Several years ago I was talking to someone about a particular issue. He kept saying he wanted to let his conscience be his guide. I said that that was good provided the conscience was properly formed. What did I mean by that? Coming later this summer will be a book from the late Chuck Colson, My Final Word. It is a compilation of unpublished material from memos and other material that was prepared for his radio show BreakPoint but never made its way onto the show. The following is titled “A Stern Monitor.” He expresses exactly what I was getting at by a conscience properly formed.
“So often these days we hear the phrase, let your conscience be your guide. And maybe some of you parents have told that to your kids. If you have, it’s the worst advice you can possibly give them.
In this relativistic era, we interpret conscience to be a matter of our feelings, how we feel about certain things. But anybody who has done any counseling at a church or anywhere else knows that you will have people come to you, describe some horrible transgression, and then say, ‘Well, I really felt I was doing the right thing.’
I learned from my White House days that the human capacity for self-justification and self-rationalization is infinite. We really know how to make ourselves feel good about doing bad.
So what is conscience? How do we know it’s going to be a reliable guide for us?
The famous British cleric Cardinal John Henry Newman called conscience ‘a stern monitor.’ This means our conscience is not, as philosopher Russell Hittinger put it, ‘the writer of permission slips.’ Conscience is that part of our psyche which holds in focus what is objectively good and what is objectively bad, and it restrains the human passions from doing what is bad, and guides it to do what is right.
Notice he uses the word objective. The etymology of conscience is in the Latin—conscienta, which means ‘with knowledge.’
So what we do in raising children, or in building our own character, is to steep ourselves in what the moral law is. As Christians, we steep ourselves in biblical teaching for the purpose of informing our conscience.
This is not an overnight process; this is something that is done on a long-term basis. You’ve got to start with kids when they’re four and five years old, and work with them until they’re in their teens, and then keep reminding them. Adults must reflect on various moral issues, and read and study and pray so that we know what is right, and then develop the will to do it.
Developing the will to do what our conscience tells us is, of course, another matter. That is, shaping our character so that the distorted human will, perverted as it is away from good and toward evil, is bent back toward good. That’s what we mean by developing character, developing the will to do what is right. But the conscience comes first. You have to know what it is.
Let your conscience be your guide? Okay—but only if it is informed by what is true.” (pp. 71-72. The quote and page numbers are from an advanced reading copy. It may vary from the final copy.)
Watch for this in August from Zondervan. My Final Word will be a paperback with 240 pages and sell for $19.99.
Anne Morse is the compiler. She is a freelance writer who spent 18 years collaborating with Chuck Colson on BreakPoint commentaries, Jubilee and Christianity Today columns, and books. She is also author of Prisoner of Conscience with Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia.