Christopher Ash’s book, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience, is a helpful resource on what the conscience is, how it works, and what it means to have it renewed and shaped by the Word. In chapter six Ash talks about the hardened conscience and takes some time to explain how people make their guilty conscience hurt less. Here are a few of the many was which people try to soothe their guilty conscience (I’ve edited these for the sake of space):
Moral effort. Some people, troubled by a guilty conscience, respond by just trying harder to be good. They try extra hard not to sin. But, as John Owen noted in Indwelling Sin, people who do this find that sin is stronger than they had first thought, much to strong to defeat by their own moral effort. Paradoxically the renewed moral effort that was intended to make conscience hurt less, ends up with conscience hurting more.
Escapism. The prophet Jonah, as he ran from God, had escaped in such a way that he could even sleep. That sleep is a picture of the escapism with which many in Western society run away from conscience. People ‘amuse themselves to death,’ spend time in a virtual world, on social networking, and try to create alternative identities to escape the guilty conscience.
Blaming others. Conscience tells me it is my fault. But if I can persuade myself it is someone else’s fault, then I can neatly shift the blame and get away from the voice of conscience. This is the great evasion of the so-called victim culture, where we are all victims and no one is responsible any more.
Gradually desensitizing the conscience. Ignoring conscience gradually desensitizes this sensitive instrument. Paul writes about this in 1 Timothy 4:2. A native American described the conscience like this: ‘It is a little three-cornered thing inside of me. When I do wrong it turns round and hurts me very much. But if I keep doing wrong, it will turn so much that the corners become worn off and it does not hurt any more.’
Self-righteousness. This is a strategy used sometimes by church-goers. Self-righteousness may make me feel better about my own conscience because I can compare myself favorably with those I think are worse than me.
Ash lists a few more then these, including rejecting the Bible, persuading ourselves that godliness is an external thing, and hearing the Word of God repeatedly without repenting. I appreciate this list because it will help me avoid unbiblical ways to soothe my conscience when it pains with guilt. If you struggle with a guilty conscience, or if you want your conscience formed more according to the Word, I highly recommend this book: Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience.