Today’s passage is instructive. “It is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified.” This points to something that is present in all of us, something that was put there by the Creator. That something is our conscience. It is a natural instinct that makes it possible for even those who have never heard the law of God to know the difference between right and wrong.
Paul recognizes that the Gentiles have this gift of conscience too: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (verses 14-16).
God has given the instinct of conscience to all people. Conscience is that inner capacity that we all are aware of that inwardly recognizes the moral rightness or wrongness of a given act that we are about to do, or are in the process of doing, or that we have already done. It is that inner “voice,” that inner argument that the cartoons depict between the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other before or while we are doing something. This is the struggle between the temptation to do something that we know is wrong, or to remain true to what we know is the good. After the fact, it is that feeling of guilt that comes to us when we know we have done something wrong, that we have failed to remain true to ourselves, to others, and to God. Or, it is that peaceful feeling that settles over us when we know that we have done the right thing and remained faithful to ourselves, to others, and to God.
Conscience, then, is that natural instinct God has written on the hearts of every human being. Thought the instinct is there, that does not mean that our conscience is fully formed the day we are born. That is why God gave us intellect as well. With our intellects we are able to come to know what is right and wrong through experience and through learning. We begin to form our consciences in our families. It is the duty of parents to teach their children the difference between right and wrong. Now, there are social levels of this, and legal levels, of course, but as Christian parents, we have an absolute duty to teach our children the difference between right and wrong in accord with the will of God. We are to teach them the commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. They will learn by receiving our praise when they do what is right, and by experiencing consequences when they fail. And when they are old enough to ask questions, we are charged with awesome responsibility of explaining the wisdom behind the commandments in ways that honor our children’s intellectual capacities and their freedom. We are never free from developing our own consciences further either. We develop them by reading and reflecting on the scriptures, by bringing our doubts and our concerns to prayer. We show our love for one another by counseling, correcting and encouraging one another. We are to also practice the great virtues of patient endurance, mercy, and forgiveness. This is what growing in the faith is all about. For, as Christians, we know that on the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, God will judge all of our hidden secrets.
Lord, help us to listen more and more to our consciences. Give us the fortitude to develop our consciences in accord with your divine will, and the courage to choose the good more and more regularly. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen!
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