When Our Conscience Condemns Us
To eat or not to eat
In Romans 14:23 we read, “…Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This passage was part of the instruction the Apostle Paul gave the Roman church concerning a “stronger” brother eating meat or drinking wine that had been sacrificed to idols in the presence of a “weaker” brother who believe doing so was sinful. The stronger brother was the man who understood he was no longer under the obligations of Law and had freedom in Christ to eat meat and to drink wine that had been sacrificed to idols without sinning. He was operating in a true faith. The Law would have viewed eating such meat as an abomination, rendering the consumer unclean. The stronger brother was operating in faith – belief of the heart with absolute certainty – that he was free from the Law and could eat meat sold in the local market without sinning, even though it had been sacrificed to idols.
Although Paul declared that such eating and drinking was not sinful, the weaker brother believed that to eat sacrificed meat and wine used in idol worship would be a sin. The phrase “whatever is not from faith is sin” pertains to the weaker brother violating his own conscience by eating or drinking when he believed it would be a sin to do so. Because the weaker brother did not have faith/belief concerning his freedom from the Law, he believed that if he ate this meat it would be sinful and an offense to God. So then, if he ate the meat believing it was a sin, it would in fact be a sin for him to do so.
Because he did not have the inner freedom to eat this meat due to a false belief concerning his relationship to the Law, he was not yet persuaded of the freedom that he possessed in Christ. Without this persuasion (peitho/faith) — the absolute certainty of his freedom in Christ — eating the meat would be sin, but only because he believed it was and chose to do it. Whereas this same meat could be eaten without consequence by the stronger brother who possessed faith — the absolute certainty of the truth.
That “Check” in Your Spirit
Since none of us will probably ever have to decide whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, how do we apply this passage to our lives? There is a basic truth implied here that I believe is applicable to TPM. I believe Paul was describing a double-minded person who was faced with two forms of belief. In his heart he believed that to drink wine or eat meat sacrificed to idols was sin, and therefore should be avoided. But if he witnessed his brother, who he believed to be more spiritually mature, eating and drinking, he might come to believe intellectually that doing so was permissible. However, he would still feel guilty about it because his conscience would condemn him. Notice I did not say the Lord would condemn him, but rather his own conscience.
When we believe something with our heart, this belief becomes a guiding force that compels us to walk “rightly.” However, not all that we believe with our heart is the truth. We also believe lies that we falsely assume are true when in fact they are not. This is illustrated with the weaker brother who believed in his heart that eating meat sacrificed to idols was sinful. Had he eaten the meat, while believing doing so was sinful, his conscience would have condemn him. In the same manner, if we choose to violate our heart belief our conscience will condemn us. This is why we feel bad when we do something that we believe with our heart is wrong. For the most part we will avoid this inner condemnation and walk in the “truth” that we believe.
Sometimes we equate feeling ‘bad’ about something as the conviction of the Spirit, when in fact it may not be of the Spirit at all, but rather, something else. Occasionally we avoid doing something because we get a “check in our spirit,” or an inner prompting —a slight surge of emotional discomfort when we think about doing it. We may assume this is the Spirit giving us direction by causing us to feel badly. The reality is that whenever we do what we believe to be wrong or “sinful,” we will still feel the same emotional discomfort whether it was sinful or not. Sometimes we forget that the Spirit generally leads us with peace, not emotional discomfort.
This was what was happening in this bible passage. It was not wrong or sinful for the weaker brother to eat the meat sacrificed to demons, but if he did so, he would get a “check” in his spirit or feel badly. This “check” would not be the Spirit, but his own conscience condemning him. If the weaker brother then chose to eat and drink without experientially knowing the truth of grace and freedom in his heart, then he would have to violate his conscience – heart belief – in order to do so. Because he did not have specific faith for this – knowing the truth experientially/the persuasion of God – then, for him, eating the meat and drinking the wine would be sinful. His doing so would not be sinful because it was a sin to actually eat the meat, but only sinful because the brother believed it was sinful and still chose to eat it.
“The one who knows the “wrong” thing to do (even when it is not wrong) and does it is sin”
The Apostle James wrote, “… to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” (Ja. 4:7) The flip side to this saying is also true, “… to one who knows the WRONG thing to do (even if it is not wrong) and does it, to him it is sin.”
Biblical faith is heart belief that God has granted and has persuaded us to believe. This truth will feel true to us and will agree with the intellectual truth we possess. There will be no struggle to walk in it. Our conscience will affirm us as we do it. However, heart belief that is not the truth creates a state of double-mindedness and will likely be contrary to that which we believe intellectually to be true. When what we believe intellectually does not agree with our heart belief, struggle will ensue causing us to experience a resistance to act on His truth.
This is made evident with the weaker brother who is told by the Apostle that eating meat sacrificed to demons was permissible. Even though he may have intellectually believed this truth, if he had eaten the meat his heart would have condemned him. For him to have eaten this meat while believing it was sinful to do so, would be a sin even though it was permissible.
If this weaker brother had chosen to do the truth by eating the meat, doing so would have been a struggle and caused him great inner turmoil. When trying to do the truth is a struggle and burdensome, then the effort does not proceed from faith, but from sin.
When trying to do the truth is burdensome, this is an indication that we are violating our conscience —our heart belief— to do it. When we believe the truth with our heart it becomes effortless to do. It requires no more effort to live in the truth than it does the lies we believe. It is the exact same process. Actions that flow from a pure faith are characterized by God’s fruit that is an outcome of transformation, but “… whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 3:23).
Its easy to condemn the stronger brother
If we feel ‘bad’ about something, it isn’t necessarily because we have done something wrong, but only that we believe we have. In years past, I considered certain behaviors or practices as sinful to do them. I remember, even as a child, how I was taught that playing cards was a sin, and even harmless children’s games such as “Old Maid” and “Go Fish” were not allowed in our the house. Sometimes we would sneak over to a friend’s house and play cards, but not without a lot of guilt.
I hesitate to write the following for fear of offending someone. I remember believing that it was a sin to eat in a restaurant that served alcohol, let alone ever drink any myself. Sharon and I would avoid such places. This was my faith level concerning alcohol. I recognize that some who read this will say drinking any form of alcohol is sinful. I fully respect that and I would never deliberately try to offend you in this. But I also realize that Jesus had no issue with hanging out where people were drinking and was often accused of drinking a little himself.
Had I entered a restaurant that served alcohol back in those days, my conscience would have condemned me. I would have felt a “check” in my spirit that I would have believed was the Spirit warning me to stay away. Today, I do not have the “check” concerning this and it no longer bothers me that many Christians have freedom to drink socially. Some might suggest I have seared my conscience in this matter. I do not think so.
Right now some of you who read what I have said are feeling uncomfortable. There may be a tightness in your chest and a sense of resistance and defensiveness being stirred up. Please do not be offended, but I invite you to allow yourself to feel what you feel and examine why you feel this way. This is what I try to do when I find myself reacting in certain situations. I am discovering there are some things I react to because I was taught to react and not because the Spirit was convicting me. I have learned that what I had always believed was the Spirit giving me a “check” or warning through a bad feeling, was often my own lie-based emotion being stirred up when my lies were triggered. The Spirit was not convicting me, rather my own heart was condemning me.
To Drink or Not to Drink?
I do not say these things to promote freedom in social drinking, or to open up a discussion about whether it is sinful or not, but only to encourage us to carefully examine why we feel what we feel in any given moment. The next time you are about to do something, and you hear yourself say, “I am having a bad feeling about this,” do not assume it is from the Spirit. Rather, slow things down and examine what you believe that is producing your emotions. This is an application for TPM that is practical and beneficial.
The church I attended as a youth taught that boys and girls should not be allowed to go to the beach at the same time to swim. They believed that boys being exposed to scantily clad young girls would be “making provision for the flesh” and inviting lustful thinking. There is probably some wisdom here, because when we were afforded the opportunity to look and lust, that is exactly what we often did. Indeed, if a person goes to the beach and finds himself lusting, then he should not be there. However, going to the beach with girls is not the sin; lustful thinking is. We need to recognize that each of us are “drawn aside and enticed by our OWN lusts” (Jam. 1:14). Lusting is an indication of what we believe. If my going to the beach results in me sinning, then I should not go to the beach? However, if going to church affords me the same opportunity should I stay home or deal with my heart belief?
I believe that Jesus could go to the beach with girls and not lust. We know from the Scriptures that Jesus hung out with prostitutes who were probably not completely clothed, yet He did not lust after them. He saw hurting, desperate women looking to be loved and accepted. He offered them forgiveness of sin and a place in His Kingdom. He was not distracted by what they were or how they were dressed, because He knew the truth in His heart. He was protected by it and was living it out.
When the thought of doing something, such as eating in a restaurant that serves alcohol or going to the beach with girls gives us pause, we need to ask “Why?” If what we are questioning is sinful, then we should refrain from doing it. However, not all that we believe is sinful is indeed so. We certainly need to make this determination based upon what the Bible actually says, as opposed to what we may feel in the moment. Feelings are primarily belief indicators and not directional moral compasses. As our minds are renewed with truth, mind transformation follows, making it possible to know and do the will of God. Notice the “SO THAT” in the following passage. It is because of the mind-renewal and transformation that we “prove” (test, know, accomplish) God’s will. The passage says, “… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
As a young adult and new Christian, I could easily condemn the “stronger” brothers from my misinformed position. Their freedom to practice some things made me feel very uncomfortable. It would have been a sin for me to indulge in their “sinful” practices at that time in my life, even when it was not inherently a sin. As I have grown in the truth, I have discovered I am much less judgmental, more accepting of others, and my conscience no longer condemns me in places where it did before. This is because I am walking in a purer faith/heart belief.
Does our conscience condemn us?
It is very possible that our heart may condemn us even though we are doing nothing wrong. If we believe something is wrong —sinful— even though it is not, we will feel the same way as if we had willfully sinned. At the same time, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will alert our hearts to that which is truly sinful.
This is where we need God’s persuasion of truth in our heart. As we are persuaded by the Spirit into His truth and freedom, we will find we are less triggered by what is going on around us. We may find we have fewer “checks” in our spirit as well. As the apostle said, because “… we are in the truth…” we can “…assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.”
TPM is a tool that can help us to do this. As you continue your study in TPM, consider why you do what you do and why you feel what you feel in particular situations. Choose to humble yourself before the Lord and allow Him to search you through and through. Pray as the Psalmist prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (139:23-24).
John the Apostle affirms this where he wrote, “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God…” (1 Jn. 3:19-21). The practical application of this passage is this:
- “… Our heart [will] condemn us…” when we believe a lie and then choose to violate this belief.
- “… God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” He is greater than our lie-based heart belief and holds a place of higher authority in knowledge of the truth than we do ourselves (See the Trust and Authority Principle).
- He will “…assure our heart before Him…” when we bring our heart condemning belief to Him to exchange it for His truth.
- We will have “confidence before God…” and we will “… know by this that we are of the truth” when our heart no longer condemns us.
Final Note: In my book concerning “Dealing with the Devil Without Dealing with the Devil” I use this passage to show how we need not fear handling or owning particular objects that others believe might carry or possess demons. Some people fear that possessing certain objects could invite demons into their lives. If eating meat and drinking wine used in demon worship cannot effect us, then I am certain that we need not worry that a trinket bought in an international flea market might contain demons that could impact us. It is easy to forget who we are in Christ, who and what the devil is, and then, walk in unmerited fear because of our lie-based heart belief.