How to heal a guilty conscience

Following God’s leading can sometimes be tricky and there are some pitfalls to avoid. One such pitfall is learning to distinguish between your conscience and God’s prompting.

In one situation you have a pastor who preaches how we need to be evangelizing more to other countries. A couple weeks later a church member says, “I feel like God’s telling me to go to Africa.” This person may not want to go to Africa at all. Now although this can indeed be God’s leading it can also be a convicted conscience that feels guilty for not doing enough and in fact God may have a totally different plan.

Your conscience and God’s voice are not the same thing. There are times where God has different opinions than your conscience. While the conscience is often a source of good, sometimes it can be a source of wrongful guilt.

Take Peter.

Acts 10:14-15 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

The transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant brought several new freedoms which the jews had a hard time adapting to. They were now allowed to eat meat, even meat that had been sacrificed to idols, they were allowed to associate with gentiles, they didn’t have to observe religious feasts, washings, special days, or continue to purity rituals or animal sacrifices.

They had been brought up since childhood obeying these old covenant commandments rigorously and suddenly they had been given so much freedom they were uncomfortable with it. God’s voice pulled them out of their guilty consciences into deeper freedom.

1 Corinthians 10:29 “For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?”

Paul has recognized that God has made him perfectly pure and righteous that he no longer needed to rely on human rituals and rules to continue making him righteous. That was offensive to others who felt they need to follow those rules and obligations. So he called us to respect each other’s differences.

Romans 14:1-2, 5-6, 20 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables… 

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…

All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.

The problem exists today

These problems were not only for back then. Often times we are brought up in homes that are too strict or churches that are too religious and we must retrain our consciences to accept the freedom we have in Christ. Your church may not allow drinking, dancing, watching certain movies, have a strict definition of sexual purity, etc…

In the church we have many “disputable matters.” It is ok and good to allow yourself to have different opinions than your church. To learn to make godly decisions and face the consequences thereof that are different than what your church or family believes. This is a normal part of maturing as a human.

Later when Peter was associating with gentiles. Some jews from his old culture arrived. He felt the guilt for his freedom and fear of their judgement in associating with the gentiles and backed off. Paul encouraged him to continue strong in his faith and freedom even when his conscience was against him.

Galatians 5:1-3 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.”

The process of growing in freedom can be messy and often we struggle with our consciences. The important part is that our love for God remains strong and our faith in him and his unconditional grace that will forgive us even when we go to far or make mistakes.

It’s not only important to retrain our consciences for the sake of freedom but also for the sake of being useful and honoring to God. Paul describes works that are made of straw or works that are made with gold. Hebrews, Romans, and Corinthians suggest that an overly strict conscience may lead us to do works which God doesn’t care about or worse yet are offensive to God. This is especially true of the old rituals of the mosaic law. We don’t want to waste our energy and effort in things that don’t provide much value to God’s new world.

Conscience seared as with a hot iron

1 Timothy 4:2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.

We often attribute this verse to a person who is so engulfed in sin that they have no ability to feel remorse and grow in ever increasing evil. But actually this verse is about the opposite scenario.

1 Timothy 4:3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods

Paul’s warning is that their consciences are so wrongfully guilt-ful they call even good things bad. They’re hypocritical, teaching standards they can’t uphold themselves and so entrenched in man-made rules that their consciences can no longer see correctly.

Colossians 2:23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

It’s important to challenge our consciences grow in true Christ centered freedom, unlearn some of the negative or overly burdening rules of our past and do our best to follow the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and leading.

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