Sunday, 2 August 2015

Telling your conscience to shut up

This then is how we know that we belong to the truth ... whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:19-20

I was standing in the queue in the post office the other day when a man walked in, ignored the queue and went straight up to the cashier. I tapped him on the arm and suggested he join the queue like the rest of us, whereupon he turned round and said “I do what I like. Don’t tell me what to do.” (It’s amazing, isn’t it, the lengths some people are prepared go to to brighten up everyone’s day?)

Hamlet said that “conscience doth make cowards of us all”: well, I suspect Hamlet had never met this man... Conscience? What conscience?

Conscience is a mysterious thing. It means, at the simplest level, feeling bad when you have done something wrong. But the tricky thing is that sometimes we don't feel conscience when we should, and other times we do feel conscience when we needn't. 

I don't fully understand John's words in this little passage. I’ve only quoted a snippet, and you need, really, to read the whole paragraph. But I think he is hinting at something very important. He is suggesting that there are times when, all right, "our hearts do indeed condemn us" - in other words, when our consciences trouble us - but we shouldn't let them. Our consciences can mislead us and, putting it bluntly, they need to be told where to go! We can claim the right to "set our hearts at rest in God’s presence".

John, then, is addressing people with over-tender consciences. Is that the kind of person you are? 

I knew someone once who was filled with anxiety because she had come back from Boots with too much change, perhaps 50p or something. She was seriously thinking of returning all the way to the shops to pay the money back until I told her that she really had done no wrong and therefore need feel no guilt. But she was afraid God might stop loving her. 

She was one among several I have known who are always down on themselves - "I'm no good... I'm just a failure... There's no way God could care about me... I really must have done something awful..." At worst, people like that are always doubting if they are true Christians at all. These are particularly the people John is writing about.

John hints at two thoughts we can bring to mind if ever we feel that way. 

First, verses 16-19 raise a question we can ask ourselves: do I have a true love for others, a love which I am prepared to demonstrate in practical ways? All right, that love may be very inadequate; but if my honest answer is Yes, then I should boldly silence the voice of conscience when it tries to condemn me as not "belonging to the truth". 

John has just written, "... let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth...". True, good deeds cannot buy us forgiveness or salvation, but if they are done from a sincere heart they indicate that we can have "confidence before God", that in effect, however imperfect we may still be, we are truly children of God.

Second, verse 20 offers us a statement we can digest: "...for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything". In other words, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Sometimes we are harder on ourselves than God is.

I suppose that if we had to choose between a conscience that is too hard and one that is too soft, it would be better to have the soft one. Oh yes, it can be very easy to make excuses for ourselves! - and that is what a hard conscience does. 

But we need to remember that God is our Father, that he loves us and delights to forgive us when we are truly sorry. We are to see even our sins and failings in the light of his gracious and forgiving love.

You have something on your conscience today? Can I suggest you sit down and do some hard, clear thinking? If it really is a fault, a sin, well of course repent and ask for forgiveness. But if it is just the devil’s pointing finger, well... why not tell it where to go? 

The loving voice of God trumps the lying voice of Satan.

Thank you, O God, for the gift of conscience. Thank you for those feelings of guilt that alert me when I am out of step with you. Please give me a tender and sensitive conscience. But help me also to learn how to silence it when it brings me under needless condemnation. Amen.

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