sin becomes a little easier.
Some people have resisted the warnings of their conscience until they have gotten to the point of being past feeling (Eph. 4:19). These people are really very dangerous. A person who no longer feels a sense of shame or guilt or sorrow, that is, no longer allows their conscience to bother them, will do just about anything. The apostle Paul described such a condition in Romans 1:18-32.
It takes a good, uncalloused conscience to respond to God’s word. When the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman “caught” in the act of adultery, Jesus merely asked them, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her (John 8:7). “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (John 8:9). Even these people could not resist the voice of their conscience on that day.
When people hear the gospel, they will only respond to it if their conscience is pricked, just as those on the day of Pentecost responded to the truth because they were pricked in their hearts (Acts 2:37). That is why God calls on us not to harden our hearts (Heb. 3:7-18). When we do respond to the Lord’s invitation out of a good heart or conscience (I Pet. 3:21), we must work to maintain it. We must hold the faith in a pure conscience (I Tim. 3:9).
Eric L. Padgett