We have many sayings about conscience, such as “My conscience is clear”, or “I don’t want that on my conscience.” Conscience is an interesting concept, but what is it? Merriam-Webster defines conscience as “the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.” But that definition, of course, begs the question: “What are the right and the good?”
In very broad philosophical concept, the “right and the good” are those things which are beneficial and constructive, while the wrong and the bad are those which are harmful and destructive. In Christian theology, God not only expounds the right and the good, but He IS the right and the good—all good, all righteousness—and the Christian believes that the more closely he lives in accord with God’s will expressed in scripture and in the movement of the Holy Spirit, the better and more righteous he is.
Temptations against conscience are common to all men and women, for our baser carnal nature struggles against the knowledge of the good. St. Paul addresses this specifically when he writes: “…the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.” (Galatians 5:17) Yet our comradery in common struggle strengthens us for the challenge, knowing that saints, too, wrestle with weakness … as even Paul admits in agonized self-accusation: “I do not understand my own actions … For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do … For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Yet Paul also knows where strength and salvation lay, as he concludes: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15-25)
As we enter our latter years, clear conscience becomes the dearest of possessions, and we often strive to make up for past faults and failures. How? Built within us seems to be a visceral need to confess the wrongs we have done, as we are tormented by memories of our failures against God, justice, morality and our fellow Man … bewailing with a Lady Macbethian “Out, damned spot!” Countless times I have given last rites to the agitated dying, and yet after confession of sins often long past, the worms plaguing conscience shrivel, and almost palpable calm wafts over them, and they pass through the eternal portal in long-desired tranquility. No doubt this is one reason James tell us to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
In the Old Testament, God tells the Chosen People: “Be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) … and, even more ominously, Jesus tells us: “You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) A lofty goal to be sure—one which we may never fully attain. But the virtue is in the striving and in perseverance as we seek to love God and neighbor ever more faithfully. Perhaps it will aid us in our frailty to remember Paul’s assurance that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1Timothy 2:4) So … “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees…!” (Hebrews 12:12), and in that endless pursuit of that pure conscience for which we desperately long, find steadfastness in the knowledge that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1Corinthians 10:13)