I have many people who come to my office struggling with guilt, remorse, and regret over things they've done in the past. Many believe they are doing themselves a service by being overly harsh with themselves. What could be wrong with trying to listen to your conscience? Isn't that God's desire? Not entirely.
What is the conscience?
The conscience is the part of the mind that discerns right from wrong. But is the conscience always right? There are some who believe it should always be obeyed. Contrary this assumption, the conscience is not synonymous with the voice of the Holy Spirit—the conscience can be flawed.
The conscience resulted from the Fall.
In the book, 10 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy, Henry Cloud and John Townsend contend that the conscience is one of the direct results of the Fall. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, they ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Conscience after they were told by the serpent: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Beforehand, Adam and Eve lived in blissful ignorance. They were only aware of that which was good. The aftermath of their act not only brought about true guilt, but incredible shame as well.
Guilt vs. shame.
Guilt is remorse over doing something wrong. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. The conscience is beneficial in that it helps us discern what is good. The conviction of sin brings guilt that makes us realize that we need forgiveness and reconciliation. But what about the person who has an overactive conscience? The accuser, Satan, enjoys pushing people in the mud, even if they have been forgiven by God. He even attacks the people of God into believing they are worthless. This is shame and lingers on far after grace has been extended.
Pushing past shame into the arms of grace.
So how do you deal with shame? The conscience, and the mind as a whole, has to be continually renewed by God. The study of scripture, the support of others, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit bring calibration to our conscience and our minds. Too underactive of a conscience can lead one into self-indulgence, pride, and risky behavior. Too overactive of a conscience can lead to self-condemnation, judgmentalism, depression, and anxiety.
It really takes the personal presence of God in our lives to bring about the kind of mindset He desires for us. Freedom is having a perspective that is positive and redemptive in the midst of a broken and troubling world.
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