On Guilt and Conscience
"If a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands, even though he does not know it, he is guilty and will be held responsible."1
Do you ever feel guilty about things you shouldn't feel guilty about and not feel guilty about things you should feel guilty about?
I have. Why is this? A major reason is that we tend to think in terms of guilt as an emotional response that comes from our conscience. This, however, can be misleading.
Keep in mind that guilt in the Bible is a legal term—not an emotional one. If we do what is wrong in the eyes of God, we are guilty regardless of how we feel. That's also true of our legal system. If I break the law, I am guilty whether I feel guilty or not—or whether I get caught or not. For some, guilt is more a fear of getting caught.
On the other hand, conscience, while very important, is a learned emotional response. The word "conscience" comes from "con" meaning "with" and "science" meaning "knowledge." Thus conscience means "with knowledge." We were born with the ability to learn what was right and what was wrong but the programming of our conscience came largely from those who shaped our formative years. For some, a legalistic parent, church or religion gave them a very punitive conscience. At the opposite extreme, a loose-living parent or teacher failed to give any meaningful programming to a child's conscience.
As adults, to have a healthy conscience we need to reprogram or reeducate it to make sure it is in harmony with the source of all truth and knowledge as to what is right and what is wrong—that is God's Word, the Bible.
Based on this knowledge, the important thing is to always do what is right regardless of how we feel. As we consistently act in this manner, little by little (over time) we will reprogram our conscience so it is in complete harmony with the will and Word of God.
Suggested prayer: "Dear God, thank You for Your Word, the Bible, that instructs me in how to behave and live. Please help me to re-educate and reprogram my conscience so the way I feel will be in direct harmony with Your Word. And then, help me to live in harmony with Your will so I will always have a clear conscience. Thank You for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully in Jesus's name, amen."
1. Leviticus 5:17 (NIV).