A Matter of Conscience

The conscience is the keeper of values.

Keeper of Values (1)

“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Matthew 6.33

What’s on your conscience?
In this study on the nature and nurture of the soul, we have explained that the soul is comprised of three equal and interacting spiritual components. The mind processes thoughts and information. The heart generates affections. And the conscience manages our default priorities and values. What comes to expression in our lives – our words and deeds – is a result of a continuous process in our souls, where what we think, how we feel, and what we value interact with God’s Word and Spirit to determine what we will do or say.

It’s not quite that simple, of course, but in the most general of terms, this is how human beings function. This is what it means to be made in the image of God, to grow into the image of Jesus Christ, and to image His resurrection life to the world around us.

Scholars debate the relative importance of the components of the soul. Some insist the mind has the priority, while others contend for the heart. Personally, I’m inclined to believe these two are so inextricably involved with one another that we need to keep them both sharp and functioning at the highest levels.

But what about the conscience? The Scriptures have less to say about the conscience than about the mind and the heart, but what they say is important. As we have seen, the conscience plays a kind of arbitrating role between the mind and the heart, helping to process thoughts and affections into appropriate actions. So it’s important that we have a good or a clean conscience – two adjectives describing a healthy conscience which Paul employed in his writing. One of the powerful effects of the Gospel, once we have received it, is that it purifies and renews our conscience so that it can carry out its proper function in the soul (Heb. 9.14).

But what makes for an unhealthy conscience? To be brief: Wrong values.

The role of values
Some Christians don’t like to talk about values. They prefer to focus on virtues rather than values, and, of course, virtues are extremely important. But they don’t cover everything the conscience requires to do its job in the soul.

The nature of a person’s conscience is constructed, to a certain extent, on values. Values are simply those settled views, beliefs, opinions, convictions, default choices, and courses of action, which we hold to be most important. Our values are foundational in that they play a huge role in determining how we think and what we feel strongly about. We’re not usually conscious of our values. Instead, having become so used to exercising the same preferences over and over, our values simply settle into our conscience without our having to think about them every time they come into play. Within the conscience, they shape our thoughts and affections, and this shaping, in turn, determines the course of our daily lives.

So if our values are bad or weak or unhealthy, it doesn’t matter how nobly we think or how earnestly we feel, we’re going to live according to the patterns, priorities, and practices that are agreeable to our consciences.

A faulty conscience at work
Let me see if I can illustrate this. Suppose you become convicted, let’s say, during a sermon or Bible study, that you need to spend more time in prayer. In your mind it makes sense, and in your heart, you feel like it would be important to do so. So, you tell yourself, starting tomorrow, you’re going to pray more.

And perhaps you do for a day or so. But soon your prayers begin to trail off. You don’t get up as early as you said you would. You choose not to keep those prayer appointments with God that you wrote down on your schedule. And the time you do spend in prayer is becoming as shallow and unfruitful as it ever was before you heard that sermon.

What’s happening? Well, even though you have a good idea about praying more – your mind is rightly engaged – and you really feel like you should pray – your affections are revved up for it – there’s a problem in your conscience. You still value certain things more than prayer – such as, sleep, busyness, or just goofing around. Because you didn’t consider the role of your conscience in the matter, you simply let certain unexamined values linger there, when you should have served them notice and evicted them forthwith. Then you could begin to employ your mind and heart in building a new values foundation in your soul, one that would allow you to have greater success in realizing the life of prayer you thought and felt like you wanted to have.

If bad, weak, or wrong values are manning the operations of our consciences, we’ll have a difficult time realizing the promises of life in the Kingdom of God.

But if we can identify, own, embrace, and nurture certain Kingdom values in our soul – those values which are firmly lodged in the Law and Word of God – then we’ll find a more harmonious and fruitful interaction of all the components of our soul, and greater consistency and power in living the Kingdom life in Christ.

For reflection
1.  Where do values come from? What influences lead us to settle on one priority over another? Do you think it’s important to be aware of these influences? Explain.

2.  In your opinion, what are the most important values to lodge in your conscience, so that seeking the Kingdom and righteousness of God will be your highest priority in every situation?

3.  What’s the difference between values and virtues?

Next steps – Conversation: What do you think would be some strong, Kingdom values to lodge in your conscience? Talk with a Christian friend about this question.

T. M. Moore

This is part 4 of an 8-part series on Purifying the Conscience. To download this week’s study as a free PDF, click 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.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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