What comes to mind when you hear the word “conscience”? Do you think of Jiminy Cricket who told little Pinocchio that when he didn’t know what to do, just give a little whistle and always let your conscience be your guide? It has been said that the conscience is the inner voice that warns us someone may be looking.
So what exactly is a conscience? A conscience is a bit like an alarm. We have alarms in our cars that I don’t think anyone listens to anymore. All the alarm is good for now is finding your car when you can’t remember where you parked it. We have alarms in our homes, including smoke detectors. My smoke detector only goes off at 3 in the morning – not because there is a fire, but because it needs a new battery. The only way to stop it from chirping is to actually get up and replace the battery. The temptation is to disable that alarm, because I don’t want to listen to it chirp. And that is the temptation with a conscience: to ignore it or to try and disable it.
But if your conscience is working and reminding you that something you are doing or something you have said is wrong, then that is a good thing. That is what we all want. We want a conscience that is tender, a conscience that works properly. We don’t want to try to disable it, and we certainly don’t want to dull it. In fact, the Bible warns that our conscience can be seared.
This speaks of having a conscience that is calloused and hard.
Everyone has a conscience. We were all born with one, given to us from God. The Bible tells us that even those who do not have God’s law “demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.”
The Bible tells the story of a man with a very guilty conscience. In fact, his conscience ultimately went dead. He knew what was right but simply refused to do it. His conscience was captive to his own whims and moods. Yet he had no excuse for this, because he had John the Baptist as his personal preacher. Despite hearing countless messages by John, he did what was wrong. His name was Herod, often known as Herod Antipas.
This Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the paranoid ruler who would execute anyone whom he perceived as a potential threat to his throne. When the wise men from the East came looking for the one who was called the King of the Jews, they paid a visit to Herod the Great. The Bible says that Herod was troubled – and all Jerusalem with him.
That is because whenever Herod freaked out, it meant that heads were going to come off. Quickly. So when Herod was shaken, everything would be shaken.
His son, Herod Antipas, was in power when John the Baptist burst on the scene, telling people to repent. He was the direct forerunner of Jesus and an extremely popular character. In fact, it is worth nothing that Josephus wrote more about John than he did about Jesus.
John was everything Herod was not. They were polar opposites. While Herod was unsure and torn and proud and so worried about the opinions of others, John was sure and humble and concerned only with the opinion of God. Herod was a man who lived in spineless weakness, but in contrast, John was a man of immense moral courage.
Herod had John arrested and kept him under guard because he saw him as a threat. At the same time, he admired this man of God and would spend considerable time in his presence, listening to him. In fact, the Bible gives us this detail: “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”
This is amazing when you consider the fact that John called out Herod on his sin.
The Bible tells us simply that Herod was married to Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. But there is a little more to the story that we find from history. Indeed, he did marry his brother’s wife. But it gets even worse. Because Herodias was the daughter of Philip’s half-brother, that made her his niece. It had all the makings of a daytime talk show: kings who marry their sister-in-laws who actually are their nieces. So John told Herod that it was wrong.
Yet Herod put up with John the Baptist because he admired him. Herod didn’t do the most important thing, however, which was to repent of his sin. And while he liked to talk to John and was fascinated by him, his wife was not impressed by John at all. In fact, Herodias hated John. She wanted him out of the picture, but she didn’t have the authority to give the order.
So when Herod celebrated his birthday, Herodias saw her opportunity. Her daughter Salome danced before the king, and lust took hold of Herod. He offered to give Salome whatever she wanted, up to half of his kingdom. So, prompted by her mother, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
This was a crisis of conscience for Herod. Would he do what is right? Or would he do what he thought others expected him to do? We all have our moments when we have to make a decision, when we face a crisis of conscience. There are politicians who, for years, have not made a single decision based on principle but have voted only for that which would keep them in office. We need fewer politicians and more statesmen today. It has been said that a politician sees only to the next election, while a statesman sees to the next generation.
In Herod’s case, lust and the fear of not pleasing others took hold of him. And with one gesture from the king to the executioner, the great prophet was gone. Herod knew it was wrong, but he did it anyway. And unbeknownst to him, his conscience was dying.
How do you kill a conscience? A little bit at a time. It starts with trying to disable your conscience when it is troubling you. Then as time passes, your conscience gets more and more difficult to hear. It has been said that when someone won’t listen to his conscience, it is usually because he doesn’t want advice from a stranger. So listen to your conscience. That is how you will keep it from dying.