We come now to a subject that we can describe offhand as, well, neither here nor there. Of course, I am making a pun based on how the Lord Jesus Christ describes the presence of the Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is the one born of the Spirit”. Who can define the conscience, let alone the Spirit of God? Firstly then, the conscience is not the same as the spirit within a person. It is a function of our spirit — one of them, at least. Belief is another — and unbelief, worship and others.
But we can all agree, I believe, that the conscience participates in almost everything, if not all the things, that we do daily. For instance, we can choose between eating a nutritious fresh fruit or a sugar-filled doughnut. If you are 2 years old, conscience may not come into play; it is the parent’s conscience that is at work. Then again, the parent may not know the dangers of feeding a child with such food. Meaning to say, the choice between right or wrong (what conscience essentially means) may not apply because of ignorance to certain bad or undesirable qualities of certain things. Thus, people do things unconscionably – without using their conscience. Besides, eating may not even be an act that requires the use of conscience but only the mind. Or is it?
We build a conscience from infancy
Perhaps at a very early stage in life, we already start building a conscience by the things we see, hear, eat and experience. That a simple doughnut may even be a tool whereby our parents teach us — consciously or not, conscientiously or not – what is right and what it wrong? That what we bear in our body, mind, soul and spirit from the very moment we gain “human-being-hood” all work together to form the kind of conscience we will have. That even the kinds of food we eat from infancy, the music we listen to, the attitudes we grow up in, and many others, all merge to make us what we are – morally weak, morally strong, indifferent or devious. Is this a valid hypothesis? As our small Star Wars conscience might say, “Hmm, this hypothesis, prove we will!”
The conscience of a person serves to tell (or compel) him or her to behave according to generally-accepted social norms or moral principles which were established in the past by people whose conscience were likewise influenced by older norms and principles. Some principles last for generations; some remain only for several years, while others may remain inviolate for millennia. In ancient and modern societies, murder is generally accepted as wrong. A murderer, thus, violates not just the law but also his conscience as if it were an internal law itself.
No law, no need for conscience
For without a law, there is no need for conscience. But because a law exists, a choice must be made to obey or not to obey it. That is a basic way of looking at conscience. Christ went as far as to say that the conscience can be the very motivation or the root that leads a person to kill: He who hates his brother is in danger of judgment (in some passages: He who hates is a murderer). The same is true with the love of money which leads to all evil. The conscience is a kind of pressure-release valve which checks our emotions and passions; otherwise, we would burst and let go of our control. Judgment and punishment will then follow.
Fear of punishment is a result of a failed conscience
Punishment, the price of violating a law, works on the assumption that the guilty party is aware of his violation of the law. The conscience, which should have prevented the act, failed to do its role within the person. The law then requires that person to regain a clear conscience through payment in some form. Although a clean conscience may never be recovered in many instances, certain steps or conditions can be made or established to that end. Special cases, as that of a person who pleads insanity, are treated as exceptions because of lack of full personal accountability for the act. Also with minors who may kill out of their innocence or, perhaps, plain clumsiness, for instance, in handling a gun. The simple principle to remember is that the conscience works because we know and accept a certain thing is right or wrong. Choosing either makes us good or bad, saint or sinner, lovable or hateful, bankable or worthless.
Conscience is not consciousness
Moreover, the conscience is not the same as consciousness. We may define conscience as the consciousness of right and wrong; and that would make them synonymous. But consciousness is a neutral, instinctive human function; whereas conscience involves a certain degree of control over the mind and the will. Consciousness merely helps us to be aware of life, of things and so many other things, even that of laws. A newborn child is conscious but has no developed conscience as yet. A person who sleeps is not directly conscious and is only sub-conscious; hence, his conscience may still be working. We do not generally have control over our minds – including our conscience – when we sleep. But there are certain cases when we have nightmares and our mind or spirit responds to other spirits (human or divine) in life-threatening scenarios, such as demon possession, physical struggle or other surreal visions in our dreams.
Even in dreams, then, our mind works to help us recognize “what we believe to be right or wrong” in our awakened state. (Scientists know – although many will not admit it openly — that uttering the name of Jesus in cases of demon-possessions during sleep or so-called “alien-kidnapping” has proven to be the best defense.) Oftentimes, when we awake, we often say we had a wonderful dream or a scary nightmare. Perhaps, in some cases, our values are distorted and the conscience becomes confused. That is when we spend the rest of the night or the whole day feeling tired or restless. Was it the food, the guests at the party, the movie or the summer heat? We may not directly blame our conscience for such seemingly minor issues; however, they may actually be manifestations of a “bothered conscience” we simply fail to address. Dreams then may either be extensions of our conscience, not merely the consciousness, working to reveal unresolved life issues or tools to help us hold on to the right and to eschew the wrong. Perhaps, the conscience, when we learn to understand how it really works, can teach us how to live more fully.
Even the conscience needs rest
Psychologist will have a million things to say about these phenomena of sleep and dreams; but our goal here is to simply define first how conscience works at the recognized two levels: during wakefulness and during sleep. In the first, we have a significant level of control over our conscience, while we almost practically have none when we sleep. (Ever heard of a murderer who killed or a robber who stole while asleep? Every person is good while sleeping, so goes the saying.) Why? Because, as far as we know, choosing and thinking can be a tiring task and the mind needs to rest and refresh in order to be effective. The mind, after all, is the motor that drives the conscience forward or backward.
How the mind drives the conscience
Consider a car: A driver will drive at a certain speed if he knows he has the right-of-way (you cannot drive on a wrong-of-way!) and the way is safe to negotiate (you cannot move to a place that will cause you harm, such as in front of a truck, even if you have the right-of-way because the truck is headed the wrong way toward you). That is how the conscience works in real motion and real time. We make decisions that take into consideration our safety, our well-being and our progress in life. We want to grow old or, as the young ones say, grow old with somebody. But doing so is fraught with obstacles that limit our capacity to make the right choice at all times. You may want to grow old with your fiancé now; but many years from now, you may want to live with someone else. What you think is right (or Mr. Right) today could be wrong (Mr. Wrong) ten years from now.
Our standards for choosing right from wrong may shift drastically in time. That is how the conscience reacts or evolves within the shifting and dynamic environment it is allowed to exist. And, we have a big part in choosing the kind of environment we want to live or grow in, individually or otherwise.
The environment influences the conscience
Throughout life, we journey through periods when laws, norms, fashions, beliefs and whole cultures change in unpredictable or chaotic shapes beyond our control. What the early Romans considered right then might be illegal or shameful today (polytheism vs. monotheism, short hair vs. long hair, men skirts vs. pants, crucifixion vs. electric chair, etc.). Back in the 1950’s, dating was unheard of among teenagers in most places. Today, dating — and its natural consequence, teenage-pregnancies — is as common as hot meals in convenience stores.
In our times, the conscience swings precariously from right to left and back and forth as the mind is beset by standards imposed by various authorities (parents, teachers), role models (siblings, friends, celebrities) or institutions (leaders, pastors, heroes) who vie for the conscience’s attention. In the past, these sources of moral stability were, more or less, consistent: what the parents taught and did was what the teachers taught and did; what the entertainers said and did was what the heroes said and did. A society’s foundation was strong because the conscience had a fixed and solid mooring.
How the conscience went wild
The collapse of modern society’s foundations came about when all these three sources of strength or power for the conscience became unhinged. The parents, because they are busy with other things, have neglected the moral guidance of their children, while the teachers got busy with making a living or merely passing on knowledge without so much as checking if the conscience (theirs and their students’) was still intact or not. Mental development or knowledge acquisition became the priority while the conscience got left behind in the development of the total person. And before we forget, our entertainers went wild — no, crazy — and threw away their clothes and all their inhibitions and twerked their consciences away, to which our children and even many parents mindlessly consented and even danced along with.
The shifting of beliefs (convenience over perseverance), career focus (income over fulfillment) and devotions (ease over sacrifice) led to corresponding changes in values, priorities, sexual orientations and many other aspects of human concern, all previously under the purview of the conscience but now let loose by so-called liberal education and rational thinking. Anything could be justified or rationalized as “ethical” – the new word for right, moral and honorable. The conscience can be diluted or weakened through misdirection or mis-education.
How we avoid or deceive the conscience
Ancient wisdom is no longer right, applicable or practical for many today. Tested principles which once built strong societies (USA comes to mind) no longer appeal to the majority. Nature has lost its lasting pristine quality and replaced with self-centered, commercialized artificiality (science & technology without a conscience). Plastic surgery can fix any undesirable personal appearance and can be had for any flimsy reason. GMO food is considered acceptable because it helps feed millions supposedly; but the dangers of playing with Nature (or playing God) prove to be real and irreversible. Does the end justify the means? People today bypass or negate the use of the conscience in favor of seemingly more compelling reasons, leading to irreparable results.
Hence, the application of the conscience, to many, has been narrowed down to frivolous choices between various cellphone brands or between buying a car on cash or credit. Yes, many of the choices we make still require the use of the conscience, no matter how big or small the effort made or the weight and consequences of those choices would be. For instance, deciding to leave your family to work abroad is the most difficult decision taken by any person, whether single or not. But once the choice has been made, the spotlight shifts its focus — drowning out all other valid counter-reasons and helping the mind justify itself and convince the conscience that the choice was the right one – the only logical and preferable move.
Of course, only the crazy or weak-willed person will fight against his or her own conscience. No politician ever ran and said, “I am not sure if I will win or that I can be a good senator, but. . . .” Even if one has to lie, one will have to work with the conscience — or go insane. Our conscience, as we said, is shaped by the standards imposed upon us and those we choose to create for our own personal agenda. Ultimately, we are what our conscience has made us and to fight against that is to live a schizophrenic life.
The conscience sets limits to human behavior
There may be a few exceptions when people (such as martyrs) spend their time doing and enjoying something that they are forced to do — or even without truly enjoying it. Many, in fact, do outrageous work in order to survive – think of weird reality shows or circus freak shows. And, I guess, that is how many people go bad, insane or give up on life. We can only do so much to the conscience without causing it to fight back and remind us or rebuke us. In all of this, the conscience convicts us when we pass the limits of what Heaven has designed our lives for. Fundamentally, that is the work of the Holy Spirit – to convict. Of what? Of sin, because sin is the violation of the LAW of God – going beyond divine limits.
God placed the conscience as a tool to help us know right and wrong and to decide to do the right. That is the original purpose and intent of conscience when God created us. We did not develop conscience out of trying to survive in a supposedly evolving world. How can a fish decide between right or wrong when all it knows is the need to eat. Hunger rules — not the will to survive; for it does not know or realize it will be eaten by a bigger fish. At least, we know that worms will eat us someday! All a fish knows is to avoid the big fish and to run after the smaller fish. What is “wrong” for the big fish to do is “right” for the small fish to do. Some give up thinking and conclude there is no morality in life. Hence, the use of conscience becomes arbitrary for them.
Right or wrong does not exist in the animal world, as it is. We only think it does because we want to believe it that way. We impose our own standards on things or other beings we do not truly understand. Even God we blame for being cruel or being totally wrong. Not being God, we do not know or understand why we suffer and die. Unlike the fish, however, we know; but we still die like the fish. Which is better: to be swallowed by a shark and then die or to be eaten by worms after death? If we were mere animals, everyone is fair game. But with our conscience, we rebel against the cruelty and irrationality of the whole thing. There must be a higher and more important function of the conscience we need to discover.
The conscience is a special divine mechanism for human protection
All that presumption by scientists that single cells, plants and animals somehow developed the ability to reproduce and are then motivated by their natural instinct to reproduce before they die is nothing but a supposition – a theory, at best. No child, before it becomes aware of it, recognizes the need to preserve its health in order to reproduce. No matter how a teacher might teach that fact, even until the first few years in elementary, the capacity to form that conscience may not have been achieved. Many, in fact, grow old reproducing without even developing a mature conscience or fully understanding why they reproduce like boars. How do we expect cells, or even animals, to have the same capacity at the very early stages of becoming a cell or an animal unless they were given the ability by an existing intelligent designer?
It is the same with the conscience. It was given to us to provide us a greater advantage over other beings – to make us moral rulers over Nature (the serpent overturned that order, sadly).
No effective bait is bigger than a fish’s mouth! No temptation is big enough for the conscience not to handle. But we violate our conscience because of our inordinate appetite. Had we no conscience at all, all animals would have become extinct already, just like the bison. No mountain would have been spared to get to all the gold, silver and diamond. No land undeveloped to put up all the shining skyscrapers and malls. But our mouths are certainly growing bigger as the baits also grow. Look at the once-sleeping giant of a nation that has awakened, gobbling up islands and nibbling on nations bit by bit!
But why do we need conscience if we die like the fish anyway? Because God put eternity (His image) in our hearts and also a conscience to help us live like He does – live the Divine Nature, knowing good and good alone. When Adam and Eve sinned, they became aware (guilty) of choosing and doing bad. Their conscience became tainted because they chose to do what they knew was wrong. Eve had told the serpent, “No, we are not allowed to eat of the forbidden fruit.” She was perfectly right. Then she ate and became perfectly wrong.
The tree of conscience in Eden – how conscience was tested
So, was the serpent real or a mere product of Eve’s mind and conscience? Are we basing our beliefs and our very lives on an apparent myth? Before she ate, the serpent and temptation were not in her life. The fruit was there and she knew it was prohibited – her conscience was already in place, a gift from God. The serpent appeared and tempted her. It was not the fruit that tempted her; hence the serpent was real. God was real and the command was also real. Eve knew that and obeyed at first. But once she ate, the serpent became her master, not God. Temptation turned to sin. The act tainted her conscience. The conscience, creating a battle within the mind, brought about guilt, “You knew it was wrong, why did you eat?” Basically what Adam also said when he ate and sinned as well. They now shared the same sin. The same guilt. And the same shame as they hid from God.
How did they act before God? Their conscience tried to do some damage-control: Adam said, “The woman made me eat!” Eve said, “The serpent deceived me!” Here is proof to what we said earlier about the mind trying to avoid the truth (literal cover-up using fig leaves) or justify a wrong deed (passing on the blame). The conscience will avoid accepting a violation has been made, in spite of the truth and the evidence. And in spite of itself, the conscience can self-destruct because it has been captured by the devil for his deadly schemes. What was once a weapon for self-defense had become a weapon to rebel against God.
How the conscience failed
“Naked? Who said you were naked?” Before God, they were naked and pure when their conscience was working properly. When it self-destructed, their guilt worked like poison to make them fear and avoid the presence of God. They could no longer accept themselves as worthy to stand as they were in the glorious presence of God; whereas before, they walked with Him in the Garden. They were now running away from Him. When the time comes when we all stand naked before God, the conscience will be either our defense or our alibi. Like clothes, the bad conscience tries to hide our sins. But a clear conscience, much like Adam and Eve’s naked purity, shows our holiness, our earnest desire to be like God.
The Forbidden Tree was the Tree of Conscience. Eat and die. Do not eat and live. When the conscience fails to protect us, we die. Everything is well within our control. That much we can say about Eve and Adam, our first parents. But because they sinned, our conscience also became weak. Until we receive the antidote to a weakened conscience. Until we receive forgiveness. Until we harness the power that will continually keep us from violating our own conscience.
(To be continued)