We were taught that our conscience would show us the difference between right and wrong. We learned that our conscience would show us what we did wrong. (There’s often a difference between what we were taught and what we learned.) Our conscience became our condemning judge. Unless we learned to ignore it or deceive it, we grew up being shamed by our own thinking.
The conscience is simply our awareness of moral or spiritual condition. The Greek word (syneidesis) means to “see the same”. It is the idea of awareness, reflection, or even consciousness. Theoretically, my conscience should allow me to see things as they are. If something is wrong, my conscience should tell me. If something is acceptable for me, my conscience should tell me that.
But it doesn’t work that way. Instead of the simple knowledge of good and evil our ancestors thought they would pass on to us, they actually gave us a memory system that imprinted patterns on our soul. This system, which the Scripture calls the “flesh,” accumulates experiences and information and forms response patterns based on what it has learned. The flesh is the self-protection system we learned to deal with life apart from the Lord.
The conscience is part of the flesh. The conscience is what you and I learned for the purpose of determining right and wrong. We learned from our parents, from the rest of the world’s influence, and from our own experiences. When we did one thing and a subsequent bad thing happened, we connected the two and learned not to do the first thing. When we tried something else and received positive results, we learned that the new activity would bring pleasure.
But there is a problem! We are not wise enough to understand the indirect connections and sin is an active force in deceiving us. For example, many people took up smoking because of the positives. They found acceptance in a smoking community, a relaxing activity, and a short-term health benefit in the weight loss. They did not understand the long-term negative health consequences and there was a force at work to keep the knowledge of those consequences from them. Even today, when the positives of smoking are rarely uttered and the negatives get all the publicity, smokers remain convinced of the positives.
Of course, there are all kinds of examples. You see, the flesh reflects the brokenness of our world. We lack wisdom and we lack both the desire and the ability to do good consistently. Our conscience has been formed in a laboratory of evil and compromise. Like everything else in our lives and in this world, the conscience is broken through sin.