The human conscience is a like a fine musical instrument. When in tune, it plays lovely music. When out of tune, it sounds wrong notes. A conscience rightly oriented has three characteristics: What is the standard? You evaluate yourself (and others) by God’s standards of right and wrong.
Who is the judge whose opinion matters? How God views you matters more than how you view yourself (self-esteem) or how others view you (reputation).
Where do you turn when you fail? You rely on God’s mercies in Christ.
Experiences of sexual darkness bring disorientation to the conscience. We will look at two problems: the self-righteousness of a seared conscience and the self-condemnation of an anguished conscience.
First, a dull or seared conscience is a deadly affliction. Many sexual behaviors are misbehaviors, but the conscience feels no guilt or shame. Instead, wrongdoing is defended and even extolled as normal and desirable—the wrong standard. Appeal is made to the authority of personal desires and popular opinion—the wrong judges. There is no need for mercy because people are okay as they are—self-salvation by self- righteousness is assumed. The conscience reassures itself, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace. The operations of the conscience fail the test of reality on all three counts. But God can take such a heart of stone and make such a person come to life.
Second, an anguished conscience is an exceedingly painful affliction. Feelings of guilt and shame become stuck in a vortex of self-condemnation. Rightly aroused guilt and shame are good gifts of God. They signal that something is wrong. Guilt senses failure against a standard that matters; shame senses failure before the eyes that matter. These feelings are natural, God-given repercussions when our conscience is alive to genuine personal failure before God. But guilt and shame are meant to go somewhere good.
What do you do when you find yourself drowning in self-condemnation? The normal aftermath of doing wrong (or thinking you have done wrong) is to feel guilt, shame, regret, and remorse. But what comes next? We are meant to seek and find mercy and refuge in the loving welcome of our Father. But when we are not alive to the mercies of Christ, what follows is a predictable cycle of repetitive self-reproach, resolutions to change, self-punishing penance, attempts to forgive ourselves, hollow rationalizations, trying to make up for the wrong by compensating actions, self-concealment, escapism to numb pain and shame, and, finally, despair.
Consider two self-condemnation scenarios. What happens when the conscience is accurate—for example, “My girlfriend and I were wrong to do that”—but blind to the mercies of God? Right standard, right judge. But this true sense of guilt spirals in many fruitless directions. And what happens when the conscience is inaccurate? For example, “I should have done something to avoid being sexually abused. It must have been my fault. I feel horrible about myself and ashamed to let anyone know.” Wrong standard, wrong judge. And self-blame for wrong reasons is inevitably blind to God’s mercies, so it spirals in further fruitless directions. The second scenario calls for a more comprehensive reorientation of the conscience, but both forms of self-condemnation need to find the mercies of God.
Consider a situation where actual sin has occurred. An unmarried man and woman have not treated one another respectfully, as brother and sister, but have indulged in heavy petting. They know they’ve done wrong. But, like many strugglers, they oscillate between moments of obsession with erotic pleasure and days of obsession with moral failure. Guilt turns them inward.
But grace invites them out of themselves. So simple to say, so hard to do. We routinely underestimate how radically faith relies on fresh mercies freely given. Grace means that what makes things right comes to this brother and sister from outside themselves. It’s a sheer gift from their Father and their Savior given courtesy of the Holy Spirit. They don’t get it by self-laceration, by trying to work up a different set of feelings, by trying to say it’s not that big a deal, by resolutions to do better, by distracting themselves. They are forgiven, accepted, and saved from death by God’s mercy. Listen to how Scripture shows a person dealing candidly with his former and current sins. The italics highlight how much his hope amid guilt lies outside himself:
Remember, O Lord, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; According to Your lovingkindness remember me, For Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.
For Your name’s sake, O Lord, Pardon my iniquity, for it is great. (Ps. 25:6–7, 11 NASB)
David’s sexual sin was high-handed. It tore his conscience (Psalms 32, 38, 51). It brought immediate and long-lasting consequences (2 Sam. 12:10–12, 14–15). Yet David was truly forgiven (2 Sam. 12:13). He experienced the joy of repentance and the wisdom, clarity, and purposeful energy that real repentance brings—captured in those same psalms and the rest of 2 Samuel 12. Notice how David radically appeals to the quality of “Your compassion . . . lovingkindnesses . . . goodness . . . O Lord.” David’s own conscience remembers only too well what he did. But he appeals to what God will choose to remember. In effect, “When God looks at me, will he remember my sin or his own mercies? O Lord, when you think about me, remember yourself.” Understanding these last few sentences will forever change your experience of failure.
So let’s make it personal. Are you haunted by your sins in the eyes of God, in the eyes of your conscience, and in the eyes of others who might find out? Your sin may have just occurred a few minutes ago; or it may be a distant but potent memory. Perhaps you don’t commit that sin anymore. You’ve come far and no longer feel any allure to a lifestyle you once avidly pursued. Or perhaps you just did it again. But the memory—whether fresh-minted or ancient history—fills you with dismay. Perhaps immediate and long-term consequences of your sin run far beyond the repercussions within your conscience: abortion, STD, inability to bear children, ongoing vulnerability to certain kinds of temptations, a bad reputation, ruined relationships, wasted time, failed responsibilities. Nobody did this to you; you did it to yourself. The sense of shame and dirty distaste haunts your sexuality just as it haunts those who were victimized. Only you victimized yourself (and others you betrayed). You, too, feel like damaged goods. Sex is not bright, iridescent, cheerful, restrained, generous, matter-of-fact. It is not a flat-out good to be enjoyed with your spouse, or saved should you ever marry.
You might live with such guilty feelings in your singleness. You might have brought them into your marriage. Perhaps you are afraid of relationships, because you know from bitter experience that you can’t be trusted. Perhaps it’s hard to shake off the train of bleak associations that attach to sexual feelings and acts.
Just as sin and suffering turn us in on ourselves, so guilt and shame spiral inward. But living repentance and faith turn outward to the one whose opinion most matters. What God chooses to “remember” about you will prove decisive. Your conscience, if well tuned, is secondary. (This retuning is the core dynamic in renewing an inaccurate conscience.) Your self-evaluation depends on the evaluation he makes and the stance he takes. If the Lord is merciful, then mercy gets final say. It is beyond our comprehension that God acts mercifully for his sake, because of what he is like. Wrap your heart around this, and the typical aftermath of sin will never be the same. You will stand in joy and gratitude, not grovel in shame. You’ll be able to get back about the business of life with fresh resolve, not just with good intentions and some flimsy New Year’s resolutions to do better next time. This is our hope. This is our deepest need. This is our Lord’s essential and foundational gift.
You need to know how faith in Christ’s mercy decenters you off of yourself and re-centers you onto the living God’s promise and character. You know other people who need to know this. We typically mishandle the aftermath of sin with further forms of the God-lessness that manufactures sin. The One “to whom we must give an account” freely offers mercy and grace to help us by the loving-kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:13–16).
David Powlison (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a teacher, a counselor, and the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. He is also the senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling and the author of Seeing with New Eyes, Good & Angry, and Speaking Truth in Love.
Content taken from Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken by David Powlison, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.