The conscience in the soul
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a more enhanced and fruitful experience of faith is failure to attend to the nurture of our souls, in particular, the conscience.
For most Christians, I suspect, the “soul” is only vaguely understood. They know it to be a spiritual essence and crucial for eternal life. But beyond that, the soul is terra incognita for most believers. And what we do not know, or know only vaguely, we will have difficulty nurturing to soundness.
According to Scripture, the soul – an immaterial, spiritual essence, unique to human beings among the creatures of the cosmos – occupies the driver’s seat in all human affairs. The stronger the soul, that is, the more consistently and thoroughly it orients to God, the fuller and more fruitful will be our walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. The health of the soul does not determine the health of the body. What it determines is the health of the body’s actions – whether they reflect the image of Jesus Christ or the image of the world (Eph. 4:17-24).
The soul consists of three integrated and overlapping components: the mind, which gathers and processes ideas and thoughts; the heart, which houses our affections; and the conscience. Of these the last is not the most important; that place falls to the heart, since what we love and desire we will most earnestly pursue. The conscience is the keeper of our values and priorities – those spiritual “defaults” which guide thinking and feeling into will and action. Thus, the conscience arbitrates between thoughts and feelings, serving as a kind of mediator between what we think and how we feel about any issue, matter, or decision.
So the conscience is obviously a very important part of the soul. However, it is easily neglected in nurturing our spiritual lives, and when this is so, we will find ourselves continually ensnared by temptations, mired in sins, and wondering why our walk with the Lord is no more real than it is.
A weak conscience means a weak spiritual life and a weak walk with the Lord. No matter how much Scripture or theology you know, or how passionate you are about the Lord, if your conscience is weak, your faith will not be as fruitful as it could be.
A weak conscience
Paul teaches that a weak conscience results from two primary conditions: First, neglect of true love for God, and, second, continuing attachment to worldly practices (1 Cor. 8:1-7).
When our knowledge of God is primarily referenced to ourselves, our interests and needs, and our comfort and satisfaction, then we are not bringing that knowledge to maturity, since we still love ourselves too much (vv. 1, 2). As we improve knowledge of God, so that we understand Him as Sovereign and Jesus Christ as our indispensable Savior and Sustainer (v. 6), and as we submit our souls and lives more completely to Him in love, our consciences will begin to grow stronger. We will understand (mind) and embrace (heart) the values and priorities of the Lord, and we will disconnect ourselves from anything of our former lives which continues to hold us back from progress in our salvation (v. 7; cf. Heb. 9:14).
Knowing God as God, as He speaks in His Word and shows Himself to us in Jesus Christ, is the starting-point for nurturing a strong conscience.
The second cause of a weak conscience derives from the first: When our knowledge of God is primarily focused on ourselves, we will continue to indulge worldly ways which have no foundation in Scripture, no place in the divine economy, and offer no help to the improvement of our souls. Instead, we will pursue practices and associations that breed weakness into our consciences by undermining the values and priorities of the Lord.
Spiritual growth is not only from the inside-out. What we do in our bodies – what we watch, listen to, speak, and do with the various members of our bodies – plays back into our souls, dulling or refining our minds, corrupting or improving our hearts, and weakening or strengthening our consciences. Any practices or associations which are contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture will have deleterious effects on the health of our souls. Weak souls – and above all a weak conscience – will result in a weak will in the face of temptation and a weak walk with the Lord.
The corruption of the soul is thus a vicious outside-in/inside-out cycle, which we can only break through the proper improvement of our knowledge of God and Christ.
A little help from our friends
We should be able to look to one another in the household of faith for help in breaking free of practices and associations that undermine conscience and corrupt our souls. And we must take care that we are in no way a cause of our brother or sister being led to compromise the values and priorities of his or her conscience to indulge some worldly delight (vv. 8-13).
In short, then, we can say that the health of our souls can be measured by the richness of our daily walk with the Lord. The more we practice sincere love for Him, and for our neighbor, the more it will be apparent that our souls – heart, mind, and conscience – are being maintained according to the Lord’s will and by His indwelling Word and Spirit.
And the more we submit to the Lord, by His Word and Spirit, the better we will understand His purposes and will and delight to embrace them. And so the stronger will be our consciences, and the more our walk with the Lord will evidence the glory of Jesus Christ in all our words and deeds.
Strengthening the conscience and nurturing the soul requires daily discipline, a continuous self-watch, and reliable soul friends who can help us to chart and maintain a course of continuous growth in the Lord.
The way to a richer experience of Jesus Christ is along the path of discipline, beginning in our souls, and, in particular, by bringing our consciences into submission to the Lord and His Word.
Would you say that your current practice of spiritual disciplines is adequate to keep strengthening your conscience against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil? Why or why not? Ponder these questions, then talk with some Christian friends. How can they help you – and you, them – to grow stronger in your consciences and your walk with the Lord?
For more insight to this topic, order the book, Anatomy of the Soul, by Curt Thompson, from our online store. You might also benefit from reading T. M.’s ViewPoint series, “The Nature and Nurture of the Soul,” which you can download for free here.