“To sit alone with my conscience, will be judgment enough for me.”
--C. W. Stubbs (1876)
What is this thing called “conscience”? And what did I ever do to it, that would make it want to torment me so?
Let’s begin our investigation with the Greek verb synoida (sue NOI dah), which means “to know with,” especially in the sense of “sharing guilty knowledge.” If you know something bad and I know it with you, we have fulfilled the original sense of the word. This was the use of the word when greedy Ananias withheld that money from God, and his wife Sapphira “knew it with him” (Acts 5: 2) .
Now let’s carry this a step further. I can “share guilty knowledge” all by myself! God has made me a thinking, knowing creature--something unlike any of the animals--in that I have self-awareness. I can argue with myself; I am conscious of myself. I can even think about myself thinking about myself!
For the early Greeks this “knowing with yourself” was a painful thing. The conscience was nearly always seen in a negative light, since its purpose was to “stab, jab, and torment” (Philo). When the conscience was once awakened, it came forth “as accuser; it indicts, charges and shames.” (Maybe this is more a sad commentary on human nature, than on the nature of this live-in judge!)
But in the New Testament the concept of conscience takes a giant leap forward. Through baptism we can appeal to God for a clear conscience (1 Pet 3:21) and be sure that Jesus’ blood will cleanse our conscience from the deadness of our former ways (Heb 9:14). Furthermore, this marvelous clean conscience is not just for a few sinless saints--every deacon in the church is expected to have one! (1 Tim 3:9). God’s grace has made a whole new ballgame out of the conscience situation!
So let love spring forth from your clean heart and good con¬science (1 Tim 1:5). Remember the sacrifice of Christ and say confidently with Heb 13:18, “We know that our conscience is clear.” And then--dare I say it?--defy the fear of the victorian poet, and be glad to “sit alone with your conscience.”