A Private Matter: Conscience

Why matters of the conscience aren't just about you.

In the western world, we tend to think of the conscience as a personal thing—something between us and God. We get offended if anyone tells us differently. But Scripture tells us that matters of the conscience aren't just an individual matter. We must take into consideration the needs of our neighbor too.

For instance, you may think nothing of passing on harmless information about your acquaintances. However, to someone who was once addicted to gossip, your innocent news bulletins may spark her desire for juicer tidbits. If you have a friend who simply can't curtail his spending when he visits his favorite store, you may need to find another activity to do together.

This is not to say we should become legalistic or rule-oriented. Through His death on the Cross, Jesus made us acceptable in God's sight, and we don't have to measure our righteousness by how well we perform. In Christ, we have liberty. However, our freedom is given so we can serve others, not so we can indulge ourselves (Galatians 5:13).

If we know an area in which our brother in Christ stumbles, but fail to consider it as we follow our conscience, we are not serving our brother. Our convictions may allow it. Our conscience doesn't rebuke us. However, as a result of our example, a brother may think that if we can do it, he can too. "Just this once" may pull him back into an unhealthy obsession or addiction. Since the nature of sin is progressive, that one compromise may lead him to slip in other moral areas.

In Dr. Stanley's sermons on "A Good Conscience," he mentions a controversy that provides a biblical example for our discussion. A hot topic for the early church was whether or not to eat meat that had been offered to idols. In Roman cities, meat was often presented to an idol before it was taken to the marketplace. In Paul's opinion, whether or not the food had been sacrificed to an idol––a statue of a pagan god––didn't really matter. The "gods" the idols represented didn't actually exist. But it really bothered some believers. Their consciences told them it was wrong to eat this meat.

Paul assured the believers that they could feel free to buy the meat in the market, without asking if it had been offered to an idol. However, if a believer did discover that the meat had been sacrificed in the pagan temple, he shouldn't eat it. Why? For the sake of another believer whose conscience is "weak" (1 Corinthians 8:9-10). Today, our idea of a person with a weak conscience is a person who constantly indulges in sinful or questionable acts. But Paul uses it in the opposite sense. He means that a person's conscience convicts him when there is no real offense at hand. It is for those people that we must be cautious as we exercise our freedom in Christ.

Romans 14: 21 sums up a similar discussion about meat offered to idols by saying, "It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles." Think about that for a second. Does it seem unfair? Does it overwhelm you? Does it make you angry?

Thankfully, being sensitive to the needs of other believers isn't our responsibility alone. God is sovereign. Even if we make a selfish decision, He can use our mistakes for good in the lives of those we harm. He can use our slip-ups to encourage believers to turn to Him for guidance and strength. That's especially reassuring in light of the fact that you and I can't possibly avoid every action that might tempt another believer. If we tried, we could end up depending on our mental abilities—or a comprehensive list of rules—instead of on the Spirit. We would no longer experience the liberty Jesus died to give us.

How then, can we balance our freedom in Christ with our responsibility to our fellow believer? By relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even if our conscience says "yes," we still need to listen carefully to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He may tell us, "Not now." By following His direction, we can know when to limit our freedom for the sake of someone else. Surrendering to the Holy Spirit—along with thinking of others instead of only ourselves—fills us with surprising and unaccountable joy.

Renew your conscience by reading Scripture and praying for clear direction. But don't use your convictions as an excuse to stop listening to the Holy Spirit on a day-to-day basis. With Him, you will help­­––not harm––your fellow believers.

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13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?

21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.

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