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Is Your Conscience Still There?

Recently I have been noticing a growing trend toward a conscienceless society. South of our border, police officers are being shot for no other reason than they are police officers. Politicians are refusing to answer questions of ethical concern. Hypocrisy and deception are championed as the new norm. Student protests in the States are not tolerant and peaceful; but exhibit strong anarchist overtones with little regard for others or their property. Tolerance and acceptance is preached but hardly practiced, unless you belong to the right ilk.

Admittedly, people lacking a conscience or disregarding one entirely is not a new phenomenon. Hitler’s Nazi Germany provides us with plenty of evidence should there be any doubters.

Presently, however, there is a sickening sense that societal norms and mores are worsening and people’s angst is intensifying. Nearly one hundred years ago, William Butler Yeats, in his poem, The Second Coming wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats wrote that poem in 1919, he could hardly have foreseen the passionate intensity, uncoupled from morality, that would shred the fabric of Western culture many decades later. The rough beast of decadence, a long time in gestation and born in the sixties, has now come to full maturity. We are now living with the full-blown effects of a conscienceless society where as Yeats says, “the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

So unrelenting is the assault on our sensibilities, that many grow numb, finding resignation to be the rational, adaptive response to an environment that is increasingly polluted and apparently beyond our control. Emile Durkheim, a founder of sociology, posited that there is a limit to the amount of deviant behavior any community can “afford to recognize.”[1] The pressing question now is –“Have we reached our limit?” Or, are there new “heights” to which we will go as a society in our efforts to embrace aberrant behaviour?

Durkheim posited that as societal behaviour worsens, the community would adjust its standards so that the conduct once thought reprehensible is no longer deemed to be so. When a society continuously moves its benchmark on previously labeled deviant behaviour and now embraces it as normal, we must ask, “How did we get to this point as a society?” “Why is deviancy being defined ever upwards in terms of acceptability”? And finally, are we really better off for making these amoral accommodations?”

We all know that some people in society appear to have no conscience at all. We neatly label them as psychopaths or sociopaths–people with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and a lack of conscience.

But what about all the rest of us? How about our behaviour and consciences? Are we doing things now that only a few years ago would have brought us great inner conflict and turmoil? Do we find ourselves always trying to get out of taking any blame for things? Are we getting a buzz about telling a lie and getting away with it? Do we believe that because the majority is doing something, that makes it right?

Is our society experiencing the vanishing or total corruption of conscience? Princeton Professor Robert P. George says:

Consider how common it is for people to reason as follows: “My conscience does not tell me that X is wrong; therefore, X is not wrong for me.” Or, even more egregiously: “My conscience does not tell me, that X is wrong (or wrong for me); therefore, I have a right to do X as a matter of freedom of conscience. Every manner of evil and injustice is today rationalized, defended, and insulated from rebuke by appeal to conscience.[2]

As Professor George points out, it’s an easy step from turning conscience into a reliable green light for whatever course of conduct feels most desirable or expedient–which is quite bad enough–to claiming an actual right to engage in that conduct. And if it is a right, why not claim it as a constitutional right? And if it's a constitutional right, why not claim legal immunity even from the criticism of others? This is what is happening in Western society. Robert Bellah in, Habits of the Heart, confirmed why this is happening. He pointed out that people know of no higher or more reliable basis for morality than their feelings. There is no objective moral standard or code to which they subscribe.

We say, “Let your conscience be your guide”. But what guides our conscience? If it is subjective feelings instead of objective truth, then it is easy to understand why we have become such a permissive society. It explains why people are always victims and never villains; always deprived but never depraved. It explains why people can excuse any crime, because they can always blame something else–a sickness of society or a sickness of the mind. This might well be the “golden age” of exoneration. When guilt is dismissed as the illusion of narrow minds, then no one is accountable, even to their own conscience. As G. K. Chesterton once said, the doctrine of original sin is the only philosophy empirically validated by the centuries of recorded human history.

What exactly then is our conscience? I like what Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President of the United States of America) said, “Conscience is the authentic voice of God to you”. Moral theologian, John M. Haas said, “Conscience is not the power to determine what is good but to recognize what is good and choose accordingly.”

The Church has long understood the conscience to be innate. It is a God-designed capacity that allows human beings to understand God’s moral code. The Apostle Paul validates its innate origin, “Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law like the Israelites, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:14-16).

Because our conscience is innate, cultivating a strong conscience must begin early in childhood. For centuries, we have understood that fathers and mothers teach their children the basic rules of civil behavior and moral conduct. Even Aristotle believed that virtue consists of not merely knowing what is right, but also in having the will to do what is right, and the will is trained by practice, by choosing to do right repeatedly until it becomes a habit. In Aristotle's words, "We become just by the practice of just actions."

Adolf Hitler knew that too much of a “good” conscience was not a good thing. If you ever visit Auschwitz, you'll see a huge sign at the entrance with Adolf Hitler's words: “I want to raise a generation devoid of conscience." If we believe like Hiitler, that there is no God to whom we are accountable, then what is to restrain any of us from gross incivility or permissiveness?

Historian Will Durant believed that no civilized society has ever been able to survive in human history that did not have a strong moral code. Nor, he added, has there ever been a moral code that was not formed by religion. An informed conscience that is guided by God’s Word can be like an inner compass that is calibrated to true north. The biblical author of the book of Hebrews acknowledged this when he pointed out that by constant use of God’s Word people can train themselves to distinguish good from evil (see Heb. 5:14).

Unfortunately, many churches have embraced the culture of subjective experience and feeling. In some cases, this has come about because of churches marketing themselves to an increasingly consumeristic society, which seeks warm, personal experiences. In many situations churches are showing evidence of a critical and damaging shift in their view of God. Or, as Colson called it, “God has ceased to be the Bonum in se, the good in Himself, and has become merely the Bonum mihi, the good for me.”[3] Thus, the church is unable to be what it should be: the ultimate bulwark against subjectivism, emotivism, and the corruption of conscience.

The conscience is the subject of great importance in the Bible. The Bible speaks of a “good” conscience (1Tim. 1:19); a “clear” conscience (Acts 23:1); a “pure” conscience (1 Tim. 3:9); a “convicted” conscience (John 8:9); a “weak” conscience (1 Cor. 8:7); a “corrupted” conscience (Titus 1:15); an “evil” conscience (Hebrews 10:22); and a “seared” conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). Clearly the Bible is concerned that we have a clear and discerning conscience.

When we decide to relax our conscience by calling something a "necessary evil," it begins to look more and more necessary and less and less evil. The pirate Charles Gibbs, whose name was for many years a terror to commerce with the West Indies and South America, was at last taken captive, condemned and executed on Ellis Island in 1831. He acknowledged before his death that when he committed the first murder and plundered the first ship, compunctions were severe; conscience was on the rack and made a hell within his bosom. But after he had sailed for years under the black flag, his conscience became so hardened and blunted that he could rob a vessel and murder all its crew, and then lie down and sleep as sweetly at night as an infant in its cradle. His remorse diminished as his crimes increased. His conscience finally vanished after being so severely seared.

Here are some things for you to consider when assessing the health of your conscience. Your conscience may be sick when . . .

  1. You are repeating instead of repenting.

  2. You are finding great comfort in doing things now that you would have been shocked to do only a few years ago.

  3. You rarely confess or apologize. This means you are either very good, or your conscience is that bad.

  4. You are hiding stuff. It could be in your schedule, or the places you go, or the people you are with. It could be in your business records or just in your mind. It could be under your sleeve. It could be under your bed, it could be on your hard drive.

  5. You are rationalizing. You know the lines, "Everyone else is doing it." "It’s legal in Canada you know." "I’m a grown adult." "No one’s getting hurt." "It’s just my personality." "The government rips us off." "We pay enough already." "No one will know.”​

Has God been desperately trying to get your attention? Has he been trying to appeal to your conscience? Don’t shut out His inner voice any longer. You can have a clear conscience. There is forgiveness for you. Let me leave you with the encouraging an hopeful words of the Psalmist found in Psalms 32:1-6:

What happiness for those whose guilt has been forgiven! What joy when sins are covered over! What relief for those who have confessed their sins and God has cleared their record.

There was a time when I wouldn’t admit what a sinner I was. But my dishonesty made me miserable and filled my days with frustration. All day and all night your hand was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water on a sunny day until I finally admitted all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them.

I said to myself, "I will confess them to the Lord." And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. Now I say that each person should confess his sins to God when he is aware of them, while there is time to be forgiven. Judgment will not touch him if he does.

[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Defining Deviancy Down,” The American Scholar, Winter, 1993, p. 19

[2] Chuck Colson, Chuck Colson Speaks, (Promise Press, Ohio), 2000, p.69

[3] Ibid., p. 71.

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