A rightly formed conscience is one of our best defenses against the devil. Temptation is his greatest weapon against us. Therefore, being able to choose correctly between good and evil protects us from his attacks.
What is conscience?
The word conscience gets thrown around a lot nowadays. It can cause confusion because people use the word to justify all kinds of actions. The deeply personal desire to do some sinful action is not conscience. It’s something else entirely (and it’s not good.)
In a nutshell, a person’s conscience helps them to determine right and wrong, or more to the point good and evil. It is the moral compass that helps us to navigate in the midst of a dazzling array of choices.
As I’ve said before in talking about the devil’s attacks, human beings are moral creatures. This makes them unique in the animal kingdom. A tiger can never commit murder. It kills food, as it should.
Animals act simply from instinct, without any freedom to choose. If a tiger thinks you look tasty and like easy prey, you’re toast. Or steak. Dinner.
Freedom gives us humans a unique ability to make choices. Good choices and evil choices. If we see a pile of candy on our office mate’s desk, we can choose whether or not we want to act on the signals our hungry tummy is sending to our brains.
Conscience can help us to make the right choice.
What does it mean that a conscience is formed?
Unfortunately, our conscience differs from animal instinct. It doesn’t come pre-programmed. In fact, due to the Fall and original sin, our conscience starts out with errors that theologians call “concupiscence”. These errors make it difficult for us to know the truth and to choose the good. The flaws also make it easy for us to believe lies and choose evil. Original sin is a doozy.
Our Christian journey starts with Baptism, which erases the stain of original sin, and imparts the grace for us to know, love, and serve God. At that point, each person must actively participate in forming their conscience through prayer, study, and practice.
The positive and negative moral law (the good you should do and the evil you shouldn’t) are objective truths. They are universals. That means that they hold true no matter what culture you come from, or what time in history you inhabit.
Cannibalism is always evil. So is incest, murder, and a whole host of other actions.
Serving the poor is always good. Taking care of widows and orphans is always pleasing to God.
These objective moral truths never change, even if the hairstyles, clothing, and architecture of a culture do.
The devil knows this. He hates it because it makes his job harder. If you know these universal truths about the moral law, you’ll be able to recognize and reject his temptations more easily.
Forming your conscience means accepting the objective moral law.
Unfortunately, you have to choose who to believe, and these beliefs will then influence your choices. If you choose to believe Epicurean philosophers, you might believe that pleasure is always good and suffering is always evil. This belief might inspire you to pursue pleasure in a way that is evil according to the objective moral law.
Our Catholic faith teaches us that the Church has been entrusted with the sure rule of of morality by God Himself. While some cultures or philosophies might contain some part of the objective moral law, only the Church teaches the full truth.
Having a properly formed conscience means that you know and have accepted what the Catholic Church teaches about the moral law and do your best to live that out in your daily life.
How can you form your conscience?
The beautiful thing about formation of conscience is that you can start today. The grace of God’s forgiveness gives the power for the most hardened sinner to become the most perfect of saints. You just have to start where you are.
The formation of conscience will involve your intellect and your will: your “thinker” and your “doer”.
First off, you have to know the moral law. Start with reading the bible. The sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew chapters 5-7) talks a lot about the moral law. The wisdom books, (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Song of Songs) are packed with useful and practical tools for living a moral life.
The next source is the teaching documents of the Church. The various catechisms produced throughout the ages by the various saints and councils are tremendous resources for coming to understand the moral law. One of my favorites is the Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Still, it’s not enough to be a knower of the law; you have to be a doer also. This is more difficult, in my opinion, especially if you have not cultivated virtuous habits. Vice, the habit of doing evil, gets as deeply ingrained in you as virtue does, and it’s difficult to root it out. Actually, it’s impossible without grace.
The sacrament of confession is your most powerful weapon against vicious habits, because the grace of the sacrament forgives the sins, heals the wounds caused by sin, and strengthens us to reject sin in the future.
Enter the school of truth and love.
While this might sound difficult (and in truth it is), forming your conscience according to the truth is well worth the effort. A properly formed conscience will help you to avoid evil and choose good. Who in the world doesn’t want more good and less evil in their lives?
God will bless you in your efforts, but the devil will resist you with increasing resolve. He knows that a properly formed conscience sinks his battleship.
To read my story of how Jesus Christ snatched me from the snares of the devil, get my new book Demoniac on Amazon.com.
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