Your Conscience Can Tell You Bad News, Not Good

Published: February 21, 2012

Feeling guilty is natural. Be human, feel guilty. You don’t need any particular ability to feel guilty. It’s called the conscience, and it comes standard. H. L. Mencken said it is “the mother-in-law whose visit never ends.” 

The conscience is a fine thing, but has limitations

The conscience is a fine thing. It reminds us that we live before the God who judges the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1). It is that spark of light that is nearly impossible to extinguish. It is a little island of sanity in a world of relativism. Three cheers for the conscience and its willingness to make moral judgments.

The conscience does have its limitations though, and they are significant. For one, it can only make you feel bad. Every once in while you might have a clear conscience—meaning that there is nothing you have to hide—but it only lasts for a moment. That’s just the conscience being the conscience. It has the power to make us feel guilty but not innocent. It has the power to say “don’t do that” but not the power to keep us from doing it.

Here is the problem. The conscience, when it is our only source of information, will end with some form of penance or self-salvation strategy. Deny yourself, punish yourself, try harder, and so on. It is good for what it was intended to do and only for what it was intended to do. It is not able to give direction on how to be right with God. The conscience is a natural ability, not an enlightened one. The conscience is a valuable asset, but you can’t get to any place good from there.

We need a new way of seeing

The conscience must give way to a new way of seeing. We call this faith, and it is different in every way. One looks inward for truth, the other looks outward. One sees judgment, the other tender mercies. One sees us naked and alone before the judge, the other sees Jesus.

Have you ever made yourself cross-eyed by staring at a Magic Eye picture? With your normal way of seeing, the picture looks like a two-dimensional array of random designs. Now look more deeply. Focus farther away. Keep looking. Don’t give up until you see a completely different scene. Refocus until you can see the world in three-dimensions. Once you see it, enjoy it.

The next time you pick up the Magic Eye book you will need a little less time to find this new world. With practice, you will see it even more quickly.

In the same way, to be able to see the new world of grace and faith you must access it in a very different way. It is unnatural and counterintuitive; you need your spiritual eyes. There is nothing natural inside us that will lead us to discover the wonderful exchange in which “Christ takes away all evil that our conscience tells us we have, and gives us every good thing that our conscience tells us we lack.”[1]

To get from the guilt-producing conscience to the ‘every good thing’ you must switch from one system to the other. Two-dimensions to three.

You feel guilty – that is the easy part.

Now, use your spiritual eyes.  Don’t stop until you can see the good stuff.




[1] Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 162.