Seminary Viewpoints

Your GPS is Broken: How to Navigate Life With a Fallible Conscience

Sam Horn | September 21, 2018
Viewpoint Blog

In January, 2016 there was a major issue with some of the GPS satellites. A miscalculated time resulted in satellites becoming out of sync. The timing was off by microseconds, yet that is all it takes for GPS positioning to begin failing.

Though this particular situation was quickly resolved within 24 hours of the initial miscalculation, it raised interesting questions. What if our GPS system fails? Can GPS be trusted? What can we rely on to get where we need to go? In short, being of by microseconds could have resulted in catastrophic consequences including the loss of life. So, keeping the Global Positioning System properly synchronized is an immensely important matter – and so is the proper synchronization of our conscience.

In our earlier discussion we have noted that our conscience is fallible—it isn’t always right when it speaks. This is true because, like all other parts of our nature, our conscience was affected by the corruption of sin and the Fall. Thankfully, through the influence of the Holy Spirit our conscience, when properly calibrated and synchronized to the Scripture, becomes a necessary and essential guide for godly living. However, even though our conscience can and is helped by the transforming influence of the Holy Spirit, it can at times fail. Here are two ways that this is true.

Two ways your conscience can misguide us:

1. By causing us to experience guilt when doing something good.

Your conscience accuses or excuses (defends) us by measuring our actions, words, thoughts, and motives against a standard formed by information it believes is true and authoritative over us. As long as the information it is using as the benchmark is correct and relevant to the situation, our conscience is reliable. However, what happens when the action we do is biblically correct or permissible but our conscience says it is bad? We feel guilt.

For example, a person whose standard has been misaligned to overvalue work might feel needless guilt about taking a vacation. In a ministry setting, a person may feel guilty for reading or using several good Bible translations because of a particular upbringing or teaching they have received that limits good Bible translations to one. Missionaries may feel guilt when, for the sake of the gospel in a different culture, they lay aside certain preferences that were taught almost as moral obligations.

So at times our conscience may cause us to feel guilt for something that is actually permissible and even advisable in the light of Scripture. I imagine that Titus may have struggled with Paul’s command to remain uncircumcised given his upbringing. Or perhaps there were believers in Galatia whose conscience condemned them for violating Old Testament food laws. In both cases, such guilt might be real, but it would not be in sync with God’s actual requirements or in line with His will in those particular circumstances.

2. By allowing us to experiencing peace when doing something bad.

Many times we justify our actions and decisions by observing that “we have peace” about them. In a sense, “having peace” functions as the apparent feeling of divine approval when our conscience is quiet. In reality, this silence may simply be the result of a calloused heart. As callouses are built, feeling decreases. So as someone continually sins against their conscience, the feeling of guilt may dissipate. Jeremiah saw such a condition in Jerusalem.

“We’re they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 6:15).

Sometimes, though, we may not feel guilty because of ignorance. Many believers can attest to this. After conversion, sometimes it can take months before a bad habit becomes apparent. Something that was a regular part of daily life, once they became a Christian and began to understand God’s will, they eventually realized it needed to stop. Sometimes it takes repeated, regular reading of God’s Word to alert us to the fact that God is not pleased with a particular area of our life, be it our external behavior or our internal motivation. A silent conscience does not always mean a clean conscience, any more than the lack of feeling guilty means we are not actually guilty of a particular violation of God’s moral or ethical expectation. Neither ignorance nor ignoring is equal to innocence.

This should be a warning to all of us. Just because we feel good about something does not mean that it is a good thing to do. We have a flesh that is alive and active and it will do whatever it can to justify whatever it likes. If our conscience is silent, we will even begin to lack wisdom in neutral matters.

God uses what is broken.

If you’ve read this much, maybe you’re discouraged. That’s understandable. But there really is hope in this message: God uses what is broken. Just because something is broken does not mean that it is useless. In fact, God has a divine purpose for using broken things. Everything on this earth is fallen, yet God in his sovereignty is using those things for his glory. For example, there is nothing higher and more important to God than His name, yet God has tasked broken people to spread the fame of His name across the globe.

Though our conscience is not impeccable, it can still function to the glory of God when it is properly calibrated to God’s infallible Word. This means that it is of utmost importance that we study and know what God has really said about a matter, as opposed to what we think He said or even what we wish He has said. It is extremely dangerous to ignore our conscience, but it is equally dangerous to bind our conscience in ways that go beyond what God has actually written and mandated in His Word. So what should we do with our conscience when it speaks to us?

Two things you should always do in regards to your conscience:

1. Listen to your conscience.

If the GPS says turn, then turn. If you conscience is speaking, listen. Though your conscience may wrongly think something is sin, if you do what you think is a sin, even if it is not really a sin, you would be committing sin. This is true not because the action itself was sinful but because we chose to do it when we believed it to be sinful (Rom 14:23). Confused yet? All trespass involves an intentional choice to step over a boundary we believe exists. It is the decision to step over a boundary that comes out of our sinfulness. The sin comes into play because we made a conscience decision to go against a boundary we believed to be commanded by God.

So, until we are fully convinced that God did not really establish the boundary, we should strive to keep a clean conscience. Paul proudly testified before the Sanhedrin, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1). In the next chapter Paul says how he “always takes pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16). It’s clearly a priority.

But there is also something incredibly important tied to this first point. Since what we think is right might be wrong, we need to constantly think critically about how we think. More specifically, we need to measure our thinking against the clear teaching of Scripture.

2. Yield your conscience to God’s Word.

You may need to re-route. As we form opinions about certain actions, it is important that we evaluate (and reevaluate) our convictions with Scripture. The Scriptures are the only valid justification for our priorities and practices. What God has said is more important than how we feel. So when the two are at odds, God’s Word needs to win every time.

This is perhaps best illustrated in Acts 10:13-15.

“And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’”

Peter held a strong conviction to not eat meat. Eating meat was something that he would whole-heatedly say the Lord wanted him to avoid. Yet Peter was confronted with something new. Truth that he had not yet know became apparent through the Word of God. Likewise, when we are confronted with Scripture, it is our obligation to submit and reshape our standards until our conscience and life is in sync with the will of God.

Diligently study and submit to God’s Word.

All of this leads to one final exhortation. If the performance of our conscience is reliant on the Word of God, then it is of upmost importance that we diligently study and submit to God’s Word. If we want to think rightly and live biblically, we need a renewed mind. We need the quick and powerful Word of God to pierce deep and transform us.

When you study, it’s not just about looking for words and commands. Seek to know your immutable and holy God through those words. For when we know Him, we know how to live.

“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).