That summer, conscience went on a rampage. An older gentleman, who felt compelled to tell a friend and me, how he had found peace with God. It was not by confessing a bunch of wrong doings, but by asking for forgiveness and making recompense for past mistakes wherever possible. There was an evangelistic meeting going on. I went to seek help. I got none, not even from the evangelist. All I heard was that I should “repent, trust Jesus, and He will save you.” But from what was I to repent? How could Jesus take care of the things I had not done? I had never committed any of the sins the evangelist was seeking to free people from. The last advice the evangelist gave me was “pray, pray, and keep on praying.” It was helpful, but that was the wrong advice. The evangelist should have recommended what the old gentleman did. It was then, and only then, that my conscience came to rest. I had to be forgiven by my father, write letters asking for forgiveness from people in Europe and in North America. While a refugee, I had taken some wood to cook a meal. I sent the mayor of that town some money with an apology. There were some other cases I could not deal with. However, where possible, I asked for forgiveness and I made restitution. The result was that I felt jubilant and at peace; and that in spite of my burned face and hands. Ever since that encounter, I found conscience to be an extraordinary guide.
Life is complex. No one is an island. We are living in a maze surrounded by people who demand constantly that we make choices, their choices, and live by them. Some of these affect life. Political leaders and judges had to make choices regarding legislation. They decided in favor of one group and offended another. They voted their decisions into laws and force it upon those who disagree. An Indian has demonstrated what has happened. He described his conscience as a “three corner being” inside his heart. It stood still when he was good. When he did bad things, those corners rotated and knocked off the tips. At first, it hurt a lot, but when the corners were worn down, the pain stopped. This is what happens when we form bad habits. After a while, our conscience becomes dormant or even dead. We stop feeling guilty and hurt.
Paul, as we stated earlier, was concerned not just about his conscience, but the conscience of others. What we do and say severely affects others. Whatever we say, may be permissible, but that does not make it right. It is harmful to display our Christian freedom in front of people, who believe what we are doing is wrong. It is equally wrong to parade our strength before others. Of course, it is wrong to take offense at those, who enjoy their freedom in Christ; but tell that to those who guard their week conscience. While preparing for College, three of us went out for a burger and two of us ordered milk. To our surprise, the third party took offense saying that the Bible did not allow meat with milk. I did not drink my milk, but the other lad did and that night his conscience was severely tortured. He apologized for being insensitive toward our friend that had a burger with water. The young man did not apologize for causing the commotion. We were all guilty of not inquiring regarding our convictions about food.
A Christian is not a bull in a china closet or an elephant in a potato patch. People with different consciences surround him. It is the strong Christian’s duty to commend himself to their conscience and not to his own. This is basic even in the preaching of the Gospel. The Lord, Himself, came to heal the broken hearted and not to enlarge their wounds. When I first became serious about Christianity, I met some preachers who knocked you down, roasted you over hell-fire, and saved you, and then put a notch in their belt. The truth was and still is that preachers do not save any one. All that preacher did was wounded my weak conscience even more and left me in “limbo.” It took some searching and meeting with people that were more tactful toward me and helped me realized that God, in Christ, only does the saving and that He is unwilling to roast anyone.
Conscience is not to be used in judging others, but conscience is to be used in judging oneself. Conscience was never meant to be a law unto others, but a guide to oneself. Nor was it meant to alter laws to please conscience. Conscience must be controlled and must not be allowed to go on a rampage. Far too often, we allow feelings to run our conscience. Telling someone off may make us feel good; yet, that is the worst thing we can do. It is like getting drunk with a good feeling, but waking up with a miserable headache. In my teens, I traveled to East Germany and visited people that were our neighbors in the Ukraine. They were celebrating an engagement of one of their daughters. Her uncle was a booze-maker. He slipped me some drink that made me feel elated for several minutes and then I passed out. Next morning, I awoke with a big headache and unaware of what had happened. I had missed the party and I had learned a lesson, never to be repeated. Emotions can have a similar affect on our conscience.
Reason and common sense are far better guides than feelings. In fact, it is a Biblical demand that we reason together. It is in straightening out our minds, that our conscience becomes free and clear. That is, we negotiate before we act, judge, or condemn. We should find a common ground, educate each other, feel our way into the other person’s understanding, and do what can be mutually agreeable. It does required modifying our stubbornness and insistence on what is right or on what is wrong. We must not be like the two ministers, who would argue endlessly in a friendly manner in which one would conclude, “You do it in your way and I’ll do it the Lord’s way.” God has absolutely nothing to do with what we believe to be the truth, and as to how we conduct ourselves. God or Christ is seldom the issue. And if they are, it is not by people who have a wounded or a weak conscience. Rather, we are hung up over things, which do not really matter, as far as our salvation is concerned.
The Apostle Paul had a lengthy and heated debate over differences with the Corinthians and he came to one conclusion. What really counted was how humans treat each other, and not their theological or sociological differences. If one had no love, one had nothing. The word he employed was “agape.” The old English understanding of the word was “charity.” In simple English, it meant that one was kind and helpful to those who were less fortunate. People with a tender conscience are less fortunate and do need “agape” love. Especially those of us, who think that we are strong, have run a red light. We may be the ones with the weaker conscience. The proof lies in the unbending attitude we have toward those who differ in their thoughts and behavior.
Paul’s idea of bridging the gap between people came from Jesus, Himself. Jesus simplified the entire Law by, “Love God and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). How does one love God or a neighbor? It is certainly not the way one loves a wife or children by embraces and favoritism. Again, the term in question is “agape.” You do for God what He cannot do being Spirit. In like manner, you do for the neighbor, what the neighbor cannot do for himself. Jesus settled this argument with a self-righteous man who wanted specifics on who his neighbor was. Jesus used a parable about a total stranger that helped another stranger that had fallen victim to bandits. A priest and a Levite, both from the religious right, deliberately avoided the hurt man. A Samaritan, from the religious left or wrong, had mercy on the unfortunate victim and he cared for him. Then Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the victim?” The expert, in the Law, had the proper answer, except he lacked “agape.” Jesus had to tell him that if he wanted eternal life; then, he had to be like the Samaritan.
There is a cure for any conscience that is ailing either with pride or weakness. The cure is “agape.” Doing things for others does bridge differences and even inconvenience. The weak are led away from themselves and their problems to others with larger problems and the strong are shown that they are not as strong as they think they are. “Agape” shifts the focus from the self to others. “Agape” demonstrates that conscience can become disassociated from oneself by helping others. While in the hospital, I met a man who was there for four days and did nothing but complain. I took the complainer to a patient who had been on a rotating stretcher for twenty years. I was hospitalized for eighteen months, and I had ample time to brood over my conscience. One day, my nurse said, “I’ll wheel your bed over to the window and you can jump.” I got the message. I began seeing others with larger needs and looked passed those with smaller ones, including my own. My disability was only seventy five percent; yet, it was such that I could walk again and learn to perform “agape” deeds. The man on the stretcher could not move; still, everyone that went to see him walked away blessed.
“Agape” helps conscience to be “helper.” It leads us to see that when we become useful we are indeed blessed and content. Huckleberry Finn was told to say, “Conscience takes up more room than all the rest of a fellow’s insides” (Wa. 604). “Agape” can crowd conscience and fill our inside with a peace that passes our understanding. “Agape” begins when we begin to make our conscience useful. As soon as we let “agape” in, the sooner we shall feel blessed. Paul advised his spiritual son, “The final outcome of this order is “agape” from a pure heart and a good conscience and a genuine faith” (I Timothy 1:5). The true makarioi keep their conscience awake in order to lead themselves and others to a better understanding of each other. Conscience serves as a warning light to stop and proceed gently.