When Conscience is Thwarted

Some people say that the reason our society is in such moral chaos is that Americans have lost their consciences. The problem with this idea, however, is that both science and Scripture tell us that conscience is an inherent component of human nature. But what would you say to the idea that a misdirected conscience can drive people to sin? Impossible? Well, consider this story from University of Texas Professor Jay Budziszewski's important new book, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man. A young woman learned during her pregnancy that her husband had been unfaithful. She knew he wanted the child very much, so to punish him she had an abortion. But the shame of killing her baby was even greater than the shame of his infidelity, because this time she knew she was to blame. So how did she respond? She aborted the next child, too, and told her counselor, "I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby." She knew what she did was wrong, and hated herself for it. Her conscience gave her no rest. But she was trying to punish herself for the abortion, and the worst punishment she could think of was to increase her guilt by committing the same sin again. This true story shows us that a guilty conscience produces a number of inescapable needs. In this case, the young woman was trying to satisfy her need for "atonement." She could have found atonement in Christ, but didn't. Instead, she tried to atone by herself. The problem is that when we try to satisfy the needs of conscience in wrong ways, we end up falling even deeper into sin. Another inescapable need is confession. Andrew Solomon felt this need after he helped his terminally ill mother die. In an article he wrote for New Yorker magazine, Solomon said "the act of speaking... about your involvement is, inevitably, a plea for absolution." Unfortunately, this kind of confession is actually a form of advocacy. The writer confessed his act, not to acknowledge his guilt, but so that others would agree with his action and say that what he did was okay. Another need produced by guilt is for a "restoration of broken bonds." We see this in the remarks of a nurse who also participated in her mother's death. She told Mr. Solomon, "it was the most intimate time I've ever had with anyone." Killing isn't really intimate, but claims of intimacy are not uncommon in euthanasia stories. Budziszewski says that violation of a basic human bond is so terrible that the conscience creates an illusion of intimacy to compensate. Euthanasia expert Herbert Hendin notes that in some cases this illusion can attract patients and doctors to the very deed itself. The Bible teaches that a guilty conscience produces needs that can only be satisfied at the Cross. Only the biblical worldview makes sense. When we try to satisfy them the wrong way, we sink even deeper into sin. And this can happen to an entire society, as well. If you want to understand America's moral dilemma, then remember that, while conscience cannot be escaped, it can be misdirected. This new book, The Revenge of Conscience, helps distinguish right from wrong ways of responding to conscience's demands.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary