Understanding Your Conscience

1 Samuel 24:1-15

June 22, 2003 | Brian Bill

In the comic strip Moon Mullins, Willie is slumped in a chair in front of a TV set with his coffee cup resting on his stomach.  As he flicks his cigar, he says to his wife, “You’re awful quiet this morning, Mamie.”  To which she responds, “I’ve decided to let your conscience be your guide today, Willie.”  

In the next picture Willie is outside surrounded by a lawnmower, a rake, and a hoe, and is frantically washing the windows.  The caption then has all those symbols that are used to show someone is really angry.  You know, the question mark, pound sign and exclamation point.  He mutters to himself, “Every time I listen to that dumb thing I end up ruinin’ my relaxin’!”

Some of us view the conscience as something that just fillets our fun and gets in the way of those things we really want to do.  We’ve all experienced times when our conscience speaks up and upsets our plans.  Even years later, the conscience persists in reviving the memory of that deed done long ago.  If we were honest, we’d have to admit that hardly a day goes by without our conscience critiquing our inner thoughts or outward actions.

Let me tell you why I chose to tackle this brief series we’re calling “Characteristics of the Conscience.”  As we journeyed through the Book of Malachi, it struck me how easily each of us can default to denial when it comes to the cries of our conscience. 

1:2: “How have you loved us?”

1:6: “How have we shown contempt for your name?”

1:7: “How have we defiled you?”

2:17: “How have we wearied Him?”

3:7: “How are we to return?”

3:8: “How do we rob you?”

3:13: “What have we said against you?”

This morning we want to help you view your conscience as a gift from God, not as an enemy that is intent on getting you to do what you don’t want to do.  It was Adam Smith who said, “What can be added to the happiness of a man who is healthy, who is out of debt, and who has a clear conscience?”  That’s very similar to the goal that the Apostle Paul set for himself in Acts 24:16, “So I strive to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”

When our daughter Becca was born she had some breathing problems.  For the first ten months of her life, she was hooked up to a monitor, especially when she was sleeping.  When she would miss a breath, the monitor would send out a piercing alarm.  It sounded like a smoke alarm.  Because of the nature of the situation it was really important for Beth and I to be tuned into these sounds because it was literally the difference between life and death.  In the same way, each of us has been given a built-in monitor called the conscience.  Its job is to sound an alarm when something’s wrong.  This internal warning system has been hard wired in each one of us by God Himself.

Definition of Conscience

Our conscience is the reflection of God in our soul; it’s where we agree with Him regarding right and wrong

The dictionary defines conscience as, “The ideas and feelings within a person that tell him when he’s not doing right and warn him of what is wrong.”  The word itself appears about 30 times in the Bible where its primary meaning is, “to know together, or agree with.”  The Old Testament expresses the idea as having something on the heart and carries with it the responsibility to respond.  Job put it this way when he said, “I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live” (Job 27:6).  Our conscience is the reflection of God in our soul; it’s where we agree with Him regarding right and wrong.  It is the one irreplaceable element about human beings and distinguishes us from all other life forms.

When asked to describe the place of the conscience, John Wesley pictured it as somewhere in the middle, under God, and above man: “It is a kind of silent reasoning of the mind, whereby those things which are judged to be right are approved of with pleasure; but those which are judged evil are disapproved of with uneasiness.”  John MacArthur writes: “When we violate our conscience, it condemns us, triggering feelings of shame, anguish, regret…anxiety, and even fear.  When we follow our conscience, it commends us, bringing joy, serenity, self-respect…and gladness.”

The conscience is that voice within us that struggles against our background and environment to declare that an act is right or wrong regardless of the standards that surround us.  When our conscience is operating correctly, the reference point is God’s character and His standards.  It’s that part of every person which, willingly or unwillingly, responds to a universal moral law.  The conscience communicates this awareness to the mind, urging us to do what is right and restraining us from doing what is wrong [ sound alarm ].

In one of Mark Twain’s stories, he writes about an alarm that was set off in one of his characters: “When I was a boy, I was walking along a street and happened to spy a cart full of watermelons.  I was fond of watermelon, so I sneaked quietly up to the cart and snitched one.  Then I ran into a nearby alley and sank my teeth into the melon.  No sooner had I done so, however, than a strange feeling came over me.  Without a moment’s hesitation, I made my decision.  I walked back to the cart, replaced the melon — and took a ripe one!

I don’t know what that strange feeling was, but I’m sure it wasn’t his conscience!  How can we know when it’s our conscience that is speaking?  What function does it play in each of our lives?  Richard Sibbes, a Puritan from the 17th Century, portrayed the conscience as a courtroom in the council of the human heart.  These roles are spelled out in Romans 2:15-16: “Since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.  This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”

  1. Court Reporter.  The first part of verse 15 states that the Law is “written on our hearts.” Likewise, the conscience records what we have said and done in exact detail.
  2. Witness.  The next phrase states that our “conscience bears witness.” Since God has placed within us an inner sense of right and wrong, the conscience stands up like a witness in court to give testimony between our outward actions and this inner law that is written on our hearts.
  3. Prosecutor.  Romans 2:15 continues by saying that the conscience also serves as a Prosecutor: “…their thoughts now accusing…”  Just as is done in court, the conscience accuses us of things that we do wrong by presenting evidence on the screen of our minds.  This evidence is compiled, organized, and presented in a compelling fashion.
  4. Defender.  Thankfully, the conscience not only accuses, it also excuses us.  It condemns and commends.  We see this in the last phrase of verse 15: “…their thoughts…now even defending them.”  There are times when we search our conscience to see if we’ve done anything wrong, and it defends us.  During those times when even others accuse us, our conscience may stand up and say, “You did nothing wrong.  You’re innocent of the charges.”  Some of us feel guilty all the time when we shouldn’t.  Shame has claimed our name even when we’ve done nothing wrong.
  5. Judge. As our conscience compares our thoughts, words, and deeds with God’s moral law, it pronounces judgment.  We see this in verse 16: “God will judge men’s secrets.”  

Now, let me illustrate how each of these roles work.  Several years ago, my conscience was really bothering me about how I had treated one of my sisters when we were growing up.  I think I mentioned before that my goal in life was to get all 4 of my sisters crying at the same time.  It wasn’t easy to do but I managed it just once, the consequences of which I don’t want to go into right now! 

My sister Mary is very sensitive and has a tender heart.  As a young boy I picked on her incessantly because I knew I could get her to cry easily.  As a witness, my conscience brought back to my mind the times I made fun of how she looked in glasses.  I also was reminded of the time I put her cat in the dryer and turned it on!  

As a prosecutor, my conscience spoke up and told me that what I did was wrong.  I had hurt her by my words and my behavior.  As a defender, my conscience had a hard time coming up with any excuses except for the fact that maybe I was victimized by having four sisters and am therefore not responsible for my actions because of my environment.  Nice try.  As a judge, my conscience made the final call.  I had mistreated Mary and needed to make things right with her.  I then picked up the phone and asked for her forgiveness.

While our conscience plays different roles in our life, its strength and ability to influence us varies.  When we contemplate an action, the conscience often speaks up rather abruptly.  When we’re in the middle of doing something we shouldn’t be doing, it’s often difficult to hear it.  But then, after we do something wrong, our conscience shouts loudly and urges us to make things right.  Or to say it another way: Before we do something, the conscience speaks subtly.  While we’re sinning, we often silence its influence.  Then, After we commit the wrong, it screams loudly.

There’s an incident recorded in 1 Samuel 24 that illustrates when and how the conscience tries to get our attention.  It’s a story filled with danger, suspense, and surprises.  Let me set the scene.  David is a young man who has been hiding for several months because he’s afraid that the King, whose name is Saul, is going to kill him.  Saul is determined to get rid of David because he perceives that David is a potential threat to his ongoing leadership.  

One day, Saul received a status report from his intelligence officers who told him where David was hiding.  Realizing that this was his chance to finally get rid of David, Saul put together a special task force of 3,000 of his best soldiers and set out to kill his rival.  When Saul and his battalion finally get close to David, Saul had to use the bathroom.  I’m not making this up!  That’s what it says!


He went into a cave that also served as a public restroom and did what he needed to do.  What Saul didn’t know was that David and his buddies were in the next stall (or something like that)!  When David’s friends found out that Saul was in a very vulnerable position, they made a rather convincing argument to David in verse 4: “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’”  His peers were pressuring him to take things into his own hands.  He didn’t need to check with God.  The circumstances were perfect.  How could David let Saul slip away.

David has to deal with a dilemma.  Should he listen to his men and slaughter Saul or should he let his conscience be his guide?  The crowd is convincing but his conscience is also speaking subtly, as it tries to get his attention before he takes any action.  

If we allow our conscience to monitor our reasons, impulses, and motives, we can actually avoid the pain and shame of a wrong decision.  Sometimes, the conscience speaks strongly in areas that don’t seem to be that big of a deal.  

For instance, my conscience speaks up every time I stop at a gas station to buy a cup of cappuccino.  When I get to the counter to pay for it, I’m asked if I have coffee or cappuccino.  Without fail, every time that question is asked I’m faced with a moral dilemma because coffee is usually about 20 cents cheaper.  In this situation, at least so far, I have decided to listen to the alarms going off in my conscience…so I tell them that it’s just water!  Just kidding.

Friend, don’t disregard your conscience when you’re contemplating a decision or facing a temptation.  Listen to it beforehand.  Your conscience is really a gift from God that can keep you from making some bad decisions.  Don’t blow it off.


While it’s certainly better to listen to the alarms of the conscience before you act, we’ve all made the mistake of moving ahead and acting anyway, even when we know it’s wrong.  If the conscience is at its most subtle state before we act, during an action, the conscience is usually at its most silent level of influence because we’re trying to turn it off or tune it out.

That’s what David does.  While Saul was occupied, the Bible says that David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of the King’s robe.  He probably justified what he did by saying to himself that at least he didn’t kill Saul when he had the chance.  Cutting off a piece of Saul’s robe would later prove to the king that David could have killed him if he had wanted to.

When we’re in the middle of something it’s easy to become insensitive to the cries of conscience.  Sure, we may hear it at first, but we rush forward with the action anyway, often rationalizing our rebellion.  Once we begin an activity that we should not be doing, it is extremely difficult to stop.  Momentum, desire, passion, and the intensity of the moment seem to take over.

Max Lucado writes: “You lose your temper.  You lust.  You fall.  You take a drag.  You buy a drink.  You kiss the woman.  You follow the crowd.  You rationalize…You break your promise.  You buy the magazine.  You lie.  You covet.  You stomp your feet and demand your way…You know what you’re doing and yet you can’t believe you’re doing it.  In the fog of weakness you want to stop but haven’t the will to do so.  You want to turn around, but your feet won’t move.  You want to run and, pitifully, you want to stay…”

Let me just say that it’s never too late to listen to your conscience.  While it might be better to listen to the alarms before you do something you’ll regret, it’s still possible, with God’s help to stop what you’re doing when you’re in the middle of it.  1 Corinthians 10:13 promises us an escape route when things get hot: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Phillip Keller, in his book called “David,” has a chapter entitled, “The Ruined Robe.”  Listen to what he writes: “Even though he resisted the temptation to sever Saul’s head…he still could not resist this small taste of revenge.  For to cut off a piece from the royal robe was an act of utter contempt…This was an expression of the utmost disdain and disrespect…though he had not murdered the tyrant in cold blood, he had in fact shown that he had murdered him in his heart.


When David got back to his men they were probably giving “high-fives,” but David wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.  Look at verses 5-7“Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. [The King James Version says that “David’s heart smote him.”]  He said to his men, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him for he is the anointed of the Lord.’  With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul.” 

David’s conscience was now sending an alarm as it condemned him. [ push button of smoke alarm ].  He couldn’t believe what he had done as he suddenly became acutely aware of his awful attitude toward God’s anointed.  He was angry with himself for listening to his buddies and angry with them for giving him the idea in the first place.  He rebuked his men, which literally means that he “tore” into them.

If the conscience speaks subtly before, and silently during, it screams after we do something that is wrong.  As it pronounces judgment on the act, our conscience then urges us to make right what we’ve done.

You see, it’s not enough to just realize that we blew it.  No.  Our conscience cries out for us to confess to God, and to those we’ve hurt in the process.  That’s what David did in verses 8-15 when he bowed down before King Saul in an attitude of repentance.  He took responsibility for what he did.

Some time later, when David was king, his conscience screamed out again, but this time it was coupled with some catastrophic consequences.  Please turn in your Bibles to 2 Samuel 24.  The main idea in this chapter is that David wanted to take a census of all the fighting men in Israel and Judah.  This might not seem like such a wrong thing to do but it revealed pride in David’s heart.  He wanted to see how powerful he was.  In addition, this would help him know how many more men to draft and would give him an idea of how much to tax his people to support his pursuits.  

In verse 3, one of his military advisors named Joab tries to get David to rethink his position.  This was God’s way of giving David a way out as his conscience was speaking subtly to him.  David refuses to listen however, and sends Joab and the army commanders out to begin counting.  While the census is taking place, David’s conscience was probably silenced by his enthusiasm to find out how powerful he was.  

After more than nine months, they come back with the figures, but instead of throwing a party, David is suddenly smacked by the screams of his conscience.  Look at verse 10: “David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men…”  Let me quickly mention what happened next because it’s a good model for us to follow.

1. Confession. 

Look at the last part of verse 10: “…and he said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done.  Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.  I have done a very foolish thing.’”

2. Consequences. 

Even when we confess, sometimes we have to face some unpleasant consequences.  David was given three options.  He could have three years of famine, three months of fleeing from his enemies, or three days of plague from the hand of God.  Verse 14 tells us that he’d rather fall into the hands of the Lord because He is a merciful God.  God then sent a plague that killed 70,000 people.  

4. Contrition. 

After God mercifully pulled back his avenging angel, David totally repented in verse 17: “When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, ‘I am the one who has sinned and done wrong.  These are but sheep.  What have they done?  Let your hand fall upon me and my family.’” 

4. Worship. 

David then offered sacrifices to God in a spirit of worship.  It was at that point, according to verse 25 that the “Lord answered prayer in behalf of the land, and e plague on Israel was stopped.”

I overheard a conversation between two guys some time ago.  They apparently had not seen each other for a while.  They shook hands and one of them said, “How you doing?  Keeping out of trouble?”  To which the other responded, “Are you kidding?  That wouldn’t be any fun!”  Let’s be honest.  Many of us think it’s actually more fun to go against our conscience.  What’s wrong with living a little?  If you want to really experience life, you have to break free of your conscience, right?

Friends, don’t play games with your conscience

Friends, don’t play games with your conscience.  Listen to it before you do something you shouldn’t do.  It will save you and your loved ones a lot of heart ache.  Work at responding to it during your sinful actions because it’s never too late to do what is right.  And then, after the act, when the conscience speaks loudly, confess what you did to God and to others.  Repent of your actions and attitudes.  And then worship Him in the splendor of His holiness.


Martin Luther, the point man for the Protestant Reformation, understood the critical importance of the conscience.  Listen to what he said: “My conscience is bound in the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to act against conscience.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.”  

I want to ask you a question.  What is your conscience saying to you right now?  As a Recorder, what’s been written down?  As a Witness, what kind of testimony is it giving?  As a Prosecutor, what kind of charges are being made?  As a Defender, what kind of a defense is your conscience making on your behalf?  As a Judge, what verdict has your conscience reached?  Don’t forget that it is always unsafe and dangerous to act against the cries of your conscience.

In the 1890s, a man was driving by a farm when sudden gush of wind caught his black derby hat and it blew onto the McDonald property.  He couldn’t find it anywhere and drove off bareheaded.  Mrs. McDonald retrieved the hat and for 45 years various members of her family wore it until it was ready to fall apart.  At the end of those years, Mrs. McDonald finally put an ad in the paper looking for the owner of the hat.  She said it had been on her conscience for over four decades.

Do you need to make something right this morning?  Take some time right now to confess to God whatever you’ve done, no matter how long ago it was.  Do you need to own something you’ve done to another individual?

When Becca was on the monitor, the alarms were annoying but we were thankful for them because it indicated that we needed to do something.  During the time she was hooked up to the monitor, it didn’t always work like it was supposed to.  In fact, for several weeks, it was pretty messed up.  The alarms would go off for no reason and other times the monitor didn’t work at all.  We eventually discovered the problem.  The machine was fine but the little black pads that attached to her body were defective, creating a short-circuit in the system.

A similar thing can happen to the conscience.  A multitude of mistakes can cause a malfunction.  That’s what we’re going to address next week.  I invite you back as we discover several practical ways to “Deal with a Damaged Conscience.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?