February 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 7

Let's Keep Our Conscience On Course

Msgr. Frank Wissel

Photo of a woman in deep thoughtDeep inside every one of us is a little voice that speaks to us about matters of right and wrong. When we anticipate certain actions, that little voice says to us that we ought to do this or we ought to do that. When life is viewed in retrospect, a little voice commends us with some things we have done and condemns us for others. We, of course, call that little voice our conscience.

Some people make light of it. Someone once said, "A clear conscience is nothing more than a poor memory."

Still others take conscience in all seriousness. Conscience is not a joke to be laughed out of court, but neither is it a god before which we should bow in strict obedience. There is a reading in the scriptures from John that says, "No matter what our conscience may charge us with, God is greater than our hearts and all that is known to him."

In other words, our conscience is not the final authority on matters of moral and ethical behavior. That place belongs to God alone. So it is altogether possible that at times the voice of God and the voice of conscience will disagree. Our conscience may accuse us when God approves, or the other way around. One may have a perfectly clear conscience, when all the while God is disapproving of one's attitude or action.

This idea may be disturbing to some. We have believed that conscience is a reliable guide, and her I am suggesting that it can lead us astray. That is like giving a sailor a compass and then telling him that it cannot always be trusted. That would be the truth. A compass can be off a few vital degrees, and therefore should be periodically checked for accuracy. So it is with our conscience; if they are going to keep us on course, then we must see to it that they stay on course.

In order to check our consciences, we must focus on big issues. Do not allow its tremendous power to get locked in our trivial matters. During Jesus' public ministry, he had great difficulty with people who were conscientious about trivialities. We have, to guide us, the golden rule. We are asked to love everyone but no like their behavior. So when in need, we help them and yet try to stay away from them because of the behavior we dislike.

It is also important for us to keep our consciences warm and kind. If the major theme - and it is - of the New Testament is to love one another, how important that it is in matters of conscience. One of the cruelest things on earth is a conscience that has grown hard and cold.

Photo of the setting sunLet us remember the story of the adulterous woman. Her accusers stood there with stones in their hands ready to kill her. They were conscientious men, eager to enforce the law and to rid the community of evil doers. But the Lord disagreed. He asked the people to examine their own conscience and if anyone was without sin to cast the first stone. No one did, and so he dismissed her without condemnation.

He had no conscience about the matter? Not at all. Conscience can move in one of two directions. It can be harsh and damning, or it can be kind and healing. It can make a person an unfeeling judge, or it can make him a loving savior.

Let us also remember that the older brother of the prodigal son was a conscientious man. He stayed home and did his job. He obeyed his father's commandments. Yet Jesus used him as an example of what we ought not to be. A large part of his problem was a hard conscience. He felt nothing for his wayward brother but moral indignation. How sad and what a tragic waste of moral energy. We must take pains to keep our conscience warm and merciful.

Conscience is a powerful part of our spiritual equipment, but it isn't infallible. We need to check it once in a while to keep it on course. Let us focus on the big issues of life, and is our conscious ready to help or condemn?