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Conscience – The Good and The Bad

Do you like having a conscience?

There are times I’d prefer not to have a conscience. A conscience can really bug you! Sometimes I can convince my myself that I really haven’t done anything wrong, but my conscience just won’t let up. Sleep is disturbed, thoughts distracted, friendships disrupted. And when I know I really have done something wrong, the effects are deeper and longer. I’d love to be able to erase my conscience, to sear it into oblivion.

A conscience can really bug you! Sometimes I can convince my myself that I really haven’t done anything wrong, but my conscience just won’t let up. Sleep is disturbed, thoughts distracted, friendships disrupted.

So are we better off without a conscience? It doesn’t take much reflection to realise that would be a disaster. It conjures up images of boy soldiers, who can torture and shoot people without compunction because they have virtually no conscience. Whatever conscience they had has been assaulted and erased through being forced to violate it repeatedly and deeply.

Our consciences act as internal moral compasses. Before any questionable action, they cause us to balk, with a little voice inside saying, ‘Stop! Don’t! It’s wrong.’ Even if no-one is watching, they just kick in of their own accord. Even if there is no external constraint (like the possibility of being caught) they speak up. Our consciences can be reshaped and re-educated by experience or a parent’s nagging, but there seems to be something universally innate about having a conscience. For people around me to have their consciences seared is a truly scary prospect. It is the beginning of psychopathy. Yes, I want you to have a conscience, and I want one too.

Painful and Persistent

But if we go against them, those same moral compasses become weapons against us. We all have things on our conscience, whether it is betrayal, or shoplifting or pornography, or a fit of temper. I may be able to glide through most days without my bad conscience intruding, but when it is triggered by some random event—a person, a smell, an image, a random thought—those feelings of guilt and shame flood back. It can lay dormant for months or years and suddenly emerge sharp as ever. It can be painful and persistent.

A guilty conscience makes us feel dirty. Pilate tried to wash his hands, as did Lady Macbeth. Taking a shower is an almost instinctive way to try to remove a guilty conscience. But soap and scrubbing can’t remove the stain. It seems to be indelible. We try to make atonement for our wrongdoing with a few sacrifices or other costly good deeds. But even when we have done all we can, our consciences are still dirty and painful.

It is into this experience of conscience that Jesus steps. The letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:

‘How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!’ (Hebrews 9:14)

The blood of Jesus can cleanse our consciences! What soap and hot water can’t do, Jesus sacrificial death can. There is hope of living guilty-conscience free. This verse comes in the context of explaining that all the washings and sacrifices of animals that the Old Testament law prescribed cannot cleanse our consciences—they can only ever cleanse the outside. They cannot cleanse the inside, the conscience.

The blood of Jesus can cleanse our consciences! What soap and hot water can’t do, Jesus sacrificial death can. There is hope of living guilty-conscience free.

But you may object that the blood of Jesus does not have the capacity to cleanse my conscience—how can something objective, outside me, cleanse my subjective, internal guilt and shame? If soap and water can’t do it, how can the death of someone 2000 years ago on the other side of the world?

But, in fact, it is the very objective nature of Jesus’ sacrificial death that gives it the power to cleanse my conscience. The problem with water and the blood of animals is not that they are objective, but that they are ineffective. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus’ blood is effective—it does pay the penalty for my sin and guilt.

To use an analogy that the Bible itself uses often for the guilt that results from our evil actions, it is like debt. Many of know the feeling of being in debt, and feeling the stress of being unable to repay the debt. It is very similar to the feeling of guilt. Many of my friends have racked up huge HECS debts (student loans to pay their university fees). They often feel weighed down by the debt, in a similar way to the weight of guilt for sin. What will ease their stress? What will remove the weight of indebtedness? The only viable answer is the objective action of the debt being paid. Imagine a generous aunt paying off the debt in full. In this case, I may still feel the weight of the debt, but when I log onto myGov to check my debt, it says in bold black and white that my debt is $0.00. That objective reality has the power to change my feelings of indebtedness. If my feelings return, I just need to log in again and check—it still says $0.00. I can quieten my feelings with the objective reality that my debt has been paid in full. I owe nothing. I am free. I am clean.

So it is with Christ’s blood. It wipes out my sin-debt, paying it in full. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. And so it has the power to cleanse my conscience, my feelings of guilt. When my conscience is triggered, and my past evil actions generate those feelings of filth and shame, the thing that can quieten my conscience is the death of Jesus. He has paid my debt in full – objectively, marvellously. It is the only thing that can cleanse my conscience, and it does it fully.

I am glad I have a conscience. But I am far gladder that my conscience has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. It is only because of the blood of Jesus that I can live with my conscience.

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