This is Your Conscience (part 6)

In my last entry on this series, I talked about something Paul calls the defiled conscience, or the conscience of a person who can’t help but see good things in an evil light. These are false teachers who claim that you can’t come to God unless first you’ve renounced everything that defiles you—when in reality the sin is in the way that you use it, in your intentions and actions, and not in the thing itself.

Today I’d like to talk about another category of conscience, one that is very similar but with one crucial difference: these are not false teachers but faithful Christians. It’s a familiar category: the weak conscience.

The weak conscience has probably had more written about it than any other (and today is no exception). While we sometimes downgrade the role of conscience in the Christian life, we are very aware that there are differences of conscience in the body of Christ.

Or at least I was very aware, growing up in churches that had more rules.

Because whenever there was an argument about what kind of music was acceptable, eventually you had to accept that some people can’t listen to certain kinds of music without their conscience convicting them, and you needed to be considerate of them. Or when someone complained about the informality of a person’s clothing choices. Or when the old King James was revered. Or when working for a company that sold alcohol was forbidden (even if you weren’t buying it, let alone [God forbid!] drinking it).

Language. TV shows. Card games. Dancing. All of these are not hypothetical situations to me; these are actual complaints I’ve personally heard over the years.

Now, as I said, none of these things are bad in and of themselves. The problem is your intentions and uses. And for the person with the weak conscience, they have a difficult time breaking the associations between these things and sinful behavior.

One paradigmatic example for me is a good friend of mine who played electric guitar. We were both into the 60’s psychedelic rock band Cream, but his step-father wouldn’t let him listen to Eric Clapton because when he was a young man and not yet a Christian, he did drugs listening to that music.

As a sheltered Christian teen, it was hard to appreciate what he was saying. But once you’ve been around a while and have amassed some of your own regrets, there are certain associations that remain powerful over the years. To guard your heart, you do what you have to do. My friend’s step-dad had a weak conscience on this matter. He couldn’t break the association. And it makes perfect sense!

For a situation like that, love demands that we help him out by not picking at that scab. This is what Paul was talking about the times he spoke at length about matters of conscience in the church. You are free! And that includes being free to love and free to give up your rights.

I always ended up at this conclusion eventually. You make concessions. Take the high ground. Respect your elders. And of course you should!

But what needs to be reiterated is that the things themselves are not bad.

In 1 Cor. 8, (see also 10:23ff and Rom. 14), we see Paul says not to eat meat sacrificed to idols because it’s wrong to be a stumbling block to your brothers and sisters in Christ. But he also says very clearly: idols are nothing! So food sacrificed to idols is food sacrificed to nothing. So nothing is wrong!

The question is, as it was last time, can you eat with faith and gratitude. If your eating feels like betrayal—even if it’s not—it’s fueled by doubt. Eating that way isn’t nothing. It’s sin. The sin is just in your heart, not in the food.

And please note that this is not an example of relativism, where something is not sinful to some people but sinful to others. The standards haven’t changed. Only the references have changed. The triggers have changed. For one person, meat is the trigger. For another, dancing. Whatever the trigger, the expectation for your heart is the same, no matter who you are.

So everything made by God is good. Nothing is to be rejected if it is accepted with prayer and thanksgiving. But if you have a weak conscience, don’t violate it. You are still charged with obeying it, even thought it’s not properly calibrated.

Now another corrective to keep in mind is that Paul says not to do things that will be a stumbling block to fellow Christians with a weak conscience. But only in front of them. When they are not around, you can do as you like, you don’t have to live by their rules.

You might think that sounds like hypocrisy. I suppose if you went around telling everyone you don’t do something when you really do, then yes, the shoe fits. But Paul doesn’t say pretend you don’t eat that kind of meat. He says don’t do it in front of them. You’re obligated not to impose your freedom on someone else. But the weaker brother is also not to impose his limitations on you.

I make a big deal of these things because I think we often have an unbalanced view of conscience in this area. We rightly defer to the weaker brother, but fail to stand up for the truth that 1) they are wrong about the sinfulness of the thing, and 2) you don’t have to change your behavior when they’re not around. I’ve seen too many rules enforced in churches that I think amount to nothing more than forcing one person’s limitations on the rest of the church family.

Of course, often people don’t recognize the issue is a matter of conscience since many weaker brothers try to make a case for their way being the only biblical way.

The biggest of these in my experience has been drinking. (Yes, I’m about to meddle.) The Bible clearly prohibits getting drunk, but it does not prohibit all drinking of alcohol. It would be wrong of me, if I am free, to drink in front of a brother who cannot break those sinful associations. And they would be warranted! Drinking to excess has caused many headaches, much heartache, and even death. But it’s wrong of him, if he is bound, to force me not to drink in private. It is also wrong to insist it is a matter of Scripture and not conscience.

In all of this, we still want to be careful to distinguish the weak conscience from the defiled conscience. While they both are chained to sinful associations, and both struggle with partaking in faith and thanksgiving, the defiled conscience alone belongs to the false teacher. It is a person not with weak faith but with no faith. They have no relationship with God. They are still dead in their sins, trying to save themselves by ridding themselves of all sinful things, not realizing that the sin is in their hearts and Christ must wash them clean. They need to be confronted with the Gospel.

The person with the weak conscience is washed clean. She is a believer, alive in Christ and dead to sin. Her struggle is she doubts her ability to use in ways that will please God the things she used to associate with sin. What she needs is not a Savior (she already has Him!) but a gracious and understanding church family, willing to help support her in her weakness while she grows in faith.

If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve been exercising freedom with a clear conscience but find out that you’re being a stumbling block to someone with a weak conscience, here are some suggested next steps:

  1. Apologize for the misunderstanding
  2. Explain why you are free in Christ (if you can; don’t be a turd about it)
  3. Commit to avoid triggering doubt in your brother
  4. But don’t pretend the action is wrong and don’t pretend you won’t do it in private. (Unless it really is wrong. Then you need to follow a different road map.)

If you happen to be the weaker brother and find your conscience troubled by the freedoms exercised by your fellow Christians, try to help them understand your struggles and ask for their help. Do what you can to grow in faith and gratitude about the issue, but NEVER violate your conscience to get there.

Because that’s the fascinating thing to me in all of this. Whether your conscience is “strong” or weak, you are still bound to obey it! You just have to recognize that there may be a difference between how you feel about the issue and what the Bible teaches about it.

This series on the conscience has turned out to be much longer than I expected. I want to be done. But I believe there’s more to be said. What about the issue that triggered all of this for me? What about conscientious objectors? What about conscience and law? What about those who would hide behind conscience when they are really motivated by something sinister?

I can’t quite say my conscience compels me to press on, but I plan to add more entries as things come up. Maybe not this week or even next month. But these are questions worth asking. And if the conscience is as important as it seems in God’s design, we’d better try to get the answers right.

Father Abraham

When my son was just an infant, I would hum the song “Father Abraham” to him. It’s a good song (even if I didn’t understand it as a kid—or what it had to do with my right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot). I often make up songs around the house, especially when I sing to my kids and “Father Abraham” lends itself to this, too, because all of my children have three-syllable names.

Just like Abraham.

The syllable thing was planned, but the Abraham portion was an added benefit. I do like singing that particular song over them because my most earnest prayer for all of my children is the “and so are you” portion of the song. I want nothing more than for my kids to know the joy of knowing Christ, to be children of faith—children of Abraham.

As a good Baptist, I don’t believe that raising them in the faith means they are of the faith yet. As much as I sometimes joke about wanting be a Presbyterian (some days it’s not a joke) I am a thoroughgoing and unapologetic credo-baptist.

But we’ll save the baptism argument for another day. Today I’m just trying to figure out how to be a better parent. And of course, as a theologian, my first step is to do a systematic study of what the Bible says about children.

(Maybe now is a good time to confess that my friends worry about me.)

I started with Genesis, which of course had a lot to say about children because the stories are about the children of Abraham, the children of Isaac, the children of Jacob, the children of Joseph, the children of Noah—the children of Adam. “These are the generations” is the phrase that structures the book. It’s about the promise of seed and the promise of a great nation from a barren womb, the promise of two wrestling infants. It’s about childlessness. It’s even (almost) about child sacrifice.

I say “of course” because I know that Genesis is about all these things. But to be honest, I never put it all together before. Genesis has a whole lot to say about children.

Unfortunately for me it doesn’t have as much to say about what to do with them.

But one passage in particular really struck me, something I never noticed in all the times I’ve read Genesis. It’s something God says in passing about Abraham as He’s preparing to judge Sodom:

Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:16-19 ESV; emphasis mine)

God had a purpose for Abraham, and that’s no surprise. God always has a plan. God never just does things. But whenever I considered Abraham’s calling, I thought of the children as a gift to Abraham, and Abraham’s purpose being to bless the nations—which is certainly true.

But this passage makes clear how these two things are related. The blessing of children who will become a great nation is not just for him, and the way he will bless the nations is by how he raises them.

Abraham was a man of faith, and God wanted him to pass that faith down to his children. He was to do this by commanding them “to keep the way of the LORD.”

Now, remember they don’t have Bibles, so Abraham has to pass on the way of the LORD to them himself. We can assume that God’s commands were passed down orally since we know that was normal in those days. But note that the expectation is that his children will be “doing righteousness and justice.” I have to imagine this means Abraham is doing more than just talking. In order to teach them to do righteousness and justice, he has to set an example.

Abraham’s story involves lots of travel and lots of interactions with different peoples across the Ancient Near East. It involves miracles and epic stories and drama. But it’s not the adventure or the human interest that makes Abraham a man worth studying. God intended for him to teach his children to walk in faith, in righteousness, and in justice.

I’ll bet if we looked at Abraham’s story with these things in mind, we would learn a lot from his example.

And while we might be tempted to trace the history of Israel with disapproval and shake our heads at Abraham’s progress, the truth is Abraham did it. He was successful. You can’t make any of your children believe, let alone all of them. The fact that there was always a faithful remnant in Israel shows that the work God did in Abraham bore fruit. And God has blessed the nations through him.

Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them. And so are you [I hope].

Praise the Lord!

Even though I’m not Abraham and God hasn’t appeared to me to give me a special mission, the fact remains that Abraham has a lot to teach me about being a parent. Since I, too, am a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to command my children to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.

And maybe if God is kind and gracious, they can also be a blessing to others.

Seeing is Not Believing

Today in my men’s Bible study I was reminded of the scene in the Old Testament where God speaks to the people of Israel from Mount Sinai. I had never noticed it before, but it appears as though the Ten Commandments as originally delivered may have been spoken to the whole nation, not just to Moses. There a few small clues, but most prominently at a glance is Exodus 20:22:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.'”

And again I was reminded about the intimate relationship God had with His people, and how the people weren’t as thrilled as you might think. The fear of the LORD’s power overwhelmed any sense of intimacy, any joy or love.

Then I thought of how no generation of people had as much exposure to God as they did—with the exception of those who lived in Jesus’ day. He sent prophets, He sent plagues, He gave them escape and food and water all miraculously. He appeared to them as a cloud and a fire. He directly guided them throughout their wanderings, and here He spoke to them from the mountain.

And yet they were the generation that cast the golden calves. The record of their failures is staggering at times.

I personally have never been bothered by not being able to see and hear God. There may be times I wonder why, but I don’t recall ever thinking, “well, since God never shows up, I shouldn’t believe He’s real.”

By contrast, many unbelievers cite this as a big problem for them. The problem of God’s hiddenness. They are used to a world of things you can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. The fact that God can’t be experienced these ways is a stumbling block. People dare God to come out of “hiding” and scoff when He doesn’t.

Of course, I put “hiding” in quotes because it’s not as though He’s left us with nothing. I think of Andrew Peterson’s song Invisible God, which has the fantastic line, “Great God unseen, I see You.” His point is that even though God is invisible, His works are plainly seen. This is of course a point Paul makes in Romans as well. Though God is invisible, His presence is evident.

But even though I’m not bothered by God’s hiddenness myself and see Him often in Creation, I have to admit there are times when I sympathize with those who are bothered by it.

Sure, maybe I don’t need to see to believe—and Jesus even encouraged this after presenting Himself to Thomas. But I believe these people who struggle with God’s hiddenness are being honest; I think they really believe that they would change their minds if they could experience God themselves. And this being the case, I sometimes wonder why God wouldn’t give them a little extra help in the matter.

But then I remember Israel in the wilderness. And I remember the Jews in Jerusalem. And the sad fact remains: even seeing God isn’t enough.

Some people believe that you’re not supposed to know God exists because then we wouldn’t need faith. But I think that’s wrong. Faith and knowledge work together; they are not opposed. But Israel in the wilderness and the Jews in Jerusalem remind us that you can know with certainty that God exists and still not have faith in Him. You can be convinced of His existence and still find that has little bearing on whether or not you are willing to worship Him.

So while I’m sympathetic to the doubter’s cry for evidence, the combination of the evidence that’s already present (and discounted) and the experience of past generations who lacked faith even though they saw—well, it all reminds me that hiddenness isn’t really a problem.

The question is not whether you can see and hear God, but whether you put your trust in Him.

Now to be fair, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who laments God’s hiddenness would still doubt if they could see Him (although, again, we are without excuse). But we shouldn’t think that if everyone could see, everyone would believe. Whether you see God or not, there is still the choice to trust, serve, worship, and obey.

I’m looking forward to seeing God. I long for the day when Christ returns to make all things new. In the meantime, this Great God Unseen calls us to trust based on what we already have.

And it is enough.

This is Your Conscience (part 5)

We’ve been talking about the conscience, and last time we focused on the idea that your conscience is like an instrument that can be tuned. It’s supposed to tell us right from wrong, but it’s not perfect. We can pursue actions that bring it into alignment with reality, or we can pursue actions that draw it further out of tune.

Besides the “seared” conscience that we mentioned last time, there is another category of conscience referenced in Scripture. It’s called the “defiled” conscience.

And it’s probably not what you think.

The seared conscience has become dead to sin, insensitive to evil. But the defiled conscience actually has the other problem: it’s over-sensitive.

You might wonder why it could be possible to have too much of a good thing. After all, a conscience that is hypersensitive will be just that much more effective at keeping you from sin, right?

Well, no. It turns out that just because you’re sensitive in some areas, that doesn’t protect you in all the others.

And even if it did, that’s not good enough. The victory is not that the conscience keeps you from sinning, but that it accurately reports the way the world is to you. It’s evil to call something that is evil “good.” But it’s also evil to call something that is good “evil.”

Recall what the voice said to Peter in his vision: “what God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15)

To see what’s going on under the hood, so to speak, check out Paul’s instruction to Tutus:

“To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Tit. 1:15)

In this passage, Paul is warning Titus about false teachers, who teach that there are certain things that defile you. According to them, God will not accept you until you have first made yourself pure.

While it’s true that purification was an important part of the Mosaic Law, the Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus has taken away our sins. We who could not make ourselves pure have been made pure by God. And while doing good is still necessary, it’s not what determines your relationship with God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9 ESV)

But the truth about these false teachers is this: it’s not the things of this world that defile you—it’s their teachings that defile you! (cf. Mark 7:15)

To the pure, all things are pure. Let that sink in for a moment.

All things are pure.

Do you believe that? It may be difficult. We are surrounded by sin and opportunities to sin, but according to Paul, it’s not the things themselves that are bad. It’s how you use them.

So the pure person imagines and intends actions and uses that are pure. The thing itself is neutral. It’s the use that determines whether it will defile you or not.

Purity is not about things, but about actions and motives.

By contrast, to the person with a defiled conscience, nothing is pure. Why? Because he only imagines and intends actions that are defiled. I call this the hypersensitive conscience because it’s a conscience that has been wrongly tuned to call good things evil. The truth of the matter is not that the things themselves are evil, but that your own intentions for them are evil.

Along these lines, Paul instructs Timothy:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1Ti 4:4-5 ESV)

Sometimes it still grips me, catches me off guard. This is a fallen world Paul is describing! Even in a world corrupted with sin and death and decay everything is still essentially good because of its relationship to the Creator. Think of it!

God made everything, therefore everything is good.

And in case you’re still skeptical, Paul says nothing is to be rejected! Of course, you can still use anything for evil, and so people do. But Paul says that if you can purify your intentions, if you can approach things with a pure conscience, all things are yours!

The wrong question to ask is “is it good?” But according to Paul, there is a question you can ask to tell whether you should reject something or not. It’s “can I be grateful to God for this?”

Of course, you have to tread lightly here because a seared conscience can be grateful to God while abusing something good. But if your conscience is in the right place, it will help you discern whether being grateful to God is a sham or not. If you struggle to say thank you, that’s a red flag.

The author of Hebrews tells us a bit more about what it takes to have a pure conscience so we can enjoy all of God’s good creation with thanksgiving:

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:13-14)

It seems to me that what the author of Hebrews was saying is that the conscience is purified when the burden of sin is lifted. The sacrificial system, even though it was a gift from God, couldn’t actually do this. Only Christ could.

So rather than making yourself pure by rejecting all things so that you can be pleasing to God, the Christian is called to begin with the purification that comes from Christ and seek to live by a clear conscience so that she can accept all things.

The defiled conscience is born of unbelief. Its desire for sin has tainted all things so that it cannot accurately guide you. It calls good things evil because it is out of alignment.

Next time we’ll talk about another form of hypersensitive conscience that’s very similar and yet different in a crucial way: the weak conscience.

This is Your Conscience (part 4)

For the past few days I’ve been posting on the conscience. I’ve said it’s our moral sense, like a compass that guides you in matters of right and wrong. It comes from God, endorsed in a sense to teach you good and evil when you have no other guides like the Old Testament Law or the teachings of Jesus to tell you what to do. To be a Christian is to live by the conscience, being sure to run to the church rather than away from it when you run afoul of it.

But all along I’ve hinted at a problem. It’s rather significant, actually, and it’s one of the reasons people get uncomfortable talking about the conscience at all.

Your conscience isn’t always right.

In fact, not only is it wrong sometimes, you have the power to make it worse! It’s an instrument you get to tune, and often you’re tuning it when you don’t realize it. Rather than consciously deciding “I’m going to change how I feel about this,” we keep pursuing situations that happen to either dull or intensify the senses.

Usually the conscience doesn’t go down without a fight, but the circumstances in which you grew up can go a long way to start you off on the wrong foot. This is one of the reasons childhood education is so important—and not just instruction, but modeling. The example you set and reinforce is a powerful thing.

(Are we feeling comfortable yet?)

But despite all the risks, the power to tune the conscience is actually good news. Because if all we had to go on was the mistakes of our parents, and all we could do is perpetuate what we began with, we would have no way to make progress. We would be stuck!

And being stuck might be worse than you think, because let’s face it: the Bible doesn’t always tell you what to do. Because God’s Word is not exhaustive, it becomes that much more important to have a conscience you can rely on to help you navigate all the rest.

Now it’s no mystery how a person dulls his conscience. Much like the other senses, overexposure tends to quiet the signals. You eat enough sweets, you lose touch with just how much sugar is in your food. You stay at the rock concert long enough and you can’t hear your friends on the ride home. So also the more you expose yourself to moral wrongs, the less wrong they often seem over time.

This is a state the Bible calls a “seared” conscience. It’s not good.

If you find yourself here, there’s always hope. But it will probably take a while. And in the meantime you will have to rely on your other faculties more, trusting that the Bible is right even if it doesn’t feel right, or trusting that the logic is sound even if what you want to do feels good.

But the most important thing is to get yourself out of that environment, to starve yourself of that particular sin so that the conscience has a chance to bounce back—empowered by the Spirit, through prayer.

Next time I want to talk about some other words the Bible associates with the conscience, which you may not be familiar with. But they have primarily to do with the oversensitive conscience.

In the meantime I want to make sure you don’t miss this point: your conscience isn’t always right. It needs to be tuned, and your tuner is the Bible. If your conscience doesn’t condemn you, that’s only good news if it’s been properly calibrated. Having a seared conscience may feel at times like having a clear conscience, but they are worlds apart. You must turn to prayer and meditation on Scripture in the community of the Spirit to help you see the difference.

If your conscience does condemn you—or perhaps more often someone else—it’s also critically important to make sure that judgment has been tuned to the Word of God. Moral outrage is a powerful thing, and we live in a time when it’s easy to assemble a mob. But just because your conscience is screaming doesn’t necessarily mean you should, too. It has to be properly calibrated first.

More on this next time.

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