Keep Your Conscience Clear (Acts 24:10-23)

When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 

But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs. (New International Version)

Without exception, everyone has a conscience. It is our internal moral compass, an intangible guidance system.

Conscience is humanity’s hard-wired epistemic sense of knowing what and what not to do, beyond the five senses. The still small voice inside us continually gives discernment that transcends objective facts – even though we may not be able to articulate or explain why we know something is right or wrong.

Our conscience keeps us from being morally empty, bereft of direction, and aimless in this world. Paying attention to our conscience serves us quite well. The conscience is the angel on our shoulder, directing us to do and be better; it is the inner compunction to live a beautiful, good, and ethical life.

By allowing the conscience to chart for us a course forward, we can then avoid inaction in the face of stress, as well as immoral words and actions. The conscience tempers our inbred fight-or-flight syndrome so that we might respond wisely to adverse situations. 

The Apostle Paul, as was usual with him, was in a pickle. Yet, Paul never seemed to be shaken with circumstances which most of us would probably consider so distressing as to fall into despair.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Paul is in custody. While standing trial before Governor Felix, Paul used the opportunity to give a clear and rather relaxed testimony to his Christian faith. 

I suggest that the Apostle was able to give a cogent apologetic for his life and ministry – not because he was trying to get off the hook or because he thought it was his duty – but because of his well-attuned inner compass. That inner guidance system led him to say:

“I have committed myself to maintaining a clear conscience before God and with all people.” (Acts 24:16, CEB)

Statue of St. Paul in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, Rome

Living with an awareness of the conscience, and carefully listening to it, creates the ability to speak from that place of insight.

There’s no need to do all sorts of mental gymnastics or spin-doctoring. Although Paul gave a clear defense of his actions and attitudes, he did it without having an insecure defensiveness. Because of his conscience, he could articulate truth and steer clear of white lies and propping-up his ego.

I also suggest that the Apostle Paul’s effective engagement with others came from his God-given inner conscience. So, I wonder: 

  • How might my life be different if I shared the same concern as Paul to always have my conscience clear before both God and others? How might the world be different if this was a dedicated commitment?
  • What would happen if I sought to continually be in dialogue with my conscience and make decisions based on that connection? And what if I consistently brought before God the musings and inklings of my conscience?

The human conscience is not static but dynamic. It can be strong or weak. If it doesn’t get regular use, the conscience withers, eventually becomes calcified, and results in a hardening of the heart.

The following are just a few ways of gaining a healthy conscience and keeping it clear and clean:

Acknowledge

Make an acknowledgment of God. The Lord gave us an internal conscience of law and also an external code of law. They are both meant to operate together. The conscience needs to be formed from God’s revelation, that is, God’s written and natural laws; and then, we live life as God intends. 

The conscience is like a law written in the human heart. And it will show whether we are forgiven or condemned. (Romans 2:15, CEV)

“Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.”

St. Bonaventure

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22, NIV)

Affirm

Let your own good deeds and the works of others be affirmed. Have realistic expectations. The lack of affirmation slowly and imperceptibly poisons the soul and infects the conscience.

“I give thanks to God, whom I serve with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did. I thank him as I remember you always in my prayers night and day.” (2 Timothy 1:3, GNT)

Ask

Petition God for help. Pray for divine resources to assist you. Divine wisdom guides human affairs. Divine authority governs human community. Divine love gives shape to the human conscience.

Pray for us. Our consciences are clear, and we always try to live right. (Hebrews 13:18, CEV)

Allow

Let other people into your life, whether Christian, or not. Sharing thoughts and ideas, feelings and emotions, concerns and celebrations, are all a path toward a healthier spirit, a better awareness of self and others, and a stronger conscience.

If someone who isn’t a believer asks you home for dinner, accept the invitation if you want to. Eat whatever is offered to you without raising questions of conscience. (But suppose someone tells you, “This meat was offered to an idol.” Don’t eat it, out of consideration for the conscience of the one who told you. It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person.). (1 Corinthians 10:27-28, NLT)

Acquire

Develop the necessary spiritual skill set of wisdom and holiness to feed the conscience. Let grace be the primary teacher.

We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you. (2 Corinthians 1:12, NLT)

Pay attention to your conscience. Keep it clean and clear. It’s there to serve you well. So, let it.

Gracious God, you provide everything we need for life and godliness in this world. Help me to keep my conscience clear in all my words and actions; and keep it tender toward your will so that, through me, others might experience through the life-giving message of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.