The Joy of a Clear Conscience

If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?
– Genesis 4:7 –

These words, spoken by God to Cain, deal with what may well be the single most profound aspect of human experience – the work of conscience. 

Cain and his brother each brought an offering to God, related to his life’s work.  Cain was “a tiller of the ground,” and Abel, “a keeper of flocks.”  The Lord was pleased with Abel’s offering, but had “no regard” for Cain’s.  Why?  Because Abel brought his offering in faith and Cain did not (Heb. 11:4). 

This difference is intimated in how their respective offerings are described.  It is said of Cain, simply, that he “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground.”  But concerning Abel, it says he brought the “firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.”  This means, as Cassuto explains, that “whilst Abel was concerned to choose the finest thing in his possession, Cain was indifferent.”[1]   

Cain held back the best portions for himself and gave the leftovers to God.[2]  In so doing, he betrayed a lack of faith.  As a result, his offering was rejected, and seeing this, “his countenance fell.”  That is, his mood expressed itself physically.  His body language (slumping shoulders, hanging head, and troubled look) betrayed his inner state.  He was sullen and depressed, both inevitable consequences of wrongdoing.[3]  Inevitable, because God has given us the ability to pass judgment on ourselves, either approving or disapproving our behavior (Rom. 2:15).  We do this necessarily.  It’s something we cannot not do.  We can no more escape it than we can escape being human. 

When we do what is right, we experience an inner moral harmony.  All is right between God and my soul.  But when we do wrong, we suffer internal dissonance, a contradiction between what we know to be right and a consciousness of guilt.  The result is shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, and often – as in Cain’s case – anger toward God (for not accepting our behavior) and toward the righteous (because their good behavior stands as a rebuke of our sin). 

In 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger, one of America’s foremost psychiatric experts wrote an insightful book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin?  In it, he lamented the fact that the word “sin” had virtually disappeared from our vocabulary.  As a psychiatrist, mind you (not fundamentalist preacher!), he saw a deep connection between mental health and moral health. 

“Has the reader dismissed the whole sin-and-guilt business from his mind?  Can he?  And the anxiety and depression, also?  Just call it existential, do you, and plod onward?  If so, congratulations.  Some of us can’t do that.  It is a burning sore, a deep grief, a heartache for many of us.”[4]

For all his insights, Menninger was a secular man and therefore didn’t understand just how deeply embedded and how pervasive a thing sin really is in human nature and experience, nor did he fully understand the objective character and divine origin of the moral code; but he was an astute enough observer of his patients to recognize that so much of the “depression, gloom, discouragement, and apprehensiveness” people suffer is the result of a guilty conscience. 

The work of conscience lies at the heart of our self-esteem.  When we do what is right, we can think well of ourselves and experience true joy; but when we do wrong, we can’t help but to condemn ourselves and suffer a kind of self-loathing.  No one can feel good about himself while his own conscience condemns him.  Hence the futility of basing one’s self-esteem on anything other than a clear conscience (e.g., wealth, beauty, educational or professional accomplishments, social standing, etc.).

Paul spoke often of importance of maintaining a clear conscience.  When tried before the Roman governor, he said, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).  In writing to the church at Corinth he said,

For our boast is this: the testimony of our conscience that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. (2 Cor. 1:12)

There were those who had accused him of wrongdoing, of being a false apostle, of having false motives in preaching, of claiming too much authority for himself.  But he knew otherwise.  His conscience was clear.   

He wrote to Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).  Elsewhere, he said,

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.  By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith. (1 Tim. 1:18-19)

Cain’s countenance fell when he sinned; he was grieved and crushed.[5]  But the Lord said, “Why are you angry, and why is your face fallen?  If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” (Gen. 4:6-7a).  These are not words of rebuke, but an expression of comfort and fatherly counsel.[6]  The Lord was encouraging him to return to the path of obedience as the only remedy to relieve his guilty conscience.  This is our only remedy, too. 

All too often, however, we seek alternative cures.  Sometimes this takes the form of euphemizing our sins.  They are no longer sins – offenses against God – but mistakes, errors, lapses in judgments.  Sometimes we justify ourselves.  “What I did may have been wrong, but…”  Perhaps we even deny we did the deed in question; or worse, deny the sinful deed was sinful; or worse still, dare to claim the deed was in fact good.  All of this proves the truth of Jeremiah 17:9,

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?

With every justification, denial, and evasion, conscience registers its dissent and our inner turmoil grows.  We can no more escape this than we can escape our humanity. 

I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me
    — Psalm 51:3

The burden of a troubled conscience, especially when strengthened by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, can be unbearable.  The more we try to convince ourselves that we have done nothing to be ashamed of, the further we alienate ourselves, not only from God but also from ourselves.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up
    as by the heat of summer.
    — Psalm 32:3-4

The only relief from this – the only path back to an inner moral harmony – is the path of repentance, which is to say, a return to a life of obedience.  “If you do well [note the conditional clause!] will not your countenance be lifted up?”  The body language once again reflecting the inner mood, which is itself the product of an approving conscience.   

To borrow the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a return to obedience – combined with a direct and earnest appeal to God for mercy through Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 9:14) – will result in “peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[7]  There is no better or more joyful way to live. 

[1] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998), p. 205. 
[2] At a later period, the Lord would deliver a scathing rebuke to the priests for despising his name by bringing him unworthy offerings.  “Is that not evil?” he said.  “Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor?” (Mal. 1:6-14). 
[3] The experience of Adam and Eve show that shame and fear of retribution are also among the effects of a guilty conscience (see Gen. 2:25; 3:8-10).
[4] Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (New York, NY:  Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973), p. 17.
[5] Cassuto, p. 207
[6] Cassuto, p. 208
      [7] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A #36.


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