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It has struck me that I must have failed somewhere in my attempts to teach people to recognise and follow what we call our conscience.

We have talked about obeying God in terms of principles laid out in the teachings of Jesus, and we have warned against the deceptions of a "social conscience"* as opposed to what God wants. But in between these two concepts is a genuine inbuilt alarm system that God has given to us which can tell us when we are doing something immoral, unethical, or dishonest.
(*We are not referring to concern about social injustices, but rather to doing good only because of what others will think of us.)

Generally speaking, this alarm is more or less a "silent system". In other words, it's a very "still, small voice" that we need to be listening very carefully for, if we are to hear it.

If we ignore the alarm, the still small voice appears to disappear; but a screaming siren of a different sort often takes its place.

The problem is that, having initially ignored the still small voice, most people just see the siren as a nuisance, and it is only those around you who are bothered by the siren. This siren produces acute anxiety in place of the original conviction, which we have ignored for so long. For someone looking on, the anxiety seems to be clear warning that something is seriously wrong with the alarm system; but for the person suffering anxiety, it is difficult to find a satisfying explanation for it.

I'll explain it in another way. You have an angel on one shoulder whispering in your ear and telling you when you have done something wrong. But you have a devil on the other shoulder, who appeals to your pride and tells you that you must defend yourself when you are criticised. The angel tries to point out the truth in the criticism, but the devil tries to get you to defend yourself against the criticism. The devil may allow you to give lip service to some bits of truth... especially if he sees that there will be punishment from the group if you don't own up to them. But on the whole, the devil doesn't want you to get serious about changing. He won't give an inch unless clearly pressured to do so.

Criticism usually is aimed at getting you to change something. But the devil will point to all the ways you have changed in the past, and give you strong arguments to show that you are humble, teachable, sincere, and just generally good enough that you don't really need to make further changes.

All of this has the effect of making the criticism seem unfair, and the anxiety justified.

Yet the anxiety comes because the criticism threatens to expose a "blind spot". The blind spot often is nothing more than your pride. But often, anyone with a bit of common sense can see that you behave irrationally whenever someone gets too close to the truth about a blind spot. It is your irrationality that most convincingly proves the existence of the blind spot. It just takes gentle probing around the borders of the blind spot (e.g. your ego or self-image) to keep getting the same irrational reactions and defensiveness, which work together to destroy your conscience.

It is the job of a Christian counsellor (or team of counsellors) to first locate the blind spot through patient questioning, and then to bring this blind spot to the attention of the person suffering from it. It is not easy; but until it is accomplished, the true conscience will remain buried under it. Remember, the true conscience wants to tell you the truth about yourself, and your need to change; but listening to the devil has taught you to run from the truth, and to create a false self-image which must be defended, lest the true conscience come back to life and the devil be destroyed. If you are going to change at all, it will only be when you are forced to do so. All of this comes from lying to yourself.

If you read Gandhi's autobiography, you will see that he was very sensitive about telling the truth in his childhood. I had a similar attitude toward telling the truth when I was young. However, as I grew older, I realised that it was necessary at times to hide the truth from people (often for their own good). So I developed the teaching about being "honest about our dishonesty". I think that even Gandhi may have missed that aspect of honesty, thus deceiving himself into thinking that he was more honest than he really was. But the main point is that, we must do our utmost to never ever lie to ourselves or to God. For each time we do that, we create a blind spot in our personality which can easily spread to other blind spots, until it has destroyed our whole personality, and made total fruit cakes out of us.

Systemites do this all the time; so that they are all crazy to some degree. They have run away from all kinds of uncomfortable truths, leaving many of them free to only carry on very basic animal-like functions from day to day. They cannot face up to important subjects like death, God, and the teachings of Jesus. It has caused them to turn to myths like money, evolution, and selfishness to stuff in the gaps in their understanding of life.

For religious people like ourselves the replacement for the truths we have shut out is self-righteousness of one sort or another.

Basically, our conscience tells us when we are doing something wrong, or even when we are getting close to doing something wrong. But we need to "practise" listening to it. Practise thinking about things that you have done wrong, or things that you feel a little uncomfortable about spiritually. Practise thinking about whether or not you are applying the same principles to others that you apply to yourself, and vice versa. If you haven't already done so, practise opening up to someone (preferably someone you can trust deeply with such secrets) about things you have done wrong in the past. Practise going to people and confessing things (even very little things) that you have done wrong recently and gotten away with. In conversation practise listening to your conscience, asking it if you are being totally fair and honest in your responses and criticisms. Especially practise listening to your conscience when someone is criticising you, to see if there isn't some truth in the criticism.

You may need to stuff a sock in the mouth of the devil who is telling you that the criticism is too harsh, that it exaggerates some things, etc. But if you will do it, you will start to discover a spiritual freedom and confidence that you never had before.

It may help to understand that the social conscience and the true conscience are closely linked. The social conscience does the "right thing" as defined by the group, whether it be society as a whole or our own little fellowship. It may actually be the right thing that to do, but if you are primarily looking to others in the group for reassurance that you are doing the right thing, it is an indication that your conscience may be more "social" than godly. We never totally outgrow our need for a social conscience. However, there needs to be a steady growth in our ability to know what is right, and to act on it, simply because our conscience (i.e. the true conscience) tells us to do so.

This is particularly important if you are going to try to lead. Leadership brings far too much freedom and power for you to avoid corruption if you aren't controlled directly by God in how you use that power and freedom.

So, in conclusion, can I call on each of you to make serious efforts to listen more to your conscience, and to hunt down and eradicate the blind spots that are crippling so many of you in your walk with God? I think we will find the results positive and encouraging. Happy hunting!

(See also Abuse of Power, and Character.)

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