True and False Conscience

True conscience is a gift from God. It gives us a concrete way of telling whether we are honoring God's expectations and obeying His commands. When we do honor and obey God, our conscience is clear, without impediment. When we do not honor and obey God, our conscience is uneasy, at least at some level. We feel guilty, even ashamed at times. The conviction of true conscience is not something to boast about or something meant to condemn us. Rather, it is one important way God lovingly communicates with us. The conviction of true conscience either encourages us in our present direction or warns us that we have taken a wrong turn. It is either God's encouragement for us to stay the course or His call for us to return to Him in sincere confession and repentance.

In His merciful love for us, God is eager to forgive us and to relieve us of our felt guilt when we stray. Some people hold that felt guilt serves no worthwhile purpose, whether in a positive or a negative function. This is misguided. It probably stems from a confusion of felt guilt with self-condemnation. Felt guilt is an important gift to us in our relationship with God. It signals our deep need for forgiveness and reconciliation, and thus gives us the opportunity to ask for and to receive them from God. When this crucial function of felt guilt is served, we receive God's gracious offer of reconciled friendship with Him. Our felt guilt then can and must be released. Holding on to felt guilt for something that has been forgiven by God amounts to refusing God's invaluable gift of forgiveness. Felt guilt can then become an idol that hinders our properly responding to God's mercy in love and trust.

Like any of God's good gifts, conscience can be corrupted. We can lose our ability to hear God's loving call through conscience. We can even become desensitized to the very difference between good and bad. So far as our conscience goes, moral categories can become relative. We then may seek to justify our actions in terms of our own subjective preferences and desires. We become, in our eyes, accountable to no one but ourselves. This is, tragically, one common way conscience is corrupted. It is the corruption of moral relativism, and it obscures God's communicating with us through conscience.

Another form of corrupted conscience is false conscience. A true conscience hears and responds to the corrective, loving call of God for human guidance. A false conscience, however, hears and responds to the voice of an imposter. Whoever the imposter is, if the voice of conscience lacks the mercy and forgiveness of God, it is a voice empowered by spiritual darkness. In a false conscience, the sense of conviction may be very strong indeed. Since, however, its message is not from God, it is harsh and condemning, sometimes in self-righteousness. It is always destructive rather than corrective. Encouragement and loving correction never come from a false conscience.

Felt guilt from a false conscience is condemning, unlike the redemptive, lovingly corrective felt guilt that comes from true conscience. A false conscience can relentlessly accuse me of wrongdoing even when I have done nothing wrong. It can generate and even fabricate accusations of wrongdoing against me. If I believe the lies of false conscience against me and they are not corrected with God's truth, false conscience will have destructive effects on my life. I will then live in a prison of self-condemnation and will not be free.

If my false conscience leads to self-righteousness, I will be in bondage in another way. I will then exalt myself above others in ways that blind me from seeing our similar moral deficiencies before God. I might even be so blinded that I, in self-righteousness, promote violence against others in the name of God. In that case, a false conscience would corrupt religion absolutely. It would then defame the name of an all-loving God of mercy and peace. The soul driven by such a conscience is poisoned indeed.

A false conscience can drive us into either selfish fear (often relative to felt guilt) or selfish anger (often relative to self-righteousness). It promotes a spirit of blame and condemnation that will be directed toward oneself in fear or others in anger (and perhaps toward both). Either I do everything wrong and should be condemned, or you do everything wrong and should be condemned. The condemnation at work here shows that the underlying fear or anger does not stem from God's merciful love. Mercy has no place, as condemnation takes over and destroys. God's way of merciful love has been banished, as I proceed to do things on my selfish terms. This is a common, destructive result of false conscience.

A false conscience can have the tragic result that I live in constant fear of myself. Every thought, every feeling, and every action can become an opportunity for false conscience to condemn me and to trouble me with emotional torture. Since its dark twofold aim is to condemn and to punish, a natural response from me is fear, even fear of myself. Clearly, for one to live in fear of oneself is to die slowly in hell. How then can one respond? What should I do if I am tortured by a conscience gone bad? Several things are helpful.

First, I must prayfully discern whether my conscience is telling me lies. If it is, I must turn to God for the truth, as God alone can break through a false conscience. True conviction from the true God always seeks redemption and restoration, not condemnation and destruction. God's work in conscience is always lovingly corrective. However challenging, God's work does no harm.

Second, I should avoid endless diagnosing of why or how conscience has gone bad. In general, we already know why it has gone bad. The main story will always be the same, even if the details are significantly different. We fall away from God through willful disobedience, leaving ourselves open to all kinds of dark spiritual powers. Our job is to stop disobeying God — to repent of willful rebellion and to seek transformation through friendship with God. Dark powers cannot get a foothold in a conscience attuned to God. I should spend my time allowing God to release me, not trying to figure out exactly how darkness has worked in me. Diagnosis of darkness must give way to obedient friendship with God.

Third, I should consider whether false conscience or its effects have become an idol. Selfish fear, self-condemnation, guilt, and shame can become obstacles to my turning to God to receive needed forgiveness He eagerly gives. Even when dark idols cause me great pain, I may be willing to hold on to them for the sake of (seemingly) remaining in control of my life on my terms, no matter how tortured. I must seek God's powerful release from the dark idols of false conscience.

Fourth, I must be willing to let God's healing of my conscience take some time. I must seek God's merciful forgiveness not just for the things true conscience convicts me of, but also for my listening to the condemning voices of false conscience instead of the redeeming voice of God. The paralyzing effects of false conscience can be far reaching and devastating. I may have lived my whole life in fear of myself, of others, and of life itself. I may have developed bad habits that seek to deny or to hide such fear. What darkness influences for a long time sometimes takes some time for God to heal. The undoing of darkness sometimes calls for a slow process guided by God. As genuinely healing, God's merciful love is not a quick fix.

Finally, to stop fearing myself, I need to learn how to befriend myself as a true, loving friend. I will not know how to do this if I have suffered under the effects of false conscience for a long time. Thankfully, we find in Jesus someone who is eager to be our faithful, merciful friend even when we cannot befriend ourselves. So, I need to learn to let Jesus befriend me first. Indeed, I can be a genuinely faithful friend to no one unless I let Jesus befriend me first. In Jesus I find a friend who knows even more deeply than I what it is to suffer the horrors of condemnation and to be utterly alienated from God (see Mark 15:34 for his cry of abandonment on the cross). Thus, I find a friend who can and does relate to my sufferings. This is a great comfort indeed. Jesus's identifying with us in our sufferings eases our fear and makes us want to draw closer to him. In Jesus, we find the Friend who not only comforts us but also heals and redeems our false conscience and its effects. He models for us how to listen and to respond to God in loving trust and obedience. He also sends his Spirit to empower us to be conformed to him in his relationship with his Father. In friendship with Jesus, we learn to let God alone be the ultimate power behind our conscience and our life as a whole. We then find ourselves free to live and even to hear God as He should be heard. We then are drawn close to our loving Father who wants us to live joyfully as His beloved children. Now and forever.