When’s the last time you felt your conscience activated at your place of work? Perhaps it was earlier this week, or even today. Something happened, or was about to happen, and you sensed a decision with moral implications hung in the balance.

Perhaps you felt in your gut that you should respond or act in a certain way. But your mind intuitively worked through a pro-and-con list. Action would require guts. You would need to summon courage. You might stand to lose face, or money. All the while, you sensed an inner nagging that wouldn’t go away unless you either listened to it or smothered it deep inside your subconscious.

Your conscience, as Colin Smith has suggested, is like an alarm clock. It’s designed by God to go off at the right time. And just like an alarm clock, our conscience can go wrong in one of two ways.

Conscience Gone Wrong

First, it can go off when it shouldn’t. This is what the Bible refers to as a weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:7), and it happens when we’re troubled by things God doesn’t explicitly forbid. This causes needless inner torment for ourselves, and at times, outer torment for those around us, since it makes us either timid or harsh. It’s likely what lies behind this statement in the Westminster Confession: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.”

A healthy conscience . . . should be constrained no more and no less than by God.

Second, your conscience can fail to go off when it should. This is what the Bible calls a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). Like a driver who brazenly zooms through a stop sign without noticing it, someone with a seared conscience blows right past violations of God’s good design and revealed will with no concern. The inner alarm has been silenced for so long it can no longer be heard.

A healthy, or clear conscience (Acts 24:16), on the other hand, is an alarm that goes off at the right time, for the right reasons. It should be constrained no more and no less than by God, as revealed in the Bible, under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Healthy Conscience at Work

Our place of work, whether inside or outside the home, is a cauldron of formation—a place where our conscience is often called into action. Consider the following situations:

  • Your boss gives you credit for great work done, but you know most of the work was done by your colleague. Do you say anything?

  • A client overpays for a service and would never find out if you don’t mention it. Do you let them know?

  • You become overly aggressive or demeaning to someone in a team meeting. As the meeting ends, people walk away in awkward silence. Do you apologize?

  • You gave your word to a client, but as you count the cost of following through with your promise, you hesitate. Do you do what you said even if it is hard?

  • You are given latitude to work from home, so long as you commit to doing actual work, but are not required to report on your time. Do you work with the same diligence as if you’re in the office?

  • You see a coworker mistreated or subtly demeaned, and must decide if you will speak up. Do you consider your words carefully and say something?

  • You are critical of a colleague’s work, but instead of addressing it with them directly, you constantly bicker about it to others. Do you stop gossiping and go directly to the person?

  • You’re attracted to a team member of the opposite sex who is single, even though you are married and have engaged in subtle—and at times not so subtle—flirting. Do you stop the flirtatious interaction and ask others for accountability?

In each case, a healthy conscience would ring like an alarm, either to alert you to avoid doing something wrong, or to correct a situation where wrong was done.

Ropes, Not Chain

To those exhausted from the rules of dead or wrongly zealous religion, the conscience might seem like another socialized, arbitrary chain. But to use another metaphor, our conscience is more like two different kinds of rope than like a chain.

As a leash, our conscience constrains our actions in ways that keep us and others safe. There is room to walk and explore, within the defined limits God has assigned. It keeps us from exploiting or taking advantage of others. As a rappel rope, our conscience also calls and emboldens us to scale walls we might fear, like speaking up when we see injustice or apologizing when we’ve acted wrongly.

Far from being a restricting device, our conscience actually brings freedom. We are set free to use our energy to do what is right, and emboldened to work for the good of others.

What recent situation has rung the alarm of your conscience? What might happen in our places of work if we sought, with God’s help, to keep a clear and healthy conscience?

Far from being an unwelcome constraint, God has given the gift of conscience to bring life both to us and also to the world.