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How To Deal With a Guilty Conscience the Bible Way

Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA, and a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.

Has your conscience been bothering you about something? If it has, the worst thing you can do is to ignore it.

There are times when our conscience just won't leave us alone.

Maybe you did something that seemed to make sense at the time, or perhaps you are planning to take a particular action and don’t see any logical reason why you shouldn't. But still, somewhere in the back of your mind, there’s something that makes you uneasy about it. That uneasiness may well be the voice of conscience trying to save you from doing something that could end up being very damaging to yourself or others.

The Breath Test

Let’s start by asking what may seem like an irrelevant question, but it’s one that can illustrate a very important point.

How long can you hold your breath?

Well, let’s find out. Take a look at a clock, or if there’s not one handy, do a mental count using the tick-tock below. Now, start holding your breath and keep on for as long as you can.

How long were you able to hold out? It may interest you to know that the world record was set in 2016 by professional freediver Aleix Segura Vendrell, who stayed under water without breathing for an amazing 24 minutes and 3.45 seconds. Most people find it difficult to hold their breath for even 30 seconds.

Actually, the amount of time you can go without breathing doesn’t really matter. What’s important is the fact that eventually your discomfort with holding your breath will reach a point where you can’t stand it any more, and you have no choice but to start breathing again.

Why is that?

Conscience is God’s Moral Warning System

You can’t hold your breath indefinitely because God built into the human body a warning system to alert us when we are doing something that’s physically damaging. Since oxygen is necessary to life, this built-in warning system is designed to make us extremely uncomfortable if we try to go without breathing for too long.

In the same way, God has built into the human spirit a warning system that’s designed to make us more and more uncomfortable when we are doing something that is morally or spiritually damaging. That spiritual warning system is called the conscience. And it’s just as necessary to our well-being as the physical discomfort that protects us against doing things that damage our bodies.

That's why we, like the apostle Paul, should work hard to keep a good conscience:

Acts 24:16 This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men.

Note: all verses are from the New King James Version of the Bible

Everybody Has a Conscience

The Bible says that God has written His law in the heart of every person, whether that person acknowledges God or not.

Romans 2:14-15 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

As this passage makes clear, not everyone has specific knowledge of God's laws as revealed in the Bible. But everyone does have a built-in sense of right and wrong that God holds us all accountable to obey.

What To Do When Your Conscience Is Bothering You

If you are feeling pangs of conscience about something you have done, or something you are thinking about doing, you should recognize it as God's warning system telling you that you may be getting yourself into trouble. But when those conscience alarm bells go off, what should you do about it? Here are five steps to take to deal with a guilty conscience.

1. Pay Attention To Your Conscience!

On February 19, 1985, Iberia Air Lines Flight 610 was on its final approach to Bilbao Airport in Spain. Suddenly the GPWS (the Ground Proximity Warning System) began saying in a very loud and insistent manner, "Pull up! Pull up!", indicating that the airplane was too close to the ground. But for some reason the captain believed the GPWS was giving a false indication, so he ignored the warning. In fact, he was heard on the cockpit voice recorder shouting "shut up, shut up" at the GPWS as it continued to sound off.

The result of the captain ignoring the voice of the plane's built-in warning system was disaster. The Boeing 727 struck a television antenna on the summit of Mount Oiz and crashed, killing all 148 people on board.

In the same way, the Bible says, people who ignore the warnings of their conscience may well be headed for disaster:

1 Timothy 1:19 holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.

When you sense your conscience sounding off, your first priority is to pay attention to it! You can't afford to just keep on with business as usual in your life.

2. Acknowledge That What You Did (Or Plan to Do) Is Wrong

Psalm 32:3-5 When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. 4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. 5 I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.

When we feel burdened down with guilt because of something we've said or done, that's our conscience doing the job it was designed to do. In fact, if our conscience is healthy, it won't let up until we change course and correct the situation. The first step in making that correction is to acknowledge that what we did was not right; that, in fact, it was sinful.

That means specifically identifying what we did, then admitting to ourselves, to God, and to any individuals we may have hurt, that it was wrong. It means refusing to make excuses why it's not our fault, and refusing to minimize it because it's not nearly as bad as what someone else did. In other words, we need to own it.

3. Repent of (Turn Away From) Your Wrongdoing

Ezekiel 18:30 "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways," says the Lord GOD. "Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin.

As a young man, when my hands got soiled I would often wipe them on my pants. It was such an ingrained habit that I usually didn't even notice that I did it. Then I got married. My new wife did notice my habit, and let me know that she didn't like it.

Since I enjoy being married, I couldn't just ignore her - I had to pay attention. And I had to acknowledge that wiping dirty hands on my trousers was disgusting, unsanitary, and downright wrong.

But there was another step I had to take, without which the first two would have been useless - I had to stop doing it! In other words, I had to repent.

Sometimes letting go of an ingrained habit is hard. But we have the privilege of asking God for His help to turn away from that behavior. And He is faithful to give it.

4. Make It Right With Anyone You Have Wronged

The biblical word for this is "restitution":

Numbers 5:7 then he shall confess the sin which he has committed. He shall make restitution for his trespass in full, plus one-fifth of it, and give it to the one he has wronged.

To make restitution simply means to restore someone to where they were before you damaged them. Even if perfect restoration is not possible (and that's often the case), conscience will demand that we do everything we can to make things right.

For example, if I've spoken negatively about someone, and unfairly tarnished their reputation, I may need to publicly ask forgiveness not only from the person I maligned, but also from the other people who heard my slander or gossip.

5. Receive God's Forgiveness

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This is the heart of the good news of the gospel! Jesus went to the cross so that the sins of those who commit their lives to Him can be forgiven. Because of Christ's sacrifice, we have God's promise that when we acknowledge our sins and turn away from them, we can count on His complete forgiveness.

God doesn't intend for our conscience to keep us burdened down with guilt and misery because of past sins. Instead, He designed our conscience to lead us to repentance, so that we turn away from the wrong and to what's right. When that happens, the conscience has done its job, and the burden of guilt is lifted.

Once you've acknowledged and repented of your wrongdoing, you can joyfully accept God's complete forgiveness and cleansing. The cloud is lifted, the guilt is removed, and you are free.

Song: "Clean" by Natalie Grant

© 2018 Ronald E Franklin

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