How Christian conscience can be developed at the different levels of human behavior
Conscience does develop. The meaning of “right,” “wrong,” and “permissible” changes as a child grows up. The levels of this development can be distinguished in various ways, but at least three levels must be recognized.
First, the physical environment conditions small children; for example, they learn quickly by experience not to touch hot radiators. The social environment, usually principally the parents, also teaches children, not simply conditions them. Their relationship with other persons is interpersonal; the child feels the importance of the bond. Imitating and conforming to others wins their reassuring approval. To behave in a way which brings a negative reaction from persons to whom the child is strongly bonded is to experience not-being-loved, insecurity, aloneness, being cut off, being bad.
In effect, the child experiences something of the reality of the evil which is disharmony in the existential domain. Even at an infantile level, interpersonal disharmony sets up inner conflict. The child quickly learns that misbehavior engenders this experience of inner conflict—an experience obviously much more repugnant to the child than many other negative experiences which it begins to accept in order to avoid this one. This initial level is called “superego,” since the authority of good and bad is interiorized in the child as a personal authority overseeing the child’s own desiring and scheming ego.
Second, growing children meet and mingle and begin to interact with one another. For each other they constitute a new type of social environment. Here the relationships are more on a par; the children need one another. They have certain common interests and begin to form a voluntary association to pursue them. In doing this, they learn the necessity of a certain level of norms centered in fairness and the control of impulses necessary to attain desired ends. To behave in a way the group disapproves both threatens participation and elicits criticism.
At a new and more articulate level, the child experiences disharmony in the existential domain. Interpersonal disharmony and inner conflict again are linked, but since the relationships are shaped by discourse, the child experiences the stupidity of its own wrongdoing. To avoid this sort of stupidity, to maintain solidarity with the peer group, the child once more must limit its impulses, accept certain objectives as its own, and affirm its identity as a member of society. This second level of conscience can be called “social convention,” since the authority of good and evil is located in the group and in those who speak and act for it.
Third, if all goes well, the young person in adolescence begins more and more to understand basic human goods and the principles of responsibility. These are not tied to existing interpersonal relationships, but they open up the possibility of new and deeper relationships. There arises a desire to share in commitment to a worthy cause; to love and be loved in ways which go deeper than the rather superficial relationships of most groups formed by accident (children in a neighborhood, in a school class, and so on). The model of persons who are or were dedicated to human goods and lived heroic lives has vibrant appeal.
Once more, the young person experiences disharmony in the existential domain, but only now in its full depth and reality. One finds one’s inner self torn, with feelings at odds with reason. One realizes that one’s ideals are not expressed in one’s life. One often is disappointed in love and disillusioned with the imperfections of one’s heroes. One knows one must come to terms with reality and is reluctant to do so.
How Christian Conscience can be developed
We must remember that acting against conscience is sin.
When we sin, the conscience is troubled. It accuses us. The conscience is the tool that God the Holy Spirit uses to convict us, bring us to repentance, and to receive the healing of forgiveness that flows from the gospel
For the Christian, the conscience is not the ultimate authority in life. We are called to have the mind of Christ, to know the good, and to have our minds and hearts trained by God’s truth so that when the moment of pressure comes, we will be able to stand with integrity.
When we sin, the conscience is troubled. It accuses us. The conscience is the tool that God the Holy Spirit uses to convict us, bring us to repentance, and to receive the healing of forgiveness that flows from the gospel.
Definition of sin
Sin is any action, feeling, or thought that goes against God’s standards. It includes breaking God’s laws by doing what is wrong, or unrighteous, in God’s sight. (1 John 3:4; 5:17) The Bible also describes sins of omission—that is, failing to do what is right.—James 4:17.
What does it means to be a sinner
Everyone who was born in Adam is a sinner. This is what Romans 5:19 tells us. If you open up J.N. Darby’s New Translation, you will find that he used the words have been constituted sinners. We are all sinners by constitution. When you write a resume, there are two things that you must put in. One is your birthplace, and the other is your profession. According to God, we are sinners by birth, and we are those who sin by profession. Because we are sinners by birth, we are always sinners, whether we sin or not.
There are two kinds of sinners in the world—the sinning sinners and the moral sinners. But whether you are a sinning sinner or a moral sinner, you are still a sinner. God says that all who are born in Adam are sinners. It does not matter what kind of person you are; as long as you are born in Adam, you are a sinner. If you sin, you are a sinning sinner.
And if you have not sinned, or to be more accurate, if you have sinned less, you are a moral sinner, or a sinner who sins little. If you are a noble person, you are a noble sinner. If you consider yourself holy, you are a holy sinner. In any case, you are still a sinner. Today the biggest mistake among men is to consider a man a sinner only because he has sinned; if he has not sinned, he is not considered a sinner. But there is no such thing. Whether you sin or not, as long as you are a man, you are a sinner. As long as you are born in Adam, you are a sinner. A man does not become a sinner because he sins; rather, he sins because he is a sinner.
Therefore, my friends, remember God’s Word. We are sinners; we do not become sinners. We do not need to become sinners.
A “sinner” does not mean “having done things wrong” (although that is true). It doesn’t even mean that we will always do things wrong in the future (also true). It means that humans are – at root, ontologically – always in need of the living mercy of God.
African traditional ideas about sin
Some societies see evil as originating from or associated with spiritual beings other than God. Part of this concept is a personification of evil itself. According to Mbiti (1969: 204), the Vugusu say that there is an evil divinity which God created good, but later turned against him and began to do evil. This evil divinity is assisted by evil spirits and all evil now comes from that lot. Thus, a kind of duel exists, between good and evil forces in the world. There are other people who regard death, epidemics, locusts and other major calamities as divinities in
themselves or caused by divinities.
Among the Iteso, for example, Edeke is a god or spirit who brings death, epidemics and other calamities. The same word is used for the calamities themselves. Edeke is then the embodiment of evil itself.
In nearly all African societies, it is thought that the spirits are either the origin of evil or agents of evil. When human spirits become detached from human contact, people experience or fear them as “evil” or “harmful”.
Some are believed to possess individuals and to cause various maladies like epilepsy and madness. If the dead are not properly buried, or have a grudge, are neglected or not obeyed when they give instructions, it is thought that they take revenge or punish the offenders. In this case, it is human beings who provoke the spirits of the
dead to act in “evil” ways.
In Africa also, there are people in every community who are suspected of working maliciously against their relatives and neighbors through the use of magic, sorcery and witchcraft. This is the centre of evil as people
experience it. Mystical power is neither good nor evil in itself: but when used maliciously by some individuals it is
experienced as evil. This view makes evil an independent and external object which, however, cannot act on its own
but must be employed by human or spiritual agents. People here become incarnations of evil power.
In fact, the African conceive that there are certain classes of people, age groups, clans, among others. (for example,
those with red eyes, squinted eyes, shifty people, very old single people, the greedy) who possess these potentially
destructive powers. They can harm their victims by just uttering evil words or gazing at them or applying some witchcraft, magic or sorcery.
What Africans did to limit or prevent sin
In traditional African religion and culture, both human sin and evil are perceived in terms of the breaking of peaceful relationships within the community (see Maimela 1982). Mbiti (1991:200) argues that African people recognise social order and peace as essential and sacred. Any disruption of these would therefore be regarded as sin, and would thereby be punishable. However, at times, this sense of peace and harmony may be disrupted and this is typically understood to be the work of the evil spirits. Apart from the direct impact that evil spirits are seen to have on people’s lives, it is also believed that certain individuals within the community manipulate these forces to accomplish their evil deeds. This usually transpires in the form of witchcraft and sorcery.
According to Thorpe (1996), witchcraft is the major form of disruption within the community, since it represents the dark malevolent feelings that lie in human hearts, namely hatred, envy, vengefulness and malice. After spending a period of approximately five years in Soweto, Ashworth (1996: 91) observes that although people hardly speak about witchcraft in public, except to those close to them, it is part of ordinary life and something that all people are concerned with. Parish (1999: 438) makes similar observations about witchcraft in her study of the Akan society. Both Ashworth (1996) and Parish (1999) agree that jealousy is the root cause why people inflict harm against each other through witchcraft.
According to the Shona, witchcraft manifest in anti-social behaviour: “Their conduct is an inversion of that which is approved of by society, and this disregard for generally accepted norms gives them their extraordinary power to harm their fellow men” (Bucher 1980:110). According to this description, evil spirits are the reason why there is unrest within the community. Firstly, they attack people and cause illnesses and thereby cause people to point fingers at each other. Secondly, and more importantly, with the aid of these forces, those who want to cause misery and make life difficult for others do so without any difficulty.
One may therefore argue that human sin is regarded in terms of a disruption by evil forces. Sin is the result of the contamination of evil. Again, this description may be too simplistic. Individual human guilt is usually acknowledged in African worldviews and moral philosophy (see Mbiti
1969, Turner 1967, Sawyerr 1964, 1972, Adegbola 1969, and Pobee 1979). In fact, a pervasive sense of guilt may perhaps be regarded as the polar opposite of social rhetoric where the blame for wrongdoing is placed on external evil forces. In a society where social patterns are governed by a sense of honour and of shame, it is extremely difficult to accept responsibility for wrongdoing publicly. A confession of guilt is therefore often repressed. Guilt is something that is widely recognized, but remains hidden deep beneath the surface. It is present only as the unspeakable. To know that you have done wrong and to fear that this may become public knowledge causes immense anxiety, as is expressed in the Xhosa notion of “Isazela” which is used to refer to being haunted by an acute sense of guilt which may manifest itself in psychosomatic illness and intense suffering. Nonetheless, the emphasis in traditional African culture on evil forces that may influence and contaminate society is quite striking.
Christian understanding of sin
Sin formerly was considered as a fall from a higher to a lower state, as transgression of prohibitory law, as guilt whose punishment should be imprisonment and torment. The fall of man, original sin, actual transgression, and eternal punishment were themes for the pulpit and truths for the people. But men who regard themselves as evolving from a lower to a higher state, as part of a community whose sentiments, principles, and practices shape their individual choice and courage, and as children to whom God is a Father rather than a King, are not deeply impressed by doctrines of sin which once profoundly influenced men.
This is here called a Christian conception, rather than the Christian conception, because it does not exclude other facts and ideas of sin. The fall of a moral being from a higher to a lower state is sin; but the voluntary failure of a moral being to zise from a lower to a higher state is also sin. To eat forbidden fruit which gives the knowledge of evil is sin; to refuse to eat the fruit of the tree of life is also sin.
Disobedience to the command of God as King is sin; but refusal to accept the invitation of God as Father is also sin. Self- will which accepts and follows the way of lust fullness is sin; but unbelief which refuses to accept and to follow the guidance and the way of divine love is also sin.
The Christian conception of sin is this: the refusal of man to hear the voice of God; the declination by man
of the divine invitation to believe in God and to be served by him; the rejection by man of the spirit of love and life; the failure on the part of man to attain “unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’
This is Christ’s conception of sin and to his teachings attention is now chiefly invited.
Jesus’ thought of man is that man is a creature made to be born again born anew, born into the kingdom of heaven born into such relations as make him conscious of God, voluntarily dependent upon him, and obedient to him.
A man must be born into the kingdom of heaven, because he is made for that
kingdom. He has capacities which can never be filled save by communion with God. He has powers which can never be developed save by the service of God. Refusal, on the part of man, to fulfill the conditions of that birth is sin unto death.