Written by Doug Ponder on April 6, 2016
Lost on the Water
When I was thirteen I spent an entire summer with my grandparents at their summer home in North Carolina. They lived on an unpaved road less than a stone’s throw from the water on the south side of the Albemarle Sound in an inlet called “Bull’s Bay.” It’s one of those increasingly rare places of the world that still hasn’t been mapped with Google Street View.
Every other morning I would rise before dawn with my grandfather to head out on the water. To keep busy during his retirement—and perhaps to give my grandmother some peace and quiet—he fished crab pots every summer and set nets every fall.
That summer he taught me to drive the boat. When we had finished baiting the last pot, it was time to head back for shore. But from so far away everything looked identical. Even squinting, you couldn’t determine where one ridge of trees ended and another began. To get back home, you had to rely on the compass.
The compass on a boat is fixed to the center console. As you turn, the floating dial on the compass swerves to reveal the bearing of your new course. 180 degrees was our always our bearing—due South. Sometimes I would guide the boat in that direction for what felt like ages to a thirteen-year-old. Then, suddenly, familiar landmasses would appear. I could begin to make out distinctive trees and outcroppings of rock. We were almost home.
I have often wondered what might have happened if that compass had broken. Maybe my grandfather could have found his way back—years in the same place can have that effect—but I would have been utterly lost on my own. A working compass was my only hope.
A Conscience Like a Compass
In many ways the human conscience is like a moral compass. It is designed by God to point us in the direction that we ought to go. When talk about the “conscience”, we mean that inner sense of right or wrong, the almost voice-like direction deep inside of you that says, “You shouldn’t be doing this”—or something like that. Maybe you’ve seen cartoons that depicted the conscience as an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. It’s a silly picture, but you might be surprised to discover that it has some biblical support!
When he wrote about people who were ignorant of God’s existence, the apostle Paul said, “They show that the requirements of God’s law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Rom. 2:15). Paul doesn’t mention angels and devils, but what he says confirms that there really is an inner “voice” that tells us what is right and wrong.
Why Jiminy Cricket Is a Liar
There is a problem, however. Paul is quite clear that our conscience is deeply affected by sin. Our inner moral compass is broken. It hasn’t gone away—the conscience is still there—but it no longer points to true North.
This means that we have a broken moral compass, an unreliable guide for telling us what is right and wrong. Sometimes our conscience is wrong, and sometimes it’s right (even a broken clock is right twice a day). Sometimes we feel guilty for things we shouldn’t feel guilty about, and sometimes we don’t feel guilty about things we should feel guilty about. The conscience is nothing if not unreliable.
And that’s exactly why I like to say that Jiminy Cricket is one of the worst mentors of all time. If you’ve seen Pinocchio, then you may remember the song in which he counsels the little boy to “always let your conscience be your guide.” Basically, that’s like telling a thirteen-year-old to “trust his instincts” on a boat in the middle of the sea—a good way to get lost forever.
Sadly, we regularly receive the same kind of advice from friends and family members. Of course, it’s not 1940 anymore, so we don’t the word “conscience” used often today. But we do often hear people say things like: “Go with your gut.” “Trust your feelings.” “Follow your heart.” “Do what feels right.” The words may be new, but it’s the same terrible advice. It’s not helpful to trust a broken moral compass.
Better Than a Good Conscience
Christians who know their moral compass is broken are all the more grateful for the Bible. We don’t have to guess about what is right and wrong, good and bad, helpful and unhelpful. God tells us, because he loves us. The Bible is so much more than a book of rules and guidelines, of course, but it does contain some of both. After all, love is the reason why parents warn their children about playing the street, and in the same way God’s commands are given in love.
Yet the good news of the Bible is not about God’s commands, as grateful as we should be for them. This is because our problem is not only that our moral compass is out of order—we’re also stranded on a leaking ship without a working motor or a life preserver! Our condition is bleak: we’re spiritually dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). Even a working moral compass couldn’t save us.
But Jesus can—and does.
When we confess our sins and turn to Jesus in faith, he forgives us for all our wrongs, both the things we knew were wrong and the things we didn’t know were wrong (but which were still wrong anyway). Then he takes up residence in our heart through his Spirit, and he begins to mend what was broken. Jesus gives the desire and the ability to do what God says (Phil. 2:12-13), and he leads us slowly back to shore. Back to safety. Back home.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works by various authors. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.