The June ‘Brexit’ vote not only propelled Theresa May into Downing Street, but brought another lady into prominence.
Gina Millar successfully challenged the Government’s plan in the Supreme Court. Subjected to fierce criticism for her action, she defended herself by saying, ‘What’s the point of having a conscience if you never use it?’ By ‘use it,’ I presume she meant, ‘obey it’. In the ensuing House of Commons debate Ken Clarke, among others, protested that they must ignore party allegiance, and vote in obedience to their conscience.
But what is this mysterious thing which we all feel we must obey in times of acute moral crisis? The word means ‘to know with’; and refers to that inner tribunal that makes its presence felt when we behave badly.
While it is always wrong to act against conscience, we must not imagine that conscience is infallible. The New Testament tells us that it is possible to have a ‘weak conscience’( 1 Corinthians 8;10-11)one which is overly sensitive. The great John Bunyan was afflicted with such a conscience, suffering pangs of guilt for having played a game of ‘tip cat’ and ringing a church-bell on the Sabbath Day.
The person who glibly asserts ‘I always follow my conscience’, ignores two considerations. First, that person forgets that conscience can be misinformed. Just as computer results can be wrong if the wrong information is fed in , so conscience can be mistaken.
A conscience that is not informed by God’s standards can easily be used to justify questionable actions. In such cases ,conscience is sometimes an accomplice to our selfish wills, rather than a guide.
Secondly, he forgets that conscience can too easily become defective.
The New testament refers to consciences that are ‘defiled’ and ‘seared’(1 Timothy 4:2 and Titus 1; 15). The voice of conscince can easily be stilled through selfish behaviour.
A North American Indian described conscience as ‘a little three-cornered thing inside of me.’ When he did wrong, he said, it turned and hurt him. But when he kept doing wrong its corners wore off, and it hurt him no longer.
The surest way to a healthy conscience is to adapt the prayer Jesus prayed for his disciples; ‘Make me holy by your Word; your Word is truth.’(john 17;17). A conscience so informed is one we can reliably obey.