“Breakfast with Brad” – Guilt Signals and the Weak, Seared or Healthy Conscience
Text version (the video transcript has been edited for clarity):
What is guilt? Is guilt always unhealthy? Certainly we know that ‘guilt-trips’ are the favorite tool of the Accuser and Christliness religion. But does guilt ever have a place or serve a purpose?
One way to view guilt is that it’s a signal sent by the conscience. The conscience is sort of like a God-given inner prophet that lets us know when we’ve violated love of God or neighbor. In that sense, it is like Nathan the prophet when he confronted David’s affair with Bathsheba. He spoke the truth and in that sense, was acting as a servant of God. Our conscience can be like that too.
But the conscience can also attempt to become autonomous from God. It supplants Christ as merciful Judge and then takes on the role of the accuser. Ironically, Paul calls the accusing, legalistic conscience ‘weak,’ rather than strong. The ‘weak conscience’ is a tormentor and imposes itself on others under the ‘I’m offended’ clause. Paul rebukes the conscience that is bound to the law and wields it on others.
But Paul also warns of a ‘seared conscience’ … We sear our conscience when we refuse to heed it’s legitimate voice and become insensitive to our selfishness, willfulness and violations of love. Others have so silenced their conscience to wicked acts that they perform them without a twinge of guilt. We actually diagnose such people as sociopaths. No, we NEED our conscience and even the guilt signals it sends when we violate love.
The trick is to keep the conscience close at hand BUT OFF the judgement seat. It serves Christ as long as it does not supplant him. It’s role is to remind the prodigal sons — the young hedonist and the older legalist — that we need not wallow in the pigpen or strive bitterly in the fields. The healthy conscience beckons us to return home to the father’s embrace.
Even when James tells us to confess our sins one to another, it is for this reason: so that the anxious, tormented or tormenting conscience can say its peace and then be reminded of the gospel. There is a Saviour who has forgiven sin and will remove our guilt. There is not need to suffer under condemnation or hide from his presence. The gospel calls the conscience to receive the grace of God.
But I have a follow-up question. How is it that Christliness religion so consistently embraces the practice of exercising one’s conscience on the actions of other people? Jesus saw this perpetual habit, typically enacted in the name of truth or righteousness or justice … and he directly forbade it. We might call this “third-party consciencing.” To those who impose their religious convictions on others, Jesus issues these sobering words, “Judge not, lest you be judged … for the measure with which you judge, you will be judged.”
We cannot put others in the land of the law while we live in the land of mercy. We cannot demand the hammer come down for others while desiring the feather for ourselves. I don’t know about you, but when I deserved judgment, I received mercy, and now I am bound to mercy. May God deliver us from the perils of being unforgiving servants (Matthew 18:21-35). Let us pray that our conscience would live in the shadow of the throne of grace, never needing to hide from it or worse, attempting to supplant Jesus’ exclusive place on it.