Monday, July 9, 2012

A Complicated Conscience-Friendly Counseling

In counseling many cases, if not all, involve making right and wrong decisions, discerning good and bad, and judging the moral appropriateness of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Conscience is a faculty that works in service of this dimension according to one’s value framework.

The Oxford Dictionary defines conscience as "a moral sense of right and wrong especially as felt by a person and affecting behavior or an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one's behavior." Thus, there is the notion that the conscience both reflects upon and directs an individual’s choices and behavior. The traditional Christian view, based on Bible verses like Rom 2:14-15, is that all people know right and wrong because they have been given the conscience as faculty by God. The Apostle Paul particularly alludes to it when referring to those who now know the will of God for governing their lives. Jerome suggested that the conscience is “a spark of the divine mind” (Kirk, 1927, p. 379) and Calvin associated it with an awareness of God’s existence, sensus divinitas, within all people (Zachmann, 1993,p. 102). Thus, conscience significantly displays God’s image in human beings.

Although conscience takes a central role in helping people to live better lives through counseling and to reconnect with godliness in their hearts, counselors rarely address this word in the session. Most counselees we see come to us with significant depression, suicidal thoughts, and a self-degrading attitude. We may be afraid that bringing up the matters of conscience will escalate their feelings of guilt. Besides a feeling of guilt, another emotion which is often associated with the conscience is shame. While guilt refers to a negative feeling about doing something wrong, shame refers to a negative feeling about being fundamentally wrong in one’s self (Tangney & Dearing, 2004, p.25). As both are moral emotions, they sense some kinds of wrongness accompanied with uneasiness, anxiety, irritation, anger, and so forth. Counselors tend to deal with more psychological symptoms and try to ease negative feelings quickly rather than to work on the conscience. We counselors are professionally trained not to be judgmental or to make moral verdicts for counselees. Nevertheless, Christian counselors are called to work at the highest levels possible (Johnson, 2007). The task should not be how to avoid addressing ethical concerns but how to skillfully help people enhance their moral awareness. In particular, for Christian counselors who are working in secular environments, working with people on their ethical levels can be the best attempt to ignite ‘the spark of the divine mind’ in themselves.

In a deeper sense, the proper work of conscience should enliven people in their relationship with God. Bonheoffer explains shame as a reminder of man’s disunion with God, and conscience is “the sign” of man’s disunion with himself (1963. p. 24). In the historical redemptive story, shame and guilt are pervasive emotions in the Fall. In redemption,
the sense of shame can be removed because the individual becomes a new self in Christ, whereas guilt, as the result of a proper function of conscience, is sustained in order to make right decisions and to correct wrong ones.
It does not mean, however, one should be guided by conscience alone. Bonheoffer warns that a conscience can be deceived.  In “disunion with God,” the conscience pretends to be the voice of God and the standard for relation to the self and to other men (1963. p. 25). Hence, man, not God, becomes the origin of good and evil. However, what matters is God's judgment (1 Cor. 4:4). Our conscience should not judge us.

In attempting to explain the issue of conscience, Paul first states that having a victorious conscience is not enough to acquit him. Conscience helps us to perceive the law and its violation. Yet we should not rest not on the conscience alone, but it’s confirmation by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 9:1). Indeed, in Titus 1:15, Paul remarks that their "minds and consciences are defiled.”  He goes further by acknowledging that a conscience influenced by a false understanding can be oversensitive (1 Cor. 8:7, 10). Thus, even without mentioning its relation to the biological and psychosocial dimensions and their proper functions, like any other faculty of soul, understanding conscience is a very complicated process, and working it out to the fullest capacity as the way God intended is probably more than just a tough job.

Thankfully, we find wonderful examples of understanding and working conscience in the Puritans’ writings. In particular, John Bunyan profoundly captured the complicated dynamics of conscience discussed above. He warned Christians to be aware of Satan's work of blinding and numbing their consciences, and “to awaken and rouse up thine heart” through hearing, reading, and meditating on God's Word (Bunyan, 1980, p. 13). Simultaneously, however, Bunyan thought that having a burdened conscience was sinful. In The Pilgrim's Progress, a person in the Slough of Despond has a burdened conscience and tries to purge his guilt in a manner that parallels Christian's attempt to rid himself of his burden. He becomes discouraged and then tries to absolve himself through works of law. John Bunyan's understanding of conscience echoes the pattern that he learned from Martin Luther's Commentary on Galatians: “The natural conscience is aware of its impurity before God's law; it tries to exonerate itself by performing good works but only creates a false god in the process; it becomes tender when it hears the proclamation of the gospel, and finally it becomes good only when it ceases to listen to its own voice and trusts in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ for salvation” (Bunyan, p.132). For Bunyan, natural conscience, which is related to the condemnation that follows all Mosaic Law violations, should be redeemed by Christ's death and blood. The redeemed conscience is pictured in The Pilgrims Progress when Hopeful says, after conversion, how he felt the threat of God's wrath and thought of how to ease his anxiety by his own works while his sins only “got faster hold of my conscience” (p.139-140). He finally felt peace after he realized that salvation is not by works. From this experience, he began to understand why Temporary – from the town of Graceless – quit his pilgrimage: "Though the consciences of such men are awakened, yet their minds are not changed: therefore when the power of guilt weareth away, they provoked them to be religious” (p. 152). Hence, from Bunyan's viewpoint, conscience is not autonomous and must be reflected on the Cross of Christ.

Making implications from these concepts in counseling sessions can be challenging. Starting at the ground level, as Christian soul care providers, we help people keep their natural conscience responsive so that they are keenly aware of wrong thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in their daily lives. This work must not be minimized in its significance. Counselors need to ask counselees frequently about their moral conflicts and explore the function of individual conscience. However, at the higher level, we need to bring a more complex view of conscience to our counselees. They should be informed that simply having a good conscience will not accomplish wholeness. One can be deceived by her own conscience. Therefore, conscience also needs Christ’s redemption, and a redeemed conscience will keep oneself from being numb about evil as well as savoring God’s grace.

Bunyan, J. (1980).  Some Gospel-Truth Opened, in the Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan.       Vol. l. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bonhoeffer, D.  (1965). Ethics. New York: Macmillan.
Tangney, J & Dearing, R. (2002), Shame and Guilt. New York, NY: The Gilford Press
Johnson, E. (2007). Foundation of Soul Care. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Kirk, K.E. (1927). Conscience and Its Problems. Longmans, London: Green and Co. Ltd
Zachmann, R. C. (1996). The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin     Luther and John Calvin. Augsburg Fortress.

UnHye Kwon Ph.D
Maum Counseling and Research,
Bundang, South Korea

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