Why is my conscience so sensitive?
I am a third-year student at a state university, and I’m writing for help with an issue that is absolutely torturing me. I read your article in First Things on conscience, and I figured you could help me out. I feel like my conscience has become a dictator. I feel like it’s not working properly.
For me, conscience is like God’s voice. So whenever the slightest impulse comes to suggest that something is a sin, I sit down to think about it. Over the past year I’ve been consumed by extreme guilt concerning matters that my parents think are ridiculous.
Sometimes I think that I am not really led by the Spirit, but by emotions. For example, I feel guilty for listening to classical music because I think about the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:18-19 (NKJV): “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The first thought that comes to mind in this instance is that the music I am listening to isn’t spiritual. But then the question “What is spiritual music?” comes to mind. I don’t think that listening to classical music is wrong, but I constantly feel guilty to the point where I can’t pray or carry on in my life.
I don’t struggle with issues that the Bible clearly discusses, like lying, hatred, pride or keeping your mind clear of adulterous thoughts. In all these cases I am sure of what God wants from me. I am talking about issues that the Bible does not discuss. For example I feel the need to throw out one possession after another out of fear that they have become my idol, when in fact, deep down inside, I don’t think I love the possession.
What is my problem? I have no one to talk to about this. My parents are genuine Christians, but they just do not understand me. I don’t know anyone that can help me with this issue. I came across the verse in Romans 14:23 which says, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not of faith is sin.” My problem is that if I were to stop listening to music because I can’t figure out if it’s “spiritual” or not, I wouldn’t be acting based on faith. In other words, I feel like I am sinning by listening to music, and I would feel like I was sinning if I was to stop.
Moreover, I am terrorized by passages like 1 John 3:8-9, which says that no one born of God commits sin. I am terrorized by God’s holiness. I am literally crushed. The more I read the Bible the more doubts I have about whether I am one of God’s chosen. I am sure the Calvinist view is the orthodox one. But then I am not sure if I am chosen. Where do I turn for help? I know prayer is the way, but I feel like I need a mature person to guide me.
I think you are asking seven different questions. Let’s take them in order.
- Is all this guilt and worrying appropriate or inappropriate? In your case, inappropriate. Of course, you should do your best to avoid sin, but when you have done your best to avoid it, and done your best to choose a path which is pleasing to God, then you should walk on that path boldly.
- Assuming that it’s inappropriate, what’s my problem? The older Christian writers had a name for what you’ve fallen into: “Excessive scrupulosity.” It’s the habit of worrying too much, in small matters, about whether you might be sinning. It is actually a sin. One reason is that, by spending all your time worrying about whether your life is holy, you are leaving yourself no time to actually live a holy life. Another reason is that excessive scrupulosity diverts your attention from God to yourself; continuous worry about the possibility of sin is a form of self-absorption. (Now don’t start feeling excessively guilty about excessive scrupulosity — just do something about it.)
- Why do I have the problem? People fall into excessive scrupulosity for various reasons. Some fall into it because it gives them a feeling of being in control — every action is scrutinized. Others fall into it because there is some real guilt which they are trying not to think about, and it expresses itself by making them feel guilty even about things that are innocent. Still others worry too much about sinning for reasons for which they are not necessarily to blame — for example bad theology, something bad that has been done to them, or a psychological disorder. I don’t know which of these reasons is behind your own tendency to be excessively scrupulous.
- What can I do about it? That depends on why you’ve fallen into it. If excessive scrupulosity feeds a need to feel “in control,” then practice the discipline of relaxing and yielding control to God. There lies freedom. If excessive scrupulosity results from some real guilt that you are trying not to think about, then repent and accept God’s forgiveness. There too lies freedom. If you have been taught bad theology (for example, a theology which says God does not forgive repented sin for the believer who turns to Christ), then learn good theology. If you are suffering from something bad which has been done to you, or if you have a psychological disorder, then seek the assistance of a Christian professional who is qualified to help you with such a problem.
- But is it really a problem? After all, how can I tell what’s right in doubtful matters? It’s not really that hard. There is such a thing as sanctified common sense — what the Bible calls “wisdom” — which supplements the Bible’s explicit commands. For example, concerning classical music: Is there anything in it that inevitably leads us away from God? I don’t think so. J.S. Bach inscribed his compositions “S.D.G.” — Soli Deo Gloria — to the glory of God. As you enjoy classical music, you can inscribe your listening with the same thought. And concerning possessions: Of course it’s good to live simply; luxury is one of the ways to make an idol of possessions. But to throw away all your possessions just out of fear is just another way to make an idol of them, because they are still ruling you. Either way you are making too much of them. Instead, take your possessions lightly, thinking less about possessions than about God and neighbor.
- When I sin, am I right to be terrified of passages like 1 John 3:8-9, which says that no one born of God commits sin? No. John doesn’t mean that if you ever discover that you’ve committed a single sin, you’re going to hell and there is no point in repenting. He is talking about obstinate, unrepented sin — sin we refuse to give up. After all, it is the same John, in the same letter, who wrote “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). So: You should fear sin; you should fear obstinacy; and you should fear refusal to repent. But you should not fear that God does not desire your restoration, and you should not fear that He won’t forgive you when you do repent.
- If Calvinism is correct, then how can I know whether I am one of the elect? It goes beyond my office as “Theophilus” to declare whether Calvinism is correct or incorrect. But what Calvin taught was that certain people were foreordained never to repent, never to turn to Christ, never to persevere in faith, and never to receive the mercy of God. He never taught that someone could repent, turn to Christ, persevere in faith, and yet not receive the mercy of God.
Here is a prayer for you. “Oh, my God, my Rescuer, I hardly know how to find my own faults. The burden of them is intolerable. Forgive me for wrongs both known and unknown. Cleanse me from secret sins. When you cleanse me, I shall be clean indeed. Thank you for allowing me the release of confession, of forgiveness, and of new life. Thank you for your love, and for the assurance that I cannot be parted from it. Thank you for being the full and sufficient sacrifice for all my sin and guilt. I pray in the name of your son Jesus Christ, and in the help of His Spirit. Amen.”
I’ll pray for you too.
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2003 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.