Thursday, July 28, 2005

Let Your Conscience Be your Guide? Not Exactly

I am in the process of working on a commentary on the Pastorals and the Johannine Epistles both in one volume. While dealing with the latter I was looking at 1 Jn. 3.19-20 today -- "This is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence, whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything."

I came across a wonderful passage in a commentary by William Loader on the Johannine Epistles (pp. 43-44) on this text where he stresses that the writer of 1 John....

"assumes conscience [or heart] may deceive in much the same way as feelings may deceive. Faith means trusting in God’s love and making ourselves available for its action despite what we may feel. Faith cannot be based on feelings. Nor should its criterion of authenticity be absence of struggle. A troubled conscience or mind may coexist with a life of faith. By shifting the basis for confidence from human feelings and inner harmony to hard faith facts about God and behaviour, the author is boycotting a common religious trend, then and now, to make inner human experiences the criteria of spirituality…. It would [also] be wrong to read this passage as devaluing conscience or our thoughts and feelings altogether. They may be a guide, but their quality as guide will be determined by the quality of person who is being guided. The author is not operating with an idealistic notion of conscience as somehow representing the voice of God within….He operates rather with the notion that our thoughts and feelings are part of our own system of awareness which may be misinformed and misguided. There is also a touch of realism in the author’s obvious appreciation that Christians may well at times have to struggle with unresolved tensions within their personalities which have their origin somewhere other than God. There is a profound comfort in the assurance that God is greater than our conscience and knows all (3.20), because this God is the God of love and compassion and may be trusted."

This passage has many insights to be contemplated but I will share just three: 1) a troubled conscience may at times be a good thing (a sign that one is deeply concerned about an injustice), it may at times be a bad thing (a sign of something done wrong), but it is not an infallible thing. The Bible never suggests--- "let your conscience be your guide" or "to your own heart be true". The problem with this sort of advice is that our hearts or minds or consciences are just as fallen and prone to error as our feelings. 2) There are times when persons struggle with being sure they are Christians. They wrestle with feelings of not being good enough, and the like. This text should be a great comfort. God has the trump card--- he can over-rule your feelings or tender conscience and reassure you that you are in right relationship with God even if it does not feel that way; 3)the quality of the conscience depends on the character of the person in whom it resides, and just how sanctified that person truly is. Sometimes mass murderers sleep just fine at night, with no qualms of conscience. Sometimes some Christians have a weak conscience, and find offense in any little thing. Notice how Paul says that the overly scrupulous person in 1 Cor. 8-10 is the Christian who is weak in faith. In either case the conscience is not a good barometer of the truth or what is right. This is why at the end of the day the author of 1 John stresses that we must trust God and place our trust in the Gospel message, not trust ourselves as the last arbiters of truth, right, "and the godly way" and finally 4) the Pauline rule, whatever is not of faith, is sin for you, is a good one, when one is wrestling with one's conscience. As faulty as the conscience may be, it is sometimes a good nagging voice that approves or disapproves what you are contemplating doing. You should listen to the voice, but not give it the final say. That belongs to God and God's Word.


J. B. Hood said...

"...the conscience is not a good barometer of the truth or what is right. This is why at the end of the day the author of 1 John stresses that we must trust God and place our trust in the Gospel message, not trust ourselves as the last arbiters of truth, right, 'and the godly way'..."

I like what you've said but I don't think it is what John is saying. In context, he seems to say we assure our hearts (and of course God helps in this process) by the evidence of our faith in care for others that mirrors God's love for us, which seems clear to me in I Jn 3:16-18. Shouldn't these preceding verses control our exegesis of I Jn 3:19-20? Same theme as in Matt 25:31-46, James 2:14-24, Luke 16:19-31? "How do I know I'm truly a person of faith in Christ, member of the covenant community (in Lk 16), not merely one in name only?"

Just my thoughts. What do you think, BWiii?

Ben Witherington said...

I think that your view is based on a mistranslation of a couple of key elements in the text. The verb peitho means persuade or convince or even satisfy, it does not mean reassure. The text is about God about God confirming to the person that indeed they should feel guilty about not helping a person in need (see vs. 18), and so God's vote overrules the lethargy of the troubled conscience. This is why the prayer passage comes next. The person who is not helping those in need feels a bit guilty about it and so goes to God in prayer. He takes the matter into the presence of God while wrestling with his conscience/heart. In that process God persuades him that he needs to do something, needs to verify the truth is in his life by loving his brother.

Chris Tilling said...

'18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.'

I, too, have drawn great comfort from this verse. However, re-reading it, I am caused to wonder if I have understood it correctly. Is not the specific thing God knows here (that convinces our conscience), our love 'in truth and action'. If this is so, then when our hearts condemn us we should remember that God knows all our loving actions (but I don't mean actions in the sense of works-as-opposed-to-faith). So, although we can affirm that God's knowing of all things (and specifically here my love in truth and action) is meant as an encouragement here, is not the basis for this persuasion our own love? Thus, when you write that the message here is 'that we must trust God and place our trust in the Gospel message, not trust ourselves', could you not be accused of glossing over the impact of vs. 18? Is not a slight qualification in order here, or am I misunderstanding you or the text?

At your rate, you will soon have a commentary published on every book of the NT, and that is not to mention all of the subject specific monographs! Don't you get worn out?!

J. B. Hood said...

Thanks for the response. Maybe I didn't explain myself well. I was aiming to point up the importance of our own actions (love in deeds for those in need) in proving who we are ("of the truth"), which of course is what you mentioned in your response. Seems to flow well with 3:21-23 as well; 16-18 serves then as a tangible example of loving a brother.

I just didn't catch any reference to taking care of the poor in your initial blog (though that's not what it was about, so I probably shouldn't have brought it up!), and it seemed important in the text. I've got stewardship, the poor, etc. on the brain--sorry to spew!

Ben Myers said...

"Preacher was a talkin', there's a sermon he gave,
He said every man's conscience is vile and depraved,
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must keep it satisfied.
It ain't easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat...."

-- Bob Dylan, "Man in the Long Black Coat"

Sharad Yadav said...

This quote really resonated with me, since so much of the spirituality I've inherited from evangelicalism is outlined in precisely the terms Loader decries. In fact I just posted some of my own wrestling with these issues on my blog when I stumbled across this post! It would be interesting to hear some more of your thoughts in this regard. Thanks again for sharing your reflections!

Jeremy Pierce said...

Just curious -- is this commentary in the Socio-Rhetorical series, in some other series, or just a stand-alone? Also, what was the reasoning behind treating the Johannines with the Pastorals together? I believe this is the first time that's ever been done.

Emily J. said...

I think the comments here say a lot: it is impossible to truly know God's intentions, in part because He is just so unknowable, but in part because the Bible and every single word in it are open to interpretation. This is especially true when the Bible has been translated and when so many years have passed and so many word nuances have changed. So while there are lots of obvious and pretty clear cut teachings in the Bible, people have to have something else to help us understand what God would wish us to do in many not-so-clear-cut situations. And that something else, I believe, is the conscience.

Wyatt Roberts said...

I'm no scholar, but bt's seems to me that what the author is saying in that passage is simply that a life characterized by actions, rather than good intentions, is what allows us to "know" we belong to him and are in Christ. If we do not act, we are not His. "Faith, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2: 16). The author reaffirms this idea when he writes:

"[W]e have confidence in the presence of God...because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing to him. Now this is his commandment: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love (action) one another, just as he gave us the commandment. And the person who keeps his commandments resides in God, and God in him. Now by this we know that God resides in us: by the Spirit he has given us."

Or is that too simplistic a view?