The fine old saying goes like this: “A clear conscience is a good pillow.”
No one’s quite sure where the saying came from. Sometimes you’ll hear it as, “A clean conscience is agood pillow” or “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” Some people believe it’s French, others German, and others African. The fact that it can be traced to so many sources speaks to its universal truth: A clear conscience is one free of guilt, and guilt makes the peace of a good night’s sleep pretty tough.
Paul’s two letters to Timothy speak to the matter of conscience and the state in which we may find ours: clear, clean, or “seared.” Both letters are addressed to Timothy as his “true child in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), but Paul’s words extend to the churches to which Timothy ministers. The churches are being instructed through Timothy, and an overarching concern he addresses is false teachings (George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles , 63).
Timothy has functioned as an assistant to Paul, since Paul found him in Lystra (Acts 16:1). Timothy was a faithful follower of Jesus and loyal helper to Paul, but he seems to have lacked confidence (2 Tim 1:7, 1:8, 2:1, 4:12). He needed encouragement, and Paul gave it to him.
One of the areas in which Timothy appears to have needed encouragement was in the guarding of his conscience. Paul first mentions conscience early in the correspondence, stating that love comes from “a pure heart and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:5). The noun translated as conscience is syneidēsis, or “the soul as distinguishing between what is morally good and bad, prompting to do the former and shun the latter, commending one, condemning the other (here).
A conscience is the faculty that allows any person to determine what is right and what is wrong, or, more simply, the ability to make a moral judgment. Everyone has a conscience. As authors Naselli and Crowley put it, “You’re made in the image of God, and God is a moral God, so you must be a moral creature who makes moral judgments” (Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ [2016), 23).
Some moral judgments, though, are better than others, and a believer’s moral judgment must be formed by the will and Word of God. A conscience is clear or clean when we can say that we acted in accordance with the will of God, as we understand it.
False teachers are dictating that followers of Jesus must not marry or eat certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3), so their consciences are “seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). Kaustēriazō derives from the same word as to cauterize (here). It refers to a branding, such as a ranch animal receives. Such a mark cannot be erased, so a believer ought to try to avoid such a conscience at all costs. A seared conscience is a guilty conscience. To know the right thing to do and not do it is the height of hypocrisy.
In the Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s conscience is seared when he commits adultery while his wife is away. His affair with Maria Reynolds is historically well-documented, and the song, “Say No to This,” is a poignant description of his moral failure. Walking her home, Reynolds invites him to his room. He sings, “That’s when I began to pray, Lord, show me how to say no to this; I don’t know how to say no to this” (listen). The damage that the affair has on his marriage and even his political career is considerable.
The easiest way to keep our conscience clear is to avoid the sins that harm us, but we’re human, and we mess up. In the aftermath, the spiritual practice of confession shapes our conscience by guiding us to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong. We don’t need fancy prayer books or a church liturgy to confess our sins. We just need the courage to close our eyes, open our hearts to God, and say to Him, “I screwed up. I’m sorry. Forgive me, God, and help me fix the damage I’ve done.”
There are no guarantees that the confession will come easy, or the damage will be quickly repaired, but we might just be able to sleep again, at peace with God and at peace with ourselves.