1 John 3.21: Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God
Other versions of John’s letter translate “hearts” as “conscience”. What is it? Is it private or public?
I’m a great ‘Yes Prime Minister’ fan. In one of the episodes, Jim Hacker offers to show a journalist the minutes of a cabinet meeting to prove he didn’t try to stop the publication of a book which showed Hacker up in a bad light. But of course he had. How can Bernard Woolley write up the minutes? So he goes to Sir Humphrey for advice.
“What’s the problem, Bernard?”
“I want a clear conscience.”
“And when do you get this taste for luxuries, Bernard? How did you get into government with it? Consciences are for politicians. We are humble functionaries whose duty is to implement the command of our democratically elected representatives.”
And so Bernard is guided into writing up the minutes in a constructive way.
Is a conscience a luxury?
Is conscience a dirty word? Conscientious objectors to fighting in world wars were hated for their stance. They were seen as cowards. In the 1930s when fascism was growing, a Labour Party leader lost his job for his pacifism, accused of “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it.” The message was clear – there was no place for this sort of conscience.
Our Roman Catholic friends make much of conscience. If you act according to your conscience, you can’t be faulted. This has been in effect Tony Blair’s defence for involvement in the War on Iraq – “I did what I felt was right.” On the face of it, this looks like a get out of jail card – “that’s what my conscience told me to do.” It’s asserting your own private morality against that of the rest of the world.
But actually the doctrine of conscience is a good deal more developed. Conscience is where we meet God alone, face-to-face, deep down in our hearts. Our conscience must always be formed by our understanding of the will of God through prayer and scripture.
In 1 Chronicles 17, David tells the prophet Nathan that he’s decided to build a temple for God. Nathan is having an off-day and tells David do what’s on his heart, only for God to tell Nathan, “That’s wrong! That’s not what I want David to do!” Nathan hadn’t checked in with God first.
Like Nathan, medieval English kings relied on their lord chancellors to be the keepers of their consciences. Their job was to bring justice and fairness to the sometimes harsh and perverse applications of the judge-made law. I think that’s a good idea to hold onto – how we can be alert guides to the consciences of others.
For John in his letter, what we could call conscience is very closely bound up with love – our old friend, agape, the self-sacrificing love of Jesus on the Cross that we seek to imitate. Without this love, we cannot have a good conscience.
How does it work in action? Four short illustrations.
Last Thursday was Earth Day. I react badly to many forms of environmental activism, not because the cause itself is bad but because there is a danger of treating the environment as a god. The earth is the Lord’s, as the psalmist says, not the other way round. I know trading and spending make the economy tick, but how much damage to the environment is due to wanting stuff we don’t really need? That’s a question I ask myself before clicking online to make a purchase. Verse 17:
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Should my online click be on a charity website instead?
Or again, what is or was the European Super League about? A better game of football, or a way to make richer club owners and their bankers? As I’m not a footy fan, you can tell me afterwards. As Rev Sue often says, we need to talk about greed and money in church as much as we do about sex, if not more.
And if we’re talking about sex – in all the news about how schools have failed to stop teenage boys from treating girls badly and abusing them either online or physically, there’s been hardly a word about the role of parents. We can’t contract-out our consciences to others. Deuteronomy 4 – teach your children.
And where is lover-shaped conscience in matters of race, even within the Church of England?
A few verses before our gospel reading Jesus affirms that He is the good shepherd who has come to bring life in all its fullness. That idea of fullness of life is behind John in his letter saying that we can have boldness before God. We can free and easy in God’s presence. We can be intimate with Him, just as Adam and Eve were in the garden before the Fall, because our hearts have acted out of love. And this is how other sheep can be drawn into the fold, with the one shepherd.
We are called to be conscience-bearers, conscience-formers. Our God-given conscience is neither a luxury nor something of which we should be ashamed.