Why You Don’t Have a Conscience
We all want to “do the right thing.”
We want to make ethically and morally sound decisions. (Most of the time.)
But how do we know what the right thing to do is? How do we decide?
Most of us rely on vague intuition mixed with general social pressure.
We basically try to do what everyone else does.
Some of us have a highly developed inner moral voice that cracks the whip and dangles us over the fiery flames of hell.
This usually comes from early (sometimes abusive) religious training that focused more on strict and rigid moral codes than God’s loving forgiveness.
Most people “do the right thing” out of shame, wanting to be liked, or fear of punishment.
That doesn’t seem like a very sound foundation for living a good life, especially one that abounds with joy, peace, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.
As Christians we rely on conscience to help us make moral choices.
But most of us have not taken the time as mature adults to reexamine whatever childhood images we had of “the still small voice.”
Conscience is not just the internalized voice of the parent or the authority figure. That’s a child’s vision of conscience.
It’s a good place to start—we all learn how to care for other people by coming up against structure and boundaries as children.
But moral decision-making as adults should have a spiritual character deeper than a memorized set of rules.
(And many times, those most obsessed with “the rules” use them mostly to build up their own power and beat others down with shame.)
So how do we explore conscience as adult actors in a moral universe?
Jesus did a lot of ethical teaching. Most of his commandments were directed at how we live together and how to treat one another.
Pray for your enemies and do good to those who persecute you. Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus provides us with a set of ethical principles to follow in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
But Paul is the other great ethical teacher of the New Testament, and he recommends a rather shockingly situational ethics.
Our passage from 1 Corinthians today has nothing to do with principles.
He does not propose deciding what to do ahead of time and sticking to it.
He says you should get the lay of the land in the situation as you find it, and then do whatever works best.
That’s moral relativism at its finest.
People who want absolute truth in all things—and think the Bible teaches absolute truth—are in for a rude awakening if they read Paul carefully.
Absolute moral principle would require Paul to say either, “Do eat food given to idols, no matter what,” or “Don’t eat food given to idols, no matter what.”
But he doesn’t say that at all. He says, “Decide in the moment whether to eat food given to idols. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.”
How’s that for ethically grounded moral decision-making?
But we can’t dismiss Paul as a simple salesman preaching, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
He’s actually preaching a radically community-oriented moral code that is deeply rooted in the concept of the Body of Christ as the life of the believer.
Because notice that Paul doesn’t say, “Eat the idol’s food if you’re hungry.”
He encourages the reader to make a choice based on whatever is best for the other person.
This is what is so fascinating about Paul’s moral teaching. His foundational principle is located outside himself, in the well-being of the other.
That’s so different from our usual self-centered approach to conscience.
For generations we have wanted to do the right thing so we, as individuals, could make God happy and get into heaven. It’s all about us and our ultimate destination for the afterlife.
Paul couldn’t care less about getting into heaven.
He wants to know how he can best help the other person in the situation when he has to make a moral decision, right here and now.
And so we have to rethink our approach to conscience altogether.
It’s not about some noble inner mandate that helps us stand alone against the world (although that may happen).
Neither is it about checking off boxes on some moral rectitude scorecard.
We can’t approach ethics from a long list of predetermined rules.
Paul is asking us—and I think this is revolutionary—to locate our conscience outside ourselves.
For Paul, conscience is located in the community.
Its voice speaks to us from the Body of Christ. Isn’t that amazing?
We think of conscience as this private, internal sphere, totally confined to us as individuals.
But Paul is calling us to listen to conscience speaking from the community, from the other, from our neighbor.
For Paul, conscience essentially is the needs of the person right in front of him. I think that’s world-changing.
Paul prioritizes observing and giving strength to the weak, or rather, in the area where someone is weak.
I think we mostly think of conscience in terms of our own weaknesses. We know very well where we’re most likely to fall prey to temptation to sin, and we hyperfocus our attention on those areas, trying to firm up the voice of conscience into a drill sergeant or prison warden.
But Paul doesn’t care about his own weaknesses.
He’s more interested in caring for others in their weakness.
So let’s think about how we might pursue that in our own lives.
Where are the people around you weak? Where do they suffer? Where do they stray from the path of love, joy, and forgiveness?
Paul would suggest that the shortest road to a moral life is placing our attention outside ourselves, and doing whatever we can to make the path easier for someone else.
That is a radically community-oriented approach to ethics, and I love it.
It’s not about me, it’s about how I can care for someone else.
And it creates the possibility to tailor my response to the needs of the person right in front of me.
Paul’s blithe disregard for hard and fast principles might seem risky and unsafe for those of us who love a rulebook that we can consult (*raises hand sheepishly*).
But it harmonizes perfectly with suborning our own self-centered individualism to the greater good, the deeper health, the thriving life of the whole Body of Christ.
And it also is a further, situational working out of Jesus’ original commands to care for the outcast, the outsider, the poor, and our enemies.
So what would it be like to stop hunting for the voice of conscience inside ourselves, and instead look for it in our community?
What would it be like to make the health and well-being of the whole Body of Christ, as represented by the one person right in front of us right now, our final and ultimate ethical principle?
For one thing, it gets rid of a lot of navel-gazing.
And it binds us to the community with a new strength and intimacy.
If I am paying attention closely enough to the people around me to understand where they are weak and thinking about how I might surround them with support in those places, I am really plugged into their lives.
And what an amazing gift it would be to me to know that the people around me are tending to my weaknesses with the same attention to detail and faithful devotion.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” Paul says in our lesson today.
It’s not about knowing the right thing to do.
It’s about loving the right thing to do, or, to put it another way, love is always the right thing to do.
You don’t actually have a conscience.
Your community has your conscience.
So listen for the still small voice in the needs of your neighbor.
Then, when the moment of decision comes, you’ll know what to do.
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