Adjusting the Conscience - The Grand Reversal (Part 11)

(Read the series so far.)

What if God wants you to “strengthen” on an issue that is passionately prohibited by our group? If you logically think that it is permissible, but still feel that it is wrong, how do you adjust your conscience without violating your conscience?

Our conscience seems to have a mind of it’s own. It tells us that something is wrong and we do not have to think it through in the moment. And we don’t seem to be able to disregard its conclusion. In this sense, the conscience seems out of our control.

Oddly enough, though, we can lie to ourselves about our circumstances for the sake of our consciences. The German public persisted for some time in thinking that only foreign Jews (not German Jews) were killed in the holocaust.1 Why lie thus to ourselves? Because it keeps our conscience from condemning us (or lessens the blow). The lesson here is that our conscience can condemn us without our permission, but we can deceive it. J.D.Crowley says,

How do you know the difference between training your conscience and sinning against your conscience? You are sinning against your conscience when you believe your conscience is speaking correctly, but you still go against it. You are training your conscience when Christ teaches you through his scripture that your conscience has been wrong in a particular area, so you decide to not listen to your conscience in that one area. This is called adjusting your conscience, not sinning against it. (This is what Peter had to do in Acts 10: 9-23.)2

Let’s look closely at Peter and his vision in Acts 10:9-16. Peter, in prayer, became hungry. While food was being prepared, he fell into a trance and saw a great sheet descending. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice said a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times.

This passage was discussed in Part 4. Peter provides an example of a weak conscience strengthening at the call of God in spite of holding powerfully to his conviction. Food laws were a very big deal. A case can be made that a Jew living when Christ was born would consider proper eating a bigger deal than monogamous marriage. Just look at the sexual histories of Abraham, Jacob (Israel), Judah, Saul, David, and Solomon. In these patriarchs, there are multiple examples of polygamy, adultery, and prostitution. Sometimes with little clear rebuke or censure.

If we sat down with a Jew receiving the letter mentioned in Acts 15, we might say, “No idol-tainted meat and no fornication. Wow, one really big deal and a lesser one.” And the Jew might reply, “I know! I mean fornication, we can forgive, but eating idol-meat in the pagan temple—no way!” We should expel these types of thoughts concerning how “big” a sin is and consider all sin for how it offends a Holy, Holy, Holy God. I’m not suggesting in this paper that some issues are more “grand” than others.

So what do I mean by “grand”?

The Grand Reversal

Some adjustments to conscience are grand reversals in the sense that one can become obligated in conscience to something they formerly would have rejected.

Let’s look at racism as a modern example.3 150 years ago, in the American south, a young man would have been brought up believing that African people were dangerous, deficient in intelligence, and rightfully the property of their owners. The following is from chapter 16 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set about 1840.

Huck is floating the Mississippi with a runaway slave named Jim. One night Jim says he is anxious not to miss Cairo, Illinois, since after that point they will again be in “slave country,” and his quest for freedom would become much more difficult. This makes Huck feel guilty:

Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest, I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it staid with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, ‘But you knowed he was running for his freedom and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.’ That was so—I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, ‘What had [his owner] done to you, that you could see her [slave] go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? …

I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead. I fidgeted up and down the raft, abusing myself to myself, and Jim was fidgeting up and down past me. We neither of us could keep still. Every time he danced around and says ‘Dah’s Cairo!’ it went through me like a shot, and I thought if it was Cairo I reckoned I would die of miserableness.

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children; and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an ab’litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying,‘Give a [black] an inch and he’ll take an ell.’ Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this [black] which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, ‘Let up on me—it ain’t too late, yet—I’ll paddle ashore at the first light and tell.’ I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone.

At this point, Huck’s conscience is telling him that the right thing to do is to turn Jim in. And he thinks Jim’s plans to free his own wife and children are wrong. That very night they meet some men who are looking for runaway slaves. Jim hides under the raft while Huck lies to protect him. Then Huck thinks,

They went off, and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show—when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on,—s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

Huck’s conscience bothers him because he is helping a slave find freedom instead of doing what he has been taught is right and turning him in. But he has learned a lot about Jim since he was taught those things. In the end, Huck does what he comes to know is right, even though it still feels wrong to him. Huck’s conviction wasn’t that his old idea was wrong, making it acceptable to do either option. He began with a felt moral obligation to protect the slave owner’s rights. And he ended with a felt moral obligation to protect Jim’s freedom.

In Paul’s terms, Huck began as a weak brother because he could not treat Jim as a free man without self-condemnation. That would be to participate in the theft of property. And Huck ended as a weak brother because he could not turn Jim in and felt an obligation to protect his friend. Huck has no one to help him navigate these issues of conscience, though, and in the end gives up on the reliability of the conscience in general.

Now consider a boy brought up in the American south in 1970. He has been taught that he is expected to protect his sisters from the advances of black men. As he and his sister progress through college, he might be in store for a grand reversal of conscience. He gains the friendship of an African-American student and struggles with his ideas of inferiority and racism. He comes to repent of what he had been taught. Later, his sister begins to date a black friend. Now, despite the fact that he has repented of his old mind, he stills feels a duty to protect his sister. And he also has new feelings that he should hold to right principles of human dignity.

He also knows that his father may still hold to his old views and that if he acts to protect the freedom of his sister, he might be helping her to directly disobey her father. Should he encourage his sister to disobey her father? He might also be acting against the will of his father himself, meaning that he has to struggle with the question of his own disobedience. Does it matter that he is away from home and not in his father’s house? He also has sense of impending criticism from his father and perhaps other friends and relatives, if they call his son’s actions wrong before God.

The way forward, though perhaps plain to us, would be extremely difficult for such a young man.

The answer to some of his questions have already been developed in these papers. It is his mind, his νοῦς, that has been renewed by the truth of the equality of men. That is where he should find confidence and full persuasion. He should consider his mind and conscience adjusted by the principles of Scripture. He should treat all men alike.

But the answers to other questions need discussion. For instance, what part does parental authority play? What about the embarrassment he feels before his father and southern friends when he supports his sister? Does his culture (family and friends) define right and wrong?

There are great lessons here about our attitudes towards our “old” convictions. We have a tendency to have powerful negative feelings towards our old convictions. We tend to hate the unnecessary restriction that was forced on us. And we might look down on what we now see to be unnecessary, poor reasoning. This is especially the case in a grand reversal, where our new conviction will tend to give us guilt and shame about following and even simply having our old conviction.

Don’t be arrogant and proud of new convictions. And don’t hate your old convictions or those who hold them, or think proudly of your freedom or your great biblical wisdom that led to it.4 Your old conviction may now be repugnant to you. But Paul instructed the able-to-act (“strong”) believer not to look down on the unable-to-act (“weak”) believer. And he issued that command for a reason. Remember that you are who you are, and have the biblical understanding you have, not because of your own excellence, but because of God’s grace5.


1 Arendt, Hannah (2006-09-22). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics) (p. 94). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. According to Arendt, the testimony of Nazi war criminals Kube and Eichmann revealed that both had qualms of conscience over the killing of German Jews, even while they embraced the killing of foreign Jews.

2 Crowley, JD (2014-02-23). Commentary on Romans for Cambodia and Asia (ASEAN Bible Commentary Series) (Kindle Locations 9570-9574). Fount of Wisdom Publishing House, Phnom Penh. Kindle Edition.

3 You might protest that slavery isn’t a Romans 14 issue. It’s just wrong. But recall the temple-idol-meat in Corinth. Paul still called the wrong behavior of the strong their “right.” And those who held what Paul presented as the correct answer were called “weak.” Therefore, even “clear” issues are weak/strong conscience issues. You also might protest that since this is fiction, it should have little influence on our thinking. But Twain is describing attitudes taught and lived as he knew them. There is little reason to doubt that this is an accurate depiction of the conscience of such men and boys in 1840.

4 Mark Snoeberger makes a great point related to this idea at the DBTS Blog.

5 1 Corinthians 4:1-7

Dan Miller Bio

Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a husband, father, and part-time student.

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Dan Miller's picture

One terrible thing about this topic is to realize that not so long ago, Christian leaders who we would otherwise respect considered it their Christian duty to be racist. 

I was a member of a church in Columbia, SC, around 1991-2. That church baptized its first black member while we were there. A lady had been attending for YEARS, we came to find out. And whenever she approached the leadership about joining, she was told to go to a black church nearby. I'm thankful the she had the stubbornness and love for a bunch of white people that she kept trying. 

Bert Perry's picture

The point of not having contempt for those with different convictions on disputable matters is well taken, but it strikes me that some of these cases simply aren't that disputable, at least not by people who are Biblically conversant.  I understand fully that people did debate whether blacks ought to get good seats in churches or be allowed to enter at all (James and Philemon, please call your offices, someone needs a clue), but I've got a hunch that if Paul were writing an Epistle to the Americans, this issue would not be treated as in Romans 14, but rather in rather concrete terms.  I reckon the same kind of view would be shared with those defending the "peculiar institution" or Jim Crow a while earlier.

I'll be fair, though, and admit that while I think opposition to the peculiar institution should have been absolute (it fit none of the Biblical criteria for slavery after all), there can be reasonable differences over tactics.  Do you buy people out of slavery, operate the Underground Railroad, get an act of Congress as Wilberforce did, or...?  I can also see reasonable differences over responses--do we boycott U.S. cotton and sugar because of how it's grown?  

But regarding some of the things people argue, I've got to wonder if Paul (or whoever) wouldn't just say "have you not heard?" to us on the matter.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Bert Perry wrote:
I understand fully that people did debate whether blacks ought to get good seats in churches or be allowed to enter at all (James and Philemon, please call your offices, someone needs a clue), but I've got a hunch that if Paul were writing an Epistle to the Americans, this issue would not be treated as in Romans 14, but rather in rather concrete terms.

This is why I think that the example of Temple-Idol-Meat-Eating is so important in this discussion - and why I think that the discussion with Andrew is so important, though long and pain-staking for both of us.

Temple-Idol-Meat-Eating is an issue regarding which Paul wants everyone to STOP eating in the temple. Yet he frames it in "weak"/"strong"/"liberty" terms. 


The issue of slavery in America has so much political baggage that it's hard to see in this way. 

And to use this issue as a thought experiment to help us think through Biblical conviction-making is scary. How would we feel confronting a Bible-Wrester who was convinced in his own mind that he could own slaves? 

We would have a duty to the slave to see him have freedom, regardless of what happens with the owner.

There is a radical lesson in my papers for both ends of the clarity-spectrum. The weak/strong conscience tool is still the tool of choice, even if the issue seems like it should be "concrete."

Saying, "Do not eat in the idol's temple!" would have been easy and quicker. That is so clearly wrong. But Paul called those who felt they could not "weak" and talked to those who thought they could about being careful with their "right."

And then he labored to explain why Biblically it was wrong. 

Bert Perry wrote:
But regarding some of the things people argue, I've got to wonder if Paul (or whoever) wouldn't just say "have you not heard?" to us on the matter.
Yeah - he might. But I still think he would use "weak" for those who think they can't and "strong" for those who think they can.

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