Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember a character created by Walt Disney whose name was Jiminy Cricket. He was the companion of Pinocchio, the marionette who wanted to become a real boy. He was such a popular character in the animated movie that he became a regular on the Mickey Mouse Club television program. His signature advice to young people was, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” As children we were led to believe that conscience was the part of our character that sought to keep us on the right path. As we grew into adulthood we learned that it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
The incontrovertible truth is that one’s conscience is only a safe guide if it has been trained in the right way. An excellent example of this in the New Testament is Paul the apostle. In Acts 23:1, as he stood before the Jewish Council to make his defense, he said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” The high priest, Ananias, was so offended by this statement that he ordered Paul to be struck on the mouth (v. 2). This action was not authorized by the Law of Moses because Paul had not yet been convicted of any crime, but it reflects the genuine outrage the high priest felt at this remark.
Even at first glance we can see why the high priest reacted so violently to Paul’s comment. In his view, Paul was a blasphemer because he had forsaken the Law of Moses to become a follower of Jesus Christ. As he saw it, it was not possible for Paul to have a good conscience. His slap was intended to demonstrate that he considered Paul’s statement to be a lie.
Christians, however, take a wholly different view. Paul was standing in defense of the faith in Jesus Christ, so of course he had a good conscience as he did so. But, Paul’s statement was not just about his life as a Christian and an apostle of Jesus Christ. He said he had lived his entire life with a perfectly good conscience before God. When we consider the breadth of that statement, we begin to understand why one’s conscience may not be a reliable guide.
As Saul of Tarsus he had viciously persecuted Christians. He held the robes of those who stoned Stephen to death (Acts 7:58). He had gone from house to house dragging off men and women to put them in prison (Acts 8:3), and he had even traveled as far as Damascus in search of Christians in order to bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1, 2). He did all these things in good conscience because he believed this is what God wanted him to do. Of course, he could not have been more wrong. When the Lord appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul learned that he was not right with God, even though his conscience had not to that point convicted him.
So even though Paul’s conscience had been good all of his life, he learned that he was standing in opposition to God’s will when he persecuted Christians. Paul humbled himself as a result of speaking with the Lord on the road to Damascus, and when the preacher Ananias commanded him to, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16), he immediately obeyed. From this point forward Paul did what God actually wanted him to do and his good conscience was finally a safe guide.
The lesson is a simple one. A good conscience is only reliable when it has been trained according to God’s word. Let each of us strive to make our consciences good because they lead us to obey the Lord.