“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death”
(Romans 8:1-2, ESV).
One of the interesting paradoxes of the Christian life is that those who believe in Jesus are promised full forgiveness of all their sins by virtue of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf, and yet at the same time are also promised a greater sensitivity to their sin and their need for holiness.
As Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:8, the presence of his Spirit will bring conviction of sin. The apostle Paul informs us that the Holy Spirit illuminates our minds to know God’s ways (Ephesians 1:17-18) and gives us godly desires that fight against our selfish urges (Galatians 5:16-17).
In other words, Christians shouldn’t be surprised that their consciences are sensitive about the things that displease our Savior. Indeed, it’s actually a good thing. The Bible has dire warnings about people who ignore their consciences so much that they become “seared,” completely desensitized through repeated suppression (see 1 Timothy 4:1-2).
But certainly there can be too much of a good thing. The evil one loves to try and corrupt even the good gifts of God into something burdensome if he can — including the gift of our conscience. He does so by making us obsessive over our faults, trapping us in a self-condemning introspection that focuses more on our imperfections than on our perfect Savior. This is a grave error on the same level as letting our consciences be seared, just on the other end of the pendulum. A sensitive conscience is good as a tool but terrible as a master.
So on the one hand, the Holy Spirit wants to make us aware of our sins, yet he does so in order that we can repent of them and live in a way that pleases God and results in a flourishing life. But, all the while, Satan seeks to make us overly scrupulous and insecure about our standing before God, so that we become paralyzed by self-pity. Which makes sense; Scripture does call him “the Accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10), after all.
How are we to keep the right balance when it comes to our conscience? I suggest that the key is to remember that what God’s Spirit brings us is conviction, not condemnation — the two are not the same.
God’s voice is one of correction. Like a loving Parent, he points out where we need to grow and change for our good. He disciplines his children (see Hebrews 12:5-11), which in Scripture means to teach and train someone so they can fulfill their potential. He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).
Satan’s voice, on the other hand, is one of condemnation. His are the thoughts that say you can never be forgiven; that you are always going to fail; that you must despair of ever going to heaven after what you’ve done. The biggest problem in these kinds of thoughts is that they assume our sins are bigger than God’s ability or willingness to forgive.
Yet Jesus promises (Matthew 12:31) that every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven (except blasphemy against the Spirit, but that’s a very specific thing, which I’ve written about here). We have the beautiful assurance that God’s “mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). And as Paul declares in the verse that began this article, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (i.e., those who believe in Jesus as their Messiah and have been baptized into relationship with him).
The reality is that we are always going to struggle with sin in this life, even as Christians. “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But the solution is provided for us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
We recognize the Spirit’s conviction, acknowledge our wrongdoing, and renew our trust in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ to cover over those wrongs. Then we move on and try again, confident of God’s mercy and not relying on our own worthiness.
And if, after bringing your sin to God in prayer, your conscience still continues to burden you — or if you need help overcoming a particularly besetting sin — you might consider going to a trustworthy friend, minister, or licensed therapist for counsel (see James 5:14-16). After all, among the gifts God has given to his people are pastors, teachers, and those with a gift for encouragement, so that believers can bear one another’s burdens. (Just note, again, that they should be people with whom you have a good relationship and can be trusted to provide wise and appropriate counsel. Just because someone is a pastor or therapist doesn’t automatically mean they are the right fit for your needs.)
Learning to recognize and follow the conviction that God brings, while rejecting the condemning lies and accusations of the evil one, is a lifelong process. The more you steep yourself in the truth of Scripture and of authentic, orthodox Christian teaching, the better you’ll be able to discern the voice of the Spirit from the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Even during times of struggle and failure, Christ’s invitation still stands: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, CSB).
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