What to Do With a Guilty Conscience

November 21, 1999 / Mark 6:14-16

Four days ago, a 23-year-old man got the surprise of his young life. Keith Obraske stopped by an ATM in his hometown of Fridley, Minnesota, to withdraw $20. He inserted his bank card, punched in his ID code, and pressed the fast-cash button. He got his $20-bill all right ó and another, and another, and another. The machine just kept firing $20-bills at him!

When he counted up all the money in his lap, Obraske found that the machine had given him $5,580! "I felt like Iíd won the lottery," he said. "I just kept scooping it up." Then he began thinking about what he could do with that much money. A 23-year-old who works as a ceiling sprayer could use all those $20-bills, donít you suspect? Then he thought about the consequences of keeping money he knew didnít belong to him. "I felt like I was being tested big time," he later said of his conflicting thoughts.

Even when he drove on to work and told his co-workers what had happened, he already knew he was going to return his windfall. And he did. In doing so, he purchased something some people will never own ó a clear conscience. Iíll bet he slept well last Wednesday night.

Youíve heard a lot in the past few years about the importance of self-esteem. Most of what youíve been told is true. People with a healthy self-image are generally more confident and competent in all areas of their lives. The real question is: How do we best foster self-esteem? One popular approach has been to lower grading standards so everyone gets As and Bs or to give pay increases based only on length of employment rather than on improved performance and productivity.

Authentic self-esteem comes from working hard, making an honest living, and being true to your convictions about right and wrong. You have been made in the image of God. You feel good when you bear the divine image with dignity and terrible when you taint it with dishonor. You feel good when you honor the Ten Commandments and awful when you break one of them. And the value of a clear conscience is far greater than $5,580. Just ask anybody who doesnít have one. Just ask somebody such as Herod Antipas.

A Prophet and a King

The text for todayís lesson follows a report of the successful preaching tour of The Twelve (6:6b-13). Things were going well for Jesus and his followers. If anything, they were going a bit too well. Herod heard about Jesus and his disciples, and it unnerved him. "King Herod heard about this, for Jesusí name had become well known. Some were saying, ĎJohn the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.í Others said, ĎHe is Elijah.í And still others claimed, ĎHe is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.í But when Herod heard this, he said, ĎJohn, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!í" (6:14-16).

From what we know of this Herod ó Herod Antipas ó he was sympathetic to the Sadducees. So he didnít believe in any sort of resurrection. But when he learned what Jesus was doing, he wondered if maybe John the Baptist hadnít come back to life! What in the world would cause a man who didnít believe in the resurrection to think somebody had come back to life? A guilty conscience.

Before I can make sense of this story for you, I need you to have a tiny bit of information about a convoluted family. Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) was the ruler during whose reign Jesus was born. He had ten wives and a number of unfortunate children. I call them "unfortunate" because of his paranoia. He had several of his wives and children murdered for fear they were plotting against him. No less than Emperor Caesar Augustus is said to have commented that it was safer to be Herodís pig than Herodís son ó a play on words in Greek, his hus rather than his huios.

By his "favorite" wife, Mariamne, Herod the Great fathered Herod Philip I and Aristobulus. By Malthace, he fathered Herod Antipas. Now follow closely ó for it is very much like the plot to a soap opera! Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, thus the niece of both Herod Philip I and Herod Antipas. Herod Philip I married his niece, thus committing incest according to the Law of Moses. And Herod Antipas later seduced her to leave her husband-uncle (by whom she had already had a daughter, Salome) and to marry him. She did so, and another uncle became her second husband.

Know what John the Baptist said about that sorry sequence of incestuous, adulterous, shameless events? The fiery prophet denounced it as sinful. Herodias heard about it, nursed a grudge against John, and wanted him dead. Herod Antipas arrested John, put him in a jail cell, but admired the manís integrity and courage ó traits he lacked totally but respected when he saw! ó and "protected" him in jail. But his birthday party gave Herodias her opening. She sent her daughter to dance for him, got the drunken ruler to promise to grant any wish she made, and coached her daughter to ask for Johnís head on a platter.

With Jesus moving among the people, preaching powerfully, and working miracles, Herod Antipas feared the man he had murdered had come back to life. Come back to haunt him. Come back to punish him. What an appalling tale. But how true to life for many, many more people who have been tormented by a guilty conscience.


Conscience is a God-given internal monitor of human behavior. It is not infallible ó for it is the product of education ó but it is fundamental to living honorably, ethically, and spiritually. So the Bible says:

My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble;
when you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
for the LORD will be your confidence
and will keep your foot from being snared (Prov. 3:21-26).


Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:19-24).

Last month London was sent into mourning by its worst train accident in a decade. More than 70 people died when one train ran a red light less than a thousand feet from the point of impact. Iíve seen "train wrecks" in human lives when people chose to run through certain obvious red lights God put in their way. Recently it was a man who closed his eyes to all the danger signals in an office relationship that had been getting out of hand. Now it is a full-blown affair. Now it appears that he will lose his wife and two children to his foolishness.

Your conscience flashes red lights to remind you to correct something before serious or even fatal harm is done. Positively, it is a spiritual compass to assure you that you are navigating within the boundaries God has set for right and wrong. Or, as one little girl defined it, your conscience is "something that makes you tell your mother before your brother or sister does."

Ironically, it was surely John the Baptistís conscience that made him take the position he did about a public manís immoral life. To quote Martin Luther King Jr. on conscience: "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because itís right." John did just that. But Herodias cared nothing for either morality or truth. She just wanted anyone who would dare humiliate her by telling the truth about her evil, ladder-climbing immorality dead. And Herod Antipas was such a waffling coward ó at the mercy of public opinion for the sake of the birthday promise he had made Salome ó that he complied!

A Contemporary Story

Jeffrey Black tells about being seventeen years old and deciding to buy his first pornographic magazine.

This was a fearsome thing to me. I remember going to the local drugstore that had a little magazine section. I waited and watched to make sure nobody was looking. I picked up the magazine and rolled it up so that no one could see what it was. Then I stood around and wandered back and forth until I got up enough courage to pay for it. Just as I walked toward the front of the store, the man behind the counter left and a woman took his place. I quickly turned around. I must have spent 45 minutes in the store, trying to buy that magazine ó but I finally managed to buy it. As time passed, I bought a few more.

Then I noticed something. I wasn't rolling up the magazine anymore. I just picked it up, walked to the counter, and bought it! As a matter of fact, I started buying two. I still bought them only when the man was there. But after a while, I didn't care who was behind the counter. Eventually, I was even able to chat with the woman when I paid for the magazines.1


There are three basic problems one can have with conscience. The first is having one! Some people are manipulated by parents, preachers, or fund-raisers through guilt and shame. The second problem is not having one, being shameless and hard-hearted. The third is having a healthy conscience but not knowing what to do with it.

Take King Davidís experience as a case in point. He had committed a terrible sin, and his conscience was hammering him for what he had done. He first resisted its warning, then let it drive him to God. Here is his own account:

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 sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD" ó
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found . . . (Psa. 32:3-6a).

If you still have a conscience, and if you are hearing from it today, then I plead with you to seek God ó while he may be found!


1Journal of Biblical Counseling, Spring 1995, p. 9.


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