“I always strive to have a clear conscience toward God and men.” (Acts 24:16, CSB)
The practical working out of our salvation takes time and effort. There are pockets and potholes of resistance in all of us as God is working to use all things so that we may be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). As Dallas Willard so famously said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” Even so, we are to be willing partners with God in the shaping of our lives, especially our inner life.
All of us have to some form and degree an inner dialogue. We have inner thoughts and even discussions within ourselves over issues of the day, our personal interactions with others, and reflections of ourselves. This is important to recognize. It’s important because we should be discerning in our self-talk. Our self-talk has several assumptions that we should question from time to time. They carry assumptions about life and how the world operates that may not be true. Perhaps some assumptions are mostly true but not completely and others are just false. Leadership coaches call these self-limiting beliefs. To the degree our assumptions do not align with reality they limit our flourishing.
Besides our assumptions and self-limiting beliefs, we have a conscience. Most people, when they think of conscience think of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other both whispering into your ear what to do, or not to do. Conscience is the “ought” impulse.
Personally, my conscience whispers: I “ought” to be productive. I “ought” to put others needs before mine. I “ought” to be out sharing the gospel. I “ought” not to be eating that dessert. That’s conscience. It’s the internal conflict that can feel like voices going off in our heads.
The Bible talks about the conscience as an accuser to us along with God's law written in our hearts: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15, ESV) We have the capacity to know when we do good, could have done better or just flat out sinned.
We have a conscience because we have a capacity for moral judgment. Capacity is something that may be expanded or contracted. You can grow or shrink your conscience. You can also abuse it or make it thrive.
God is involved in our conscience. He gave it to us in the first place and expects us to take care of it. Your conscience is a gift from God. God knows what is going on in our heads with our conscience and whether we are obeying it or not, whether we have trained it or have abused it.
No two consciences are exactly alike. If they were, we wouldn’t need passages in the Bible like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 which teach people with differing consciences to get along in the church. Because of this, no one’s conscience perfectly lines up with God’s will. So don’t use your conscience to judge someone else’s.
I mentioned that you can abuse or damage your conscience. You can do this in two directions. You can make it insensitive, or you can make it oversensitive. You make it insensitive by ignoring the promptings of it and of the promptings by the Holy Spirit though your conscience. Pharaoh is an example from the Old Testament who hardened his heart to God. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews warns us not to “harden our hearts” to God’s promptings or will, as others have in the past, suffer a similar dire fate.
You can also make your conscience oversensitive by packing it up with all sorts of rules that are not really a right or wrong thing but just opinion. The Apostle Paul issues a warning about this to Timothy and the church at Ephesus. You can see both insensitivity and oversensitivity in one passage.
“Through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods that God created to be received with gratitude by those who believe and know the truth.” (1 Timothy 4:2–3, CSB)
They ignored God, but then imposing strict and unnecessary rules about food and marriage. It is vitally important to evaluate the truth of your beliefs because true or false, they will program your conscience.
I’m thinking of a personal experience that may help with this. Growing up in west Texas, I faithfully attended a Methodist Church. In our church’s fellowship hall were pool tables and ping pong tables. The other kids and I had a lot of fun playing on those tables before Sunday School. When I got to High School, each year, we had a dance in the church fellowship hall for all the students. I never saw anything wrong with playing pool or dancing. After graduation I went off to college. The school had regular sponsored dances in the University's Student Center. They were good with live bands and popular DJs. I enrolled in a couple of social dance classes at the University. I learned the two step, the three step, polka, and square dancing. Believe me, I was no “Dancing with the Stars”, but it was a great way to socialize and have fun.
During this time, I came to know Christ and my life was changed. On the one hand, some of the things I did as an unbeliever I needed to stop. On the other hand, there were some things, now as a Christ follower, I needed to start doing. Going to school dances was not one of those things I ever felt like I needed to stop. In fact, I brought many of my dance friends the campus Baptist Collegiate Ministry, until I was told that going to dances would hurt my witness and stunt my spiritual growth. I was a new believer. I was also told by some more “mature Christian students” not to listen to any other music, but only Christian music. I followed their direction and stopped both dances and listening to any other music. I allowed my conscience to be restricted in an area that I now understand was not a right or wrong issue, but someone else’s conscience paraded as right and wrong for everyone, including me. My conscience became overly sensitized, and I fell into a subtle form of legalism.
To quote the Apostle Paul again, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13, ESV) The flesh can and will move us to extremes: Excesses in behavior or to pride by abstaining.
To sum it up, our internal dialogue, self-limiting beliefs, and conscience make up what I call the inner critic. We need to be aware and be diligent in managing our self-talking, self-limiting, and self-judging. Knowing what your inner critic is and how it functions leads us to steward it for an aligned life before God, others, and ourselves.
“For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience? If I partake with thanksgiving, why am I criticized because of something for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I also try to please everyone in everything, not seeking my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:29–33, CSB)