It’s All About the Conscience

Our task as spiritual physicians is to treat bad consciences, continually delivering the healing balm of the living word of God and his life-giving sacraments.

Our goal is not to build people up to utilize their own inner resources or become better spiritual athletes. The cure of souls is instead geared to address spiritual dysfunction and disease, restoring health and life to souls burdened by guilt and torn by shame.


I’ve made it no secret that Harold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls is a book that has made a deep and immediate impact on me. I hope you’ll indulge me in another brief excerpt from it that I found particularly meaningful. Here he discusses the role of conscience in the Christian life and, therefore, in pastoral care.


The simple fact is that all pastoral work, be it for those outside or inside the community of faith, has to do with the conscience. Everything we do, whether it’s evangelizing a soul lost and without hope or comforting a soul torn and distressed by the effects of sin, is geared toward delivering a good conscience before God…This pastoral work of ours is always relational; we’re interested in relationships of all sorts. A person’s relationships with her family, her peers or coworkers and friends are all pertinent and legitimate relationships to take into consideration, but chiefly our ultimate focus is on the soul’s relationship with God, and the conscience is the crux of the matter.

Conscience is more than you think it is. In popular usage the conscience is a lawmaker—a person’s moral compass, his personal standard of right and wrong. These days the moral compass has lost its magnetic true north; there’s no reference point for moral truth and so people live their lives according to their unbridled inner compulsions. That’s why teaching God’s law as the revelation of his good and gracious will is especially important for pastoral work today, but that’s not what I mean when I speak of conscience.

The New Testament word for conscience is syneidese. From its cognates this word means “to know together with,” referring to a soul’s perception of its standing before God. Conscience is not so much a moral compass as it is an umpire, or the capacity to see oneself as God sees you. It’s conscious sensitivity toward God’s judgements and grace. Pastoral work is chiefly concerned that every person has a good and clean conscience so that it functions well, doing its proper work, detecting both sin and righteousness.

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