One of the worst aspects of the disease we call leprosy today is the effect it has on nerves. People with leprosy often stop feeling pain in their extremities. Now, we typically think of pain as a bad thing—but really it is a gift from God. It lets us know when something is wrong with our bodies so that we act to stop further damage and start the healing process. Without pain, cuts and infections go uncared for and can turn into life-threatening problems.
I know a little bit about what it’s like to be insensitive to pain. When I was a college freshman, I was thrown out of a car and slid about 125 yards down highway asphalt. To this day, the middle of my back is covered in scar tissue and can’t feel anything. It’s totally desensitized.
Conscience, like pain, functions to tell us when something is wrong. It alerts us when we are doing damage to our convictions. And like pain, we can become desensitized toward our consciences if we aren’t careful (2 Timothy 4:1-2). So when it comes to the issue of Christian liberty, one of the questions we need to ask is, “Will this train me to ignore my conscience?”
As human beings, we have the law of God written in our hearts from birth (Romans 2:14-15). There is a foundational sense of right and wrong built into the human mind.
Of course, this inborn moral sense is conditioned and to some degree misinformed by a person’s culture and religious background. What offends one person’s conscience may leave someone else totally unbothered. Additionally, our conscience is not a list of distinct rules; it is a mechanism triggered by our sense of morality. It is a skylight letting in the illumination of whatever ethical systems we subscribe to.
You can destroy yourself by having the wrong set of moral convictions. But you can also destroy yourself by training your conscience to ignore those convictions. It is very important not to ignore your conscience because over time you will become less and less sensitive to it, and eventually you will no longer be able to tell when something is wrong.
Paul talks about the importance of heeding conscience in his epistle to the Romans:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:1-3)
It is important to understand the context of what Paul is saying. In the Roman church, there were people coming to Christ out of Gentile backgrounds, and there were also people coming to Christ out of Jewish backgrounds. The Gentile believers wouldn’t have been bothered in the slightest by a ham sandwich because their background hadn’t conditioned them to abide by kosher laws. But if a Jewish person came to saving faith one day, you couldn’t feed him a ham sandwich the next day. Even though he was now free in his diet, he had lived his whole life avoiding certain foods, and eating them would prick his conscience.
Gentile believers would have brought their own baggage with them in their consciences. A Gentile man who grew up with idolatry, where meat sacrificed to idols was eaten in connection with orgies and blasphemous activities, would probably gag on that same meat after being saved, even though there was nothing inherently sinful about it.
There are a lot of scenarios where someone’s conscience hasn’t yet had time to fully conform to a biblical set of convictions. These people, the “weak in faith” that Paul talks about, don’t yet understand their freedoms in Christ. They don’t feel free to eat all things. So Paul says that each person should abide by his own conscience:
The one who eats, does so with regard to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and the one who does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat, and he gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:6)
We should never do anything that violates our consciences, even if our consciences are stricter than the Bible requires. If you were raised to believe that certain things are wrong, even though the Bible offers freedom in that area, it is good to avoid pricking your conscience. If you don’t, you’ll train yourself to ignore your sense of right and wrong—which can be very dangerous.
If this is you, be patient. You will grow with time. In time, as you are being transformed by Scripture, your conscience will shift to become more faithful to the Bible. Eventually, you may enjoy freedoms that you currently don’t have. But in the meantime, respect your conscience.
Next time, we will examine how those with stronger consciences can use their freedom to serve fellow believers and those who do not know Christ.
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