By David Hegg
Sometimes things we hear all the time can slowly creep into our belief system as though they were true. But, as a general rule, most general rules generalize truth to the place where they are untrustworthy. They may be clever, but that doesn’t make them useful.
Here’s an example. We’ve all been told, “Just let conscience be your guide.” And while this may have some general benefit, in most cases we should never let our consciences be our guides.
The conscience is really just your own morality alarm clock. It goes off when you are about to cross over some line. But the problem is, like your alarm, you get to set your conscience, or at least feed it the information that informs it as to what is right and wrong. You train your conscience according to your own beliefs, and then you expect it to tell you when you’re about to color outside the lines.
When you’re sleeping and your alarm goes off, you have a choice. You can get up or hit the snooze button and drift off for seven more glorious minutes. The conscience acts similarly. When it starts poking you with some conviction, you can reprogram it through rationalization and continue down your chosen path.
But here’s the problem. As you reprogram your conscience it becomes less and less your guardian and more and more your advocate. As you change the information used to program it, you adapt its warnings to fit your lifestyle. We call this a seared conscience. It is no longer sensitive to wrong. Now it isn’t your guide but your cheerleader that encourages you to do things once considered out of bounds. In this state, letting your conscience be your guide is like letting a con man handle your investments. You are getting taken for a ride with your eyes open on a street with no guardrails.
Another popular aphorism is, “They won’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” In certain situations, this is so true, as in my world of preaching. People want to know I care about them and certainly caring for people is essential in pastoral ministry. But in most cases, we ought to care more about whether the person teaching us cares for the truth more than us. In some respects, it is both foolish and selfish to restrict what I might learn from someone else on the basis of whether I feel loved.
If I end up in the emergency room with a serious injury or illness, frankly I don’t care if the attending physician cares about me as a person. What I do hope is that he cares about being a good doctor. It would be nice if he were nice, but I’ll take a crabby, aloof, isolated and insolated expert in saving my life anytime.
Of course, in both these cases there is enough truth in the clichés to help us, if we think about them correctly. If we instruct our consciences with something other than personal needs and wants, then it can be a helpful guide. I fill mine with biblical beliefs and try to keep it honed by not going against it or hitting the snooze button.
And as for the connection between caring and learning, it is always best if relationship accompanies instruction. But while that is the goal, I hope you’ll recognize the need sometimes to learn from those you’ll never meet, never know, or never go to lunch with.
Clichés are nice, but they should never be a replacement for virtues, values, or carefully considered ethical standards. They usually are clever, but not comprehensive enough to trust.
And you can take that to the bank.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.