Guest contributor: Ed Trego
“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Humans are amazing creations. We are capable of becoming accustomed to most anything. If we live in a noisy environment, we learn to block out the noise and get on with our lives. If we have minor aches and pains, we are able to get used to the discomfort and continue to live our lives. Even in extreme cases of deprivation or pain, humans will somehow grow used to the discomfort and live with it. If you doubt that, read some of the firsthand accounts of the survivors of Hitler’s death camps. Talk to the survivors of Stalin’s purges in Russia. Those who have survived being held as prisoners of war in any number of wars will convince you that humans have an incredible desire and determination to survive.
We will learn to tolerate much pain and suffering over time. We will live a life that we would have thought impossible before we were forced to live it or die. We will adapt.
We have all experienced this at some time in our own lives, sometimes in some very minor ways, sometimes in much more serious ways. I tried once to learn to play the guitar. One of the first things I learned is that chording a guitar makes your fingers sore. But after a while, you get used to it, develop callouses, and the hurt goes away. The body has adjusted to the new activity. Others have adapted to very serious life changes yet, by the grace of God, accept them and move on with their lives.
Our conscience is much the same. It can be changed for the good or bad by the choices we make in our lives. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is free will. It allows us to make our own decisions and determine our own fate. It is a marvelous, loving gift. However, along with the ability to make our own decisions comes the ability to make wrong decisions. We have a long history of making the wrong decisions. God gave us another wonderful gift that is absolutely required if we are to use the gift of free will wisely. That gift is our conscience.
I think of the human conscience as a means provided by God to allow us to regulate our free will. Have you ever said or done something and immediately knew it was wrong? That’s your conscience trying to help you guide your free will. The same is also true when you do something good and immediately get positive feedback from deep inside. I’m not talking about pride in ourselves or our action, but of a deep-seated knowledge that what we just did was a good thing. This, again, is the conscience providing encouragement for our good choices.
Our conscience, like our free will, is up to us to use wisely. If we choose to ignore it, the conscience can weaken. We can push it out of our lives to the point that we no longer have the aid of our conscience to help us make the right choices and recognize the wrong ones. A poorly formed conscience allows Satan to more easily convince us that the wrong he wishes us to do isn’t really wrong at all, just a silly rule made up by someone who really has no right trying to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. After all, God wouldn’t have given us free will if He intended for us to let others tell us right from wrong. That’s our freedom to choose, we won’t give it up for some silly societal or religious rule.
There is an old adage about how to boil a frog. If you drop a frog in boiling water it will desperately try to jump out. However, if you place the frog in room temperature water it will settle in and not try to escape. Even as the heat is turned up the frog will remain in the water as long as the heat isn’t increased too quickly. Eventually, the frog will reach the point of being boiled in water, but it will have grown accustomed to the moderate increase in discomfort and will not become aware of the danger until it is too late.
The human conscience operates in a very similar way. That little white lie wasn’t so bad, so the next one will be easier. Skipping Mass on a Holy Day didn’t seem so terrible, so the next time we don’t go to Mass it’s a bit easier. The so-called minor sins aren’t even noticed anymore, and the more serious ones become small in our estimation. What perhaps began as simple forgetfulness becomes habitual. Satan is a master at convincing us that our small failings aren’t important. We just need to worry about the big ones. Of course, the bigger ones get easier the more frequently we commit the supposedly insignificant sins. All of a sudden we’ve gone from missing Mass on a Holy Day to not going to Mass but a few times a year or maybe not at all. We have progressed from that small white lie to become an habitual liar who is trusted by no one.
Fortunately, we have the ability to reform and strengthen our conscience to again help us in choosing right from wrong. Think of your conscience as you would your physical strength. If you exercise it, it will increase. If you ignore it or misuse it, it will decrease. We have the ability to train our conscience just as we can train our muscles. By beginning with small steps we can progress to accomplish great things in both our physical strength and the right formation of our conscience. A few extra push-ups or sit-ups can be the beginning of getting in shape physically. If we recognize the benefit, we are more likely to continue and to increase the training regimen. Eventually, we will be much healthier and our bodies will serve us much better.
Our conscience can operate the same way. Noticing the supposedly minor sins in ourselves and trying to avoid them will accomplish much the same thing with respect to our spiritual life. We will begin to recognize those wrongs that we had ignored and by working to eliminate them we will improve our relationship with God. If we pay attention to the small things, we can develop a ,strong, well-formed conscience that will help us make the big decisions as well as the small. As we can train our conscience to better recognize sin we begin realize that any sin is harmful to our spiritual well-being. By doing so, we will live a life in which our morality and our relationship with God grows stronger and stronger. However, just as with a physical training program, if we let our regimen fade away, we will also be more likely to commit sin. We need a well-formed conscience that will help us seek and understand the will of God. Without it, we can never hope to overcome the temptations of Satan.
One of Satan’s greatest successes is convincing us that we really aren’t bad. We really don’t sin “that much”. Surely God won’t hold us to account for such a minor error. We humans are very adept at minimizing our concept of the sins we commit and the adversary loves it. We draw a line in the sand and vow not to cross that line. We will tolerate sinfulness and immorality to a certain level, and try to convince ourselves that we are doing pretty well. After all, no one is perfect. We go so far as to train our conscience in this wrong-headed manner, allowing us to better ignore the negative feelings associated with evil. Any lessening of our sensitivity to evil is dangerous and results in an ever-growing acceptance of sin and immorality at a greater and greater level. Similar to the frog, we find ourselves in boiling water and unable to do anything about it until it’s too late.
Is it possible for us to kill our own conscience? Can we weaken it to the point that we can no longer distinguish between right or wrong? Do we grow so accustomed to sin that we no longer recognize our own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others”
I believe the answer to all of these questions is yes. We can become so accustomed to evil and sin that we have difficulty even realizing that they still exist. We can weaken our conscience to the point that we can no longer see right and wrong. We can no longer effectively choose between the two. We allow so many “little” sins to become a part of our daily lives that we no longer recognize them as sins. When that happens, more serious sins become smaller in our estimation until they too are no longer looked upon as sinfulness. We can literally kill our conscience.
In our world today, maintaining a well-formed conscience can be a difficult task. There are so many temptations placed before us. Everywhere we look there is the opportunity to sin. Even our friends and family, at times, encourage us to sin. How are we to maintain the correct relationship with God in a world that seems to have pushed God away”
As Christians we must be different than the world at large. Though we must live in this world, we are citizens in the kingdom of God and we must live our lives according to that relationship. If you were to journey to a city similar to Sodom and Gomorrah, you would have two choices before you. You could either become like them and join in the sinfulness and abhorrent behavior common to that city or choose to continue your relationship with God and either leave the city or strive to change the wrongs being committed.
Are there cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah in our world today? Yes there are. There are number of areas of the world and in the United States that are very near the sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, some have probably surpassed that level of debauchery and continue to grow more evil.
If we are to be part of God’s family, we must strengthen our conscience and rely upon it to guide us in our daily lives. Sin destroys our relationship with God. Just as we destroy our relationships with those we love when we do wrong against them, our spiritual relationship with God can also be destroyed by the sins we commit. It’s important to understand that we are the sole source for this loss. God will never turn from us, we turn from Him. He will always be there to accept and forgive us. “Come now, let us reason together says the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).
As humans it is in our nature to seek a relationship with God. We were created to seek God and develop a family relationship with Him as our Father. In his autobiography, “Confessions”, St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” God desires that we have a strong, loving, family relationship with Him. He sent His only son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to allow a pathway for fallen man to return to the family of God. He’s there, waiting for us to realize the love He has for us. We need only to turn to God, repent of our sins and ask His help. He will provide all that is needed to reach our goal of eternal life with Him. A strong, well-formed conscience is vital to establishing and maintaining that kind of a relationship with our God.
“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet him that joyfully works righteousness, those that remember you in your ways.” (Isaiah 64:4-5)
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)