Trimming Your Sails (4)
… for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)…Romans 2.14, 15
This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck… 1 Timothy 1.18, 19
The set of the saw
I am not a carpenter, but I know this much about using a circular saw: If your saw is set at an angle other than 90 degrees, you will not be able to make a straight cut. The angle at which you set your saw will determine the angle of the cut you make on any board. If you want a cut, say, at 45 degrees, to fit two pieces of baseboard together in a corner, then set your saw accordingly.
But if you leave your saw set at that angle, no matter how many times you try to cut a true right angle in a board, you will not succeed. You’ll need to adjust the angle of your saw back to 90 degrees if you want a straight, right-angle cut.
The conscience is to the soul as the set-of-the-saw is to a circular saw. However it is set, at whatever angle in relation to truth, will determine how you live.
In the soul, the conscience is the seat of judgment, as Paul explained in Romans 2. The conscience filters, assesses, and either approves or disapproves what the heart is feeling and the mind is thinking; and it engages the will to put those feelings, thoughts, and values into action. If your conscience is set on that which is good, you’ll be more likely to speak good words and do good works.
But if the “set” of your conscience is skewed, so that your values, priorities, and default judgments are not true to Scripture, then you’re going to have a hard time journeying with the Wind of God in your sails. You won’t recognize the ill winds that are influencing your decisions and actions; nor will you perceive that you have begun to drift from the course of our great salvation (Heb. 2.1-3).
The Greek word for conscience is συνείδησις – suneidesis. “Sun” means “with” and “eidesis” suggest things firmly known. The conscience collects things firmly and truly known and brings them together into a template for judging the deliberations of the soul. And as our second text suggests, it is very important that we make sure to have a good conscience; otherwise, we might come to shipwreck in our journey of faith.
Know what you value
A good conscience has to be built-up within us, for we do not come by it naturally. Naturally, the conscience is riddled with sinful self-interest. What it values, the priorities it follows, and the default choices it pursues are all by nature aimed at aggrandizing our own wellbeing. A sinful conscience shows the effects of many winds of doctrine, blowing haphazardly but continuously into the sails of the conscience – assimilation, value, and priority. A sinful conscience assimilates or allows to harbor whatever ideas, notions, or plans of action reinforce the self as of most importance. It places ultimate value on all such ill winds, so that the priority of our will and actions becomes to do what’s best for us.
The Holy Spirit works through a good conscience to guide us in the right and to prick us when we sin; if we fail to build-up a good conscience we quench the Wind of the Spirit.
It is important, therefore, that we take a hard look at our conscience – what we value as of most importance in life. Consider how you use your time, for instance. Does the way you spend your time indicate a high value and priority of loving God and others? Or is your time primarily devoted to whatever you want for you? Look at your expenditures: What does the way you use your money tell you about what you value most? What priorities guide your spending? What default choices dominate the use you make of your wealth?
Do you talk more than listen? Do you talk mainly about yourself, your interests and activities, what makes you happy? Look at how you use your social media: Is it just one long saga of details about you?
What values are residing in your conscience? Whatever they are, they will guide your affections and determine your thinking, so that your words and deeds will speak to the world about who you are in your soul.
When you pray, what tends to be the focus of your prayers? God and His glory? The progress of His Kingdom? Revival, renewal, and awakening? The needs of others? Or your own self-centered wants?
When ill winds of doctrine are filling the sails of our conscience, we cannot sail a straight course with God. We may earnestly desire to do so. We may even insist that we’re trying our best. But until those sails are set to receive the Wind of God, and to deny access to the various ill winds that come against us each day, you are on a course of spiritual misdirection and possible shipwreck.
Value what is best
Paul insists that we should desire a good conscience. But a good conscience must be built, with all its relevant sails – assimilation, value, and priority – adjusted to the Wind of God’s Word and Spirit.
The place to begin is by looking to Jesus – reading about Him, meditating on Him, putting together a vision of Jesus, exalted in glory and reigning at the Father’s right hand. For Jesus is good. Indeed, He alone is good among all people who ever lived. He is the good Shepherd. His words and teachings are good. His example of self-denying and sacrificial service is good.
And the path He has marked out for us to walk is good as well – the path of God’s Law (1 Jn. 2.1-6).
Paul reminds us that the Law of God, far from being obsolete or burdensome, is holy and righteous and good. As an exercise, read Psalm 119 in one sitting. As you do, make a list of the verbs the psalmist uses to describe his relationship to or desire with respect to the Law of God: keep, walk in, take heed, hidden in the heart, rejoiced over, and many, many more. Once you have a complete list, go back and pray through each of those words, asking God to make that your attitude toward His holy and righteous and good Law.
And if you find that these words do not describe your attitude to the Law of God, then take each one to the Lord in prayer, seeking a strategy to have that word become more true as a statement of what you value, what your priorities ought to be, and of the default choices you long to make.
A good conscience doesn’t simply happen. Work hard to assimilate the vision of Jesus and a growing understanding of His Law. Prayerfully commit yourself, day by day, to valuing that vision and those statutes as the defining set of your soul. Then make your plans and set your priorities accordingly, until you build-up a good conscience in your soul, one that rejoices to be filled with the Spirit of God and led by His Word for the glory of Jesus and His Kingdom in all you do.
1. How can you know when your conscience is focused on anything other than what is good?
2. How would you counsel a new believer to begin building-up a good conscience?
3. Are you working as hard as you should to build-up and maintain a good conscience? Explain.
Next steps – Transformation: Today, take steps to work more consistently at building-up a good conscience. What steps will you take?
Our new book What in Heaven Is Jesus Doing on Earth? can help you in setting your mind on Christ. Order your copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.