Dealing With a Damaged Conscience

Titus 1:15; 1 Timothy 4:2

June 29, 2003 | Brian Bill

I remember a church picnic we had when I was pastoring in Rockford.  Everything was great except that it was horrendously hot and there were bees everywhere.  I can remember waiting in line to get our food, and the bees were dive-bombing into the baked beans and pollinating the potato salad.  Everyone was batting at them or trying to run away from them.

After we got our food, Beth and I made a strategic decision.  I picked up one of our girls, while Beth brought our other kids, and we snuck away to eat in our air-conditioned van.  After getting the girls in their seats, I made my way back to the picnic table to retrieve the rest of the food, being careful to look nonchalant so that no one would know what we were doing.  I knew it didn’t look too good for the pastor and his family to be eating lunch in the comfort of air-conditioning while everyone else suffered in the bee-infested heat…but I didn’t care.  

When I made it back to the safety of our refrigerated vehicle, I asked Beth if she felt guilty for not eating with everyone else.  She said, “No way.”  She asked me if I felt bad and I said, “No…as long as no one sees us!”  Just then a high schooler walked by and flapped her arms like a chicken.  Someone else called us wimps.  Two guys came over to the van and just shook their heads.  I rolled the window down so that I could tell them to get lost.  But as I did, a bee buzzed into our van!  They thought this was pretty funny!

When we were done eating, and left the comfort of our chilled caravan, people starting giving us dirty looks.  Someone even said, “Look, the pastor and his family are going to join us now!”  Well, I have a confession to make.  We didn’t feel guilty then, and our conscience still does not bother us today.  I guess the Bill family is “Exhibit A” for our topic this morning: “Dealing With a Damaged Conscience.”

Summary of Last Week

If you’ve been at here for a while, you’ll know that most of our sermon series are tied directly to the biblical text from a book of the Bible, as we study verse-by-verse through God’s Word.  On occasion, I also like to tackle topical themes to make sure we get God’s perspective on issues that are very important to His heart.  The conscience is one of those areas.  Last week we discovered that a conscience that is operating correctly is really a gift from God.  Like an internal warning system, it’s the reflection of God in our soul, where we agree with Him about right and wrong.  The conscience sounds the alarm, and according to Romans 2:15-16, it plays at least 5 different roles in the courtroom of the human heart [Push button on smoke alarm].  

Functioning as a reporter, it records everything that we do and say.  As a witness, our conscience gives accurate testimony of how you and I measure up to God’s standards of right and wrong.  As a prosecutor, the conscience accuses us of things we do wrong.  As a defender, the conscience speaks up and comes to our defense.  And, as a judge, the conscience declares unequivocally that an action is right or wrong.

We also established that its strength and ability to influence us varies.  Before we do something wrong, the conscience speaks subtly, urging us to do what is right.  During the time we are doing something that does not correspond with God’s standards, the conscience can be silenced.  Then, after we commit the wrong, it often screams as it tries to get us to own up for what we did by asking God and others for forgiveness.

Let me ask a question that will test your knowledge of the Bible.  Where in the Bible does it say, “Let your conscience be your guide?”  We’ve all heard this statement, but where does it come from?  It’s not in the Bible.  It’s actually attributed to a lowly little cricket named Jiminy when he was trying to give some advice to a wooden puppet named Pinocchio.  Like many people today, Pinocchio chose to ignore his conscience and it got him into deep trouble.

This morning we want to take a candid look at what happens when we continue to disregard the cries of conscience.  If we listen to it, we can keep it functioning properly.  But, if we persist in tuning it out, or we try to turn it off, the conscience can become damaged and defective.

The Bible uses at least 6 different adjectives to describe the characteristics of the conscience.  We’re going to focus on two of these each week.

We’ll look at the downsides of a damaged conscience today:

1 Timothy 4:2 A seared conscience

Titus 1:15 A corrupt conscience

Next week we’re going to discover that Jiminy’s advice isn’t always the best because our conscience can be faulty either because it is weak, or because we struggle with real or false guilt and shame.  I’ve heard people say that they can’t trust their conscience because of the legalism they lived under when they were young.  Others have mentioned that their conscience accuses them all the time, even when they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.  The New Testament does not teach that the conscience is infallible or the same as the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit moves upon the conscience, providing both comfort (John 14:16 – “the comforter”) and conviction (John 16:8 – “He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin”).

1 Corinthians 8:7 A weak conscience

Hebrews 10:22 A guilty conscience

And, two weeks from today, we’re going to focus on forgiveness as one of the ways God keeps our internal monitor system functioning properly.

Acts 23:1 A good conscience

Acts 24:16 A clear conscience

A Seared Conscience

Let’s first take a look at the seared conscience.  In 1977, I was involved in a serious car accident.  I was in the passenger seat when my buddy ran his car into a telephone pole.  When we crashed, my head went forward and hit the dash, slicing open my chin.  I lost a couple teeth and a lot of blood.  I also damaged several nerve endings.  26 years later, one section of my face is still numb.  I had to switch to an electric razor because sometimes I would cut myself when the blade would nick my scar.  Beth would have to tell me when I had blood running down my face because I can’t feel anything there!  In a similar way, those with a seared conscience have lost feeling in their moral nerve endings.

When our internal warning system is repeatedly ignored, we become calloused to what is right and what is wrong.  Please turn to the first two verses of 1 Timothy 4: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”  As we move closer to the return of Christ, we will see more people who will bail on truth and follow teachings that that are filled with error.  Satan and his demons propagate these deceiving doctrines.  Have you ever noticed that when someone’s doctrine goes wrong, everything else does too?  

We see this happening in many churches today.  Just this week I read about a new poll taken among members of a mainline denomination that discovered fewer than half feel that only those who believe in Jesus will get to heaven.  Unbelievably, just 50 percent of elders and 39 percent of pastors said they could agree that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”  According to them, Jesus is true, but not necessary for salvation.

The clearest example in the New Testament of how bad theology can lead to a cauterized conscience is illustrated by the scribes and Pharisees, who having witnessed the mighty ministry of Jesus, attributed the power behind what He was doing to Beelzebub, the prince of demons (see Mark 3:22).  It was these same men who later on had no remorse when they put an innocent man to death.

When the conscience is disregarded, it becomes cauterized and loses all moral sensitivity

When doctrine is destroyed, there are consequences for the conscience.  Verse 2 refers to people whose “consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”  “To sear,” means to burn or char the surface of something.  When the conscience is disregarded, it becomes cauterized and loses all moral sensitivity.  The conscience becomes dulled and desensitized, which can lead to moral vertigo.  Someone has said, “He that loses his conscience has nothing left that is worth keeping.”

I read in the paper some time ago about a man who returned to his locker at a local health club to discover that someone had stolen his clothes, his wallet, his gold watch, and his gym bag.  The victim estimated that he lost more than $1,000.  The thief, however, showed no remorse or guilt feelings.  In fact, he left a note in the empty locker that simply said this: “Next time, put a lock on your locker.”  

That’s what a seared conscience looks like.  Instead of being sensitive and responsive to what is right and wrong, a person with a cauterized conscience takes no moral responsibility for what they do because a spiritual callousness has enveloped the soul.

A Corrupt Conscience

If left unchecked, a seared conscience can lead to a more serious moral condition: the corrupt conscience.  This is when the conscience is no longer heard at all, when bad has become good, and good has become bad.  Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to those who call evil good 

and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”  Everything is upside down so that what used to be wrong is now right.  This kind of conscience is described in Titus 1:15: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure.  In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.”  

It was Sydney Harris who said, “Once we assuage our conscience by calling something a necessary evil, it begins to look more and more necessary and less and less evil.”  If the seared conscience comes about when there is a rejection of the Bible, a corrupt conscience can happen when someone refuses to believe.  

When we blow off the Bible, our minds are forced to meander through the maze of relativism and pluralism.  I was struck this past Thursday by how our culture’s collective conscience has been corrupted when I listened to the news about how the Supreme Court struck down Texas’s ban on intimate relationships between adults of the same sex.  

In a blow to those who try to follow the Bible, the court has ruled that morality doesn’t matter anymore.  According to Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the dissenting opinion, this decrees the end of all legislation based on morals.  In a rare move, Scalia read his views out loud from the bench.  Here’s part of what he said: “Today’s opinion is the product of a Court…that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda…directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.”

By the way, if you struggle in this area, please know that God’s grace is greater than your sin.  After listing a number of transgressions, including homosexuality, Paul offers hope of life change in 1 Corinthians 6:11: “And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Another vivid example of how someone arrives at a corrupt conscience is when Adolph Hitler took decent German young men and made them commit ghastly deeds of cruelty.  Hitler knew that in order for his SS troops to perform his bidding, he needed to destroy their consciences by forcing them to do something totally reprehensible.  His goal was to have them become indifferent to sorrow and guilt.  According to a book I read several years ago, these soldiers were expected to say, “I have no conscience!  Adolph Hitler is my conscience!” 

Now, my guess is that most of you have not allowed your conscience to become totally corrupt.  But, I wanted to make the point that it can happen to anyone of us if we stop listening to the alarms of our conscience.  While we might not commit the atrocities of Hitler’s SS troop, a damaged conscience comes about because of everyday choices and moral compromises that we make.  And, because we’re immersed in a culture of compromise that continues to push beyond God’s limits, we can very easily start to accept what is unacceptable.  Little by little, decision by decision, one sin at a time, even someone who starts out with a good conscience can end up with some damaged goods.

Friends, when we play around with our conscience, our lives can head into the danger zone without us even knowing it.  I like making up games to play with my girls — actually it’s a way to get out of playing Barbies!  One day, when Lydia was a toddler, I put her on my shoulders and ran through the house with her.  I stopped running whenever we came to a smoke alarm so she could push this little test button [push button and sound alarm].  She thought this was pretty cool, and so did I.  As we ran throughout the house setting off all the alarms, it suddenly occurred to me that this wasn’t such a bright idea.  I think the car accident damaged more than my nerve endings!

You see, every time she pushed this button, we were using up the battery.  By playing this game, we were inadvertently damaging the smoke alarms and weakening their ability to sound a warning in the event of a real emergency.  But I noticed something else even more insidious.  The longer we played the game, the less afraid Lydia became of the alarms.  She thought they were funny.  Instead of startling her like an alarm is designed to do, our little game actually desensitized her to the danger of our house being on fire.  I had visions of our house going up in flames and the smoke alarms going off, while Lydia stayed in her bed laughing about the funny sounds coming out of this little plastic toy [hold up alarm].

By playing games with something that was designed to protect us, we were in danger of adversely affecting the performance of the smoke alarm and numbing our reaction to it.  We were setting ourselves up to not hear or heed its warnings. 

If we want to avoid a damaged conscience, we need to stop playing at least 3 games that are very popular in America right now:  The Blame Game, the Comparison Game, and the Recreate God Game.

The Blame Game

The first game that we need to put away is the Blame Game.  When we hold others responsible for our behavior, we can conveniently shut down our conscience.  When it sounds the alarm, we can simply say, “Hey, what I’m doing isn’t my fault.  I’m not responsible for my actions.  I’m a victim here.”  

Some time ago ABC aired a special report called, “The Blame Game: Are We A Nation of Victims?”  Do you remember hearing about the lady who sued McDonald’s because her coffee was so hot that it burned her legs?  She was initially rewarded $2.9 million!  She was asked if she had any responsibility for what happened.  Even though she was trying to take off the cover from her cup of coffee, while riding in a car, with it between her legs, she said this: “No.  I have no responsibility.  It’s too hot.  If I take responsibility for what happens to me I’m a fool.”

Another guy was riding his bike at night and had an accident.  He claimed he was victimized by the bike manufacturer because they did not put a warning label on the bike about the dangers of riding at night.  A jury agreed and awarded him $7 million!  A San Francisco man claimed he murdered two co-workers because he ate too much junk food.  This is the truth.  He blamed his actions on Hostess Twinkies!  The jury bought his line and ruled that the junk food resulted in “diminished mental capacity.” 

Those of us who play the Blame Game have a motto: “Don’t blame me, I’m not my fault.”  Victims do not have to accept personal responsibility for wrong behavior or toxic attitudes; they are casualties of what happens to them and should therefore not be saddled with guilt. 

The Blame Game is really the oldest game on the books.  In fact, you can trace it all the way back to Adam and Eve.  When they sinned by disobeying God’s clear standards, Adam claimed victim status by blaming Eve in Genesis 3:12: “The woman…gave me some fruit of the tree and I ate it.” His immediate reaction was to deny personal responsibility.  He was just a victim of Eve’s offer.  

But, his attempt to shift the blame was even more involved than this.  When pressed by God to give an answer as to why he did what he did, Adam said, “The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit…”  Unbelievably, Adam even tried to blame God for what he did.  It didn’t take Eve long to learn how to play the blame game as she followed Adam’s example in verse 13: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  

Let me ask you some questions.  Have you been blaming others for your behavior?  Do you secretly believe that you are not responsible for your attitude and your actions?  Have you said things like, “You’d sin too if you were married to my spouse,” or “You’d do what I’ve done if you had been raised in my family?”  Be careful.  Playing the Blame Game can lead to a damaged conscience.

The Comparison Game

While the Blame Game has taken our country by storm, there’s a second game that is gaining popularity.  It’s called the Comparison Game.  In this game, participants can damage their conscience by comparing their behavior with others.  In fact, some of you may have done this earlier when I mentioned the atrocities done by Hitler’s soldiers.  Compared with what they did, your fatal flaws and secret sins aren’t that bad, right?

You see, as long as we feel we’re doing a little better than others, then we think we’re doing OK.  This is when we tell our conscience, “Hey, leave me alone!  I’m not as bad as other people.  Sure, there are some things that maybe I should stop doing, but they’re nothing like the stuff my co-workers do!”  If the Blame Game is filled with denial, the Comparison Game is deceptive.  When we play this game, we can lull ourselves into thinking that we’re fairly moral people.  And, in the process, we damage our conscience by telling it to be quiet

While we may not commit the same sins as those close to us, the Bible is clear that we all fall short of God’s standards of goodness.  We all miss the mark.  Romans 3:10 says that, “There is no one righteous, not even one.”  If we want to play the comparison game, then we need to compare ourselves with God’s benchmark, not with how others are living their lives.  

The Recreate God Game

The third game we play that damages our conscience is the Recreate God Game.  Many of us play this when we say things like: “My God is a loving God.  He just wants me to be happy.  He’s the ‘Big Guy’ upstairs.  He doesn’t condemn people for trying their best.  He certainly won’t send anyone to Hell.” 

According to a recent Harris poll, many Americans have recreated God and the doctrine of Hell.  Only 8% of us worry about going to Hell.  That means that over 90% of Americans aren’t that concerned about the possibility of eternal punishment.

He is a holy God, who will hold us accountable to our conscience and to His standards

Friends, the Recreate God Game is probably the most dangerous game that we can play.  With God out of the way, it’s then pretty easy to disregard the conscience as well.  God will not allow Himself to be recreated.  He is a holy God, who will hold us accountable to our conscience and to His standards.  In Isaiah 40:25, 28 God says that He’s got a couple questions for those of us who think we can disregard Him: “To whom will you compare me?  Or who is My equal?…Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”

Are you playing games with your conscience?  Are you playing the Blame Game by not taking responsibility for your attitude and actions?  Are you playing the Comparison Game by gauging how you’re doing in relation to those around you?  Or, are you playing the Recreate God game in order to justify your own lifestyle?

It’s time to put these games away and get reacquainted with your conscience.  If you choose to keep playing games, I can guarantee that you will end up with a damaged conscience.  The stakes are high.  Your relationship with God, with others, and where you spend eternity is at stake!  Friend, don’t be lulled into a seared or corrupt conscience.  You can make some changes.  It won’t be easy, but with God’s help, you can renew your conscience.  We’ll have more to say about this next Sunday.

Maybe you’re doing stuff now that you wouldn’t have dreamed of doing months or years ago.  You no longer feel shame.  And yet, there’s something inside of you that is still trying to get your attention.  Listen to it.  You don’t have to live with a dull or damaged conscience.  It’s been said that when you fight with your conscience and lose, you win

Own Your Wrong

Wherever you’re at this morning, there’s one thing we all have in common: we all stand in need of forgiveness for what we’ve done.  In one of the best known and most widely reproduced editorials on morality in the United States, 12 years ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled the “Joy of What?”  I’d like to read just a portion of it.  I wish they’d reprint it now in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling: “Sin isn’t something that most people, including most churches, have spent much time talking about…But we will say this for sin; it at least offered a frame of reference for personal behavior.  When the frame was dismantled, guilt wasn’t the only thing that fell away; we also lost the guidewire of personal responsibility…everyone was left on his or her own.  It now appears that many wrecked people could have used a road map… But none of this will go away until more people in positions of responsibility are willing to come forward and explain, in frankly moral terms, that some of the things that people do nowadays are wrong.”

I agree.  And I would add that we will not be able to break our patterns of sin and restore our conscience until we own up for what we’ve been doing.  G.K. Chesterton was once asked to write an article describing the number one problem in the world.  He thought about it for a long time and then submitted his commentary.  The article was only two words long.  His answer to the most serious problem in the world was this: “I am.”  His admission of personal sin was not only courageous, it was rare.

Let me give it to you straight.  Until you admit your sin and moral failures, you will not experience life as it’s meant to be lived, and your conscience will be cauterized or corrupted.  Would you like to hear your conscience again?  You can.  I want you to know that I’ve changed – my conscience won’t allow me to vanish into our van at our upcoming picnic.  If there’s hope for me, then there’s hope for you.

Do you want to avoid a cauterized conscience?  Then embrace the Bible.

Do you want to avoid a corrupt conscience?  Then engage your belief.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?