Last time I talked about the role of the conscience in condemning and confirming your actions. Your conscience is a gift from the Creator to help you know how to live. It’s not perfect (which we’ll come back to later) but it’s right enough that in the absence of other witnesses, to go against conscience is sufficient to condemn you before God.
So it should come as no surprise that being a good Christian means listening to that internal compass God gave you for direction. We looked at a few passages where Paul talked about striving for a “good” or “clean” conscience.
But before I move on to other factors about the conscience itself, I want to pause for a moment and focus on application. If you’re supposed to be keeping a clean conscience and you’ve failed, what should you do?
I don’t mean simply “do better next time.” I mean as you feel the heat of condemnation on your face, how do you respond in that moment?
How you answer this question is one of the most important decisions you will make in your Christian walk.
Sometimes the shame and guilt that we feel over sin causes us to withdraw from family, friends, and the church. Having felt the pain of self condemnation we want to protect ourselves from their condemnation as well.
If we’re not careful, we can form a habit of running away from community, and even running away from the condemnation of the conscience itself. This can be incredibly dangerous because sin thrives in darkness. The more we withdraw, the more space we give sin to take hold. The more we give in to sin, the more we dull the ability of the conscience to guide us.
Dealing with the consequences of sin is far better than dealing with the consequences of hiding your sin.
A few weeks ago I was listening to an early Bregman Leadership Podcast episode on authenticity (I think maybe #22, but I can’t remember). One of their insights really struck me, even though on one level it seems so common sense. They said when you hide who you really are in order to be accepted, you’re disappointed to find that it’s not really you that’s been accepted—just a pretend version of you.
My point here is not that you should embrace your sin as the “real you,” but rather to acknowledge your struggles. Be the honest you. Then you won’t have to walk in fear of being found out, or worry about whether people really care about you—the real, imperfect you.
Now, just because you shouldn’t hide doesn’t mean you should go shouting it from the rooftops instead. One of my seminary professors, Lanier Burns, hit the nail on the head when he said that my generation is especially bad about oversharing. Being honest and transparent doesn’t have to mean being naked in public. In fact, if you try to make important confessions at the wrong place and time, you will likely be disappointed at the response you get.
What you need to do when your conscience condemns you is find someone trustworthy. Find someone who won’t pretend your sin is ok, but who also cares enough to help you overcome it.
If either of those ingredients are missing, keep looking.
Growing up I almost never heard confession in a church context. There were times when a youth leader might invite eye contact during prayer as a way of fessing up, but I’m not sure that counts if there’s no follow up. More often than not, confession was reserved for the most scandalous sins and delivered in a very public and painful way.
I’ve also been in churches where sharing our struggles was discouraged so that we didn’t feed gossip or become a temptation to others. Better to keep the circle as small as possible. But then who knows to pray for me in my weakness? Who can rejoice with me in my victories? How can God use my mistakes to help others?
Far better are the few churches I’ve experienced where people are encouraged to be honest with their struggles, where struggle is normalized. We all struggle, and we all need help, and so why not break the silence? Why not open the curtains and let the light in?
Part of finding trustworthy people is to learn to be a trustworthy person. If someone comes to you with a struggle, it’s important to respond with mercy and compassion even as you make it clear that giving in is not ok. Practice listening. Respond with humility—knowing that you, too, are a sinner.
Commit to helping someone not just feel better but live better.
While only Jesus can forgive sins, it is absolutely appropriate to remind one another of the forgiveness that we have in Christ if we have put our faith in Him. For more on this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this point beautifully in Life Together.
So what do you need to do to pursue a clear conscience? Take the plunge. Find a trustworthy person to confess to. Humble yourself. Give others an opportunity to help you.
And don’t wait.
The conscience is God’s gift to you. The condemnation you feel from your conscience is not meant to drive you into hiding, but into the light. You have a responsibility to keep a clear conscience and to help others do the same, and that comes by confession and loving accountability.