Friday, March 14, 2008

A Troubled Conscience?

How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14).

Most of us know what it feels like. And most of us are good at masking it, ignoring it, numbing it with our rational faculties or with busy-ness. John Piper explains how the cross of Jesus is the answer to the accusations we level at ourselves when our conscience is troubled.

Some things never change. The problem of a dirty conscience is as old as Adam and Eve. As soon as they sinned their conscience was defiled. Their sense of guilt was ruinous. It ruined their relationship with God – they hid from him. It ruined their relationship with each other – they blamed. . . So here we are in the modern age – the age of science, internet, organ transplants, instant messaging, cell phones – and our problem is fundamentally the same as always: Our conscience condemns us. We don’t feel good enough to come to God . . . We can cut ourselves, or throw our children in the sacred river, or give a million dollars to the United Way, or serve in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, or perform a hundred forms of penance and self-injury, and the result will be the same. The stain remains and death terrifies.

The only answer in these modern times, as in all other times, is the blood of Christ. When our conscience rises up and condemns us where will we turn? We turn to Christ. We turn to the suffering and death of Christ – the blood of Christ. This is the only cleansing agent in the universe that can give the conscience relief in life and peace in death. (John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die, 50-51)

There might have been a time when Piper’s words were widely understood and generally accepted. There was a day when the place to begin in bringing people to faith in Jesus was with their troubled conscience. It was a fairly safe bet that they had one and that they’d eagerly hear a message about how it could be assuaged.

I’m not sure that time is now.

Last night I attended a fund-raising banquet and found myself at the table with a man who’s been a court-appointed social worker for more than thirty years. I asked him about his work and he made what I regard as a confession. For most of his career he’s done his work believing that there’s good in everyone. Now, he said, he’s not so sure. He’s seen too much, come face to face with too much intractable meanness. He’s reluctantly beginning to think that some people are just evil. Evil at the core.

This makes me think that there are some who simply don’t have a conscience that troubles them. And I’m not talking about sociopaths and hardened criminals. There’s something in our culture that has slowly filed the edge off of our conscience. These days, if you’re conscience troubles you it isn’t because you’ve violated anything that’s inherently right or wrong. It’s your own way of thinking. Something or someone has made you feel guilty, and that’s one of the worst things someone or something can do. Maturity means validating yourself, your own beliefs, overcoming whatever that something or someone might be in your life.

Does the conscience still rise up and condemn?

Like most everyone else in the nation, I’ve been watching the sad story of New York’s governor and the way he’s made a mockery of the vows he took at inauguration, not to mention the vows he made to his wife. Does his conscience trouble him? I can't answer that. Only the Spirit can see this, cut through spin and carefully crafted statements for the media. But here’s the thing: modern understandings of maturity aside, most people would say his conscience should bother him.

We still know there’s a conscience and even if it’s been numbed, there are moments when it ought to writhe with that old affliction we know as guilt. Guilt isn’t a psychological shackle that someone else imposed on us. Guilt is God’s gift because it has a way of prodding us, nudging us to the cross of Jesus.

“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
( Robert Lowry, “Nothing But the Blood,” pub. 1876)

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