Prone to Wander

Three Ways the Heart Clouds the Conscience

Our consciences are rock-steady, consistent sources of Christlike comfort and conviction. Utterly reliable, the conscience can be counted on to get us through the stickiest of situations and always help us arrive at Christ-centered solutions.

Except when it doesn’t. When our heart overrides the testimony of conscience and tempts us to take the easy path. Or when it justifies our own selfishness. When instead of holding us accountable to God’s word, it gives us license to live like the world. When we find our “consciences are seared,” who do we find holding the hot iron? Our sinful hearts, “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), foment rebellion against the conscience in at least three ways.

1. We are lovers of self.

One reason is that, in our hearts, we are lovers of self. There are few things that chafe us like prohibitions, because they remind us that we are not in control, and they highlight the fact that we don’t actually make the rules. So we treat God’s prohibitions as if he were playing some great cosmic game merely to amuse himself.

But we deceive ourselves. For just as loving parents place limits on their children, so God places limits on his children. God is not vindictive, malicious, or oppressive by commanding that we follow his law — his limits are a grace, meant to keep us safe so that we may enjoy life.

Yet how often do we play the part of the insolent child dancing in the middle of the interstate? From the beginning God created boundaries which we were not meant to cross in order that we might be kept safe (Genesis 2:15–17). And from the beginning we have chosen self-love rather than loving obedience (Genesis 3:6). While it may be irksome, we must listen when God tells us, “Stop and go no further” (see 1 John 5:2–3). If we don’t, it’s likely that he is allowing us to hurl ourselves unto our own demise (Hebrews 12:11).

Our hearts often tempt us to imagine a universe where God has no boundaries at all, but such a place cannot exist outside the playground of our own minds. Wherever there exists more than one person, boundaries must exist also. It is our own incredulous self-love that would have us not only be on par with God, but seek to take his place.

2. We love comfort and hate failing.

Another reason we blunt our consciences is that our hearts love ease and comfort. Genuine labor is genuinely tough, and remaining tender to God’s commands for our lives is laborious. In addition, Satan loves to focus our hearts on the difficulty of labor while making little of the reward. In fact, he often promises a better, more pleasant outcome with little need to break a sweat. Even Christ was not exempt from Satan’s tactics, but Christ knew Satan to be the father of lies and chose instead the harder, better, and truer reward of obedience (Matthew 4:1–11).

To refuse the heavy labor of the Christian life for our own rest is to refuse also the exceedingly light burden of Christ who pleads, “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28) — to rest in ourselves is to rest in the transient and flawed, but to rest in Christ is to rest in the eternal and perfect. Therefore, we should not allow ourselves to give in to the fatigue of present perseverance but rather let the promise of future fulfillment re-invigorate our race (Philippians 3:14).

But keeping a tender conscience is not only exhausting, it can be discouraging. Sin is pervasive in our lives, and while God’s people have been renewed in the inner man, they wrestle constantly with that old self that longs for world-shaped pleasure (Romans 7:21–25). Even the most enthusiastic of believers can become disheartened by the constant need to renew our thoughts and affections to be cross-shaped instead of world-shaped (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23). But to stop at discouragement is to miss Paul’s point altogether! God’s grace for our failings should be the catalyst for our continued perseverance, not an excuse for Christian fatalism (Romans 8:12–17).

3. We think too little of sin.

Lastly, our weak hearts often want us to believe that sin is insignificant. People begin to trade in their conscience because God’s holiness seems less important than their own momentary happiness. Satan tempts us to believe that happiness and holiness are at odds with one another, and our hearts take that opportunity to pursue sinful pleasures instead of obedience.

Furthermore, Satan wants us to believe that “little infractions” here or there are nothing to a God as gracious as ours. And while it is true that God’s grace is sufficient, every sin is also absolutely repugnant (Habakkuk 1:13). James tells us that breaking the law anywhere is breaking it in totality (James 2:10). So to presume upon grace is to presume upon the one that was willing for his own most beloved Son to suffer in our place for those sins (John 3:16). When we are willing to presume on such a jaw-dropping sacrifice almost without a second thought, it’s surely a sign that our hearts are beginning to deaden our consciences.

Keep Your Conscience Tender

A conscience tender to God’s word is a God-given grace. It is only the Holy Spirit that pricks the heart and softens the conscience. However, that doesn’t mean we have no part in fighting the conscience-killing impulses of our hearts. We can encourage this God-honoring growth by steeping ourselves in God’s word and using it like a scalpel on our own lives. Prayers of confession should also be a regular part of our prayer life serving to both convict us of our wrongdoing and refresh us with reminders of God’s inexhaustible grace.

A tender conscience is the fruit of word-enriched cultivation. A tender conscience takes our thoughts, feelings, and actions captive and examines them in the light of the Bible. It should rebuke us when we find ourselves wayward and encourage us when we obey. And when this lower-court of private examination is working efficiently, it keeps from the higher courts of public rebuke and admonition.

Therefore, let us not neglect the hard work of spiritual heart surgery required to maintain the clear voice of our conscience, for a clear conscience within reveals and encourages external fruit that carries the aroma of Christ.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.