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A Word on the Overly Sensitive Conscience

Earlier this month, a lobsterman in Maine caught an extremely rare lobster.[1] Tucked among the more normally colored lobsters was a bright blue lobster with flecks of pink and green. This “cotton-candy” lobster was estimated to be a 1-in-100 million catch. That is to say, what makes it news is that it is exceedingly rare to find a lobster with such a strikingly colored shell—they just don’t pop up in lobster traps very often.

In my sermon on Acts 24, I focused on the contrast between seared/pricked consciences and Paul’s clear conscience before God and man. I did that because that’s what the text presented, but I’m also convinced that the majority of people fall into the category of seared/pricked consciences. Rare is the person with an overly sensitive conscience. Such people are the cotton-candy lobsters of the Christian community, I would say.

However rare the overly sensitive conscience might be, I did want to say a word about it. Since time constraints did not permit me to bring it up in the sermon, my thoughts have been put down in this reflection. Now, our first task is to define an overly sensitive conscience. This is the kind of conscience that “is always judging, always asking whether something is good. Such a conscience never discerns the good immediately and clearly but is quickly frightened and becomes timid.” Furthermore, Bavinck notes the contrast between this type of conscience and a tender conscience in that the tender conscience “is horrified by sin and cannot bear it in the least.”[2] To put it another way, the tender conscience is the nerve that rightly responds to the stimulus while the overly sensitive conscience is the raw nerve that cannot process the stimulus but is always “on.”

With respect to living the Christian life, the overly sensitive conscience interferes with the peace of communion with God and the assurance of salvation. It interferes with the peace of communion with God because the self-conscious is never in a settled relation to God. Since it is “always judging, always asking,” it is never resting. That, in turn, affects one’s assurance of salvation. If your conscience is never in a settled, resting relation to God—as far as the peace that you have with God as you live your life before him—then you’ll find it difficult to be assured of your salvation. What if I’ve displeased my Father in heaven with my life? Will he acknowledge me before humanity? How can I know that I have peace with God until he comes in final judgment? Such are some challenges of an overly sensitive conscience as it works out in one’s life.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, a leading cause of an overly sensitive conscience is a constantly doubting conscience. Now, the idea of a doubting conscience itself isn’t necessarily a problem. A doubting conscience can arise because the matter at hand is unfamiliar to someone. To maintain a clear conscience, you must have some apprehension of how an intention or action relates to God’s revealed will. That is to say, how does this intention or action relate to loving God and loving neighbor? Sometimes, digging deeper into God’s will is the remedy for a doubting conscience.

But, other times, even when you have looked into a matter, you may still be left wondering what you should do. How do I remain faithful to God in this or that situation? What is the lawful option, in the sense of following the law of Christ, in this or that situation? If the matter is particularly tricky, this doubt can persistent. And in that case, the testimony of Scripture is that you abstain, for, using the example of eating, Paul says, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23 ESV).

As I said before, a doubting conscience isn’t necessarily a problem, but when a doubting conscience is the constant state of an individual, it tends towards an overly sensitive conscience that paralyzes the person into inaction, or worse action inconsistent with a settled relation with God.

Now, the remedy for an overly sensitive conscience is not to partially sear it so that it “feels” less! Rather, the same remedy applied to a pricked conscience can be applied in this situation. Diving into God’s Word makes his grace and mercy more and more evident to the one who is paralyzed by a fear of judgment. Confessing one’s sins before our sympathetic high priest reminds us that we have a ready solution for guilt and shame. Cultivating a holy life clears us of the baggage of this world so that we can freely and peacefully commune with God.

Dear believer, if you suffer from an overly sensitive conscience, hear the good news that the Lord Jesus gives rest to the lowly and heavily burdened. Cast your cares on him, and find that your conscience is cleared.

[1] [2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 1:211-12.

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