An excerpt from “Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience" by Christopher Ash
When our oldest son was a boy, he was taken to the hospital with what seemed like most of the gravel of our front driveway in the skin of his knee and leg. He had fallen at high speed off his BMX. As the doctor prepared to clean out the wound, I imagine he said, with that characteristic understatement of doctors, ‘This may hurt a bit.’ I’m sure it did hurt, quite a lot. But, as the doctor no doubt explained, the alternatives were far worse – things like blood poisoning, tetanus, gangrene, or even having his leg amputated! It was worth the smaller pain to save the bigger pain later.
In the same way, the pain of a guilty conscience is necessary if the disease of the heart is to be healed. By nature, we respond to a guilty conscience with worldly sorrow. We are sorry for the nasty consequences of bad things we have done, but not really deeply sorry for the things themselves. Our sorrow hurts, but it is superficial. It is like the pain of the injury rather than the pain of the doctor treating the injury.
Jesus said that the Spirit of God would bring conviction to the world, and that would begin with conviction of sin ( John 16:8–9). Conviction comes when I am inwardly convinced, when I become conscious, aware in my awakened conscience, about my sin. This conviction comes from the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is not the same as my conscience, for the Spirit of God is God, the third person of the Trinity, and my conscience is just a part of me. But he uses my conscience to bring conviction to my heart, especially conviction of my sinfulness.
And so, paradoxically, when the Spirit of God gets to work in our lives to begin God’s rescue, he starts by making our guilty conscience hurt more, abominably more, than it had ever done before. He takes the wound and opens it up. He does this in order to cleanse and heal. But it certainly hurts! When my conscience is awakened, God himself is at work to wake up my drugged and sleepy conscience. He is going to use my wide-awake and alert conscience to turn me around from heading full-speed towards death. The experience will hurt horribly to start with, but only for a little while.
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