Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cauterised Conscience

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 1 Timothy 4:1-2 NIV
What does this mean, “seared as with a hot iron”?

I’ve been reading Oswald Chambers’ discourse on the conscience.* He argues that the conscience is not the voice of God but rather that it “attaches itself to that system of things which man regards as highest.”* He gives Saul before his conversion as an example. Chambers says that Saul was following his conscience when he persecuted the Christians:
"I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Acts 26:9 NIV
Chambers tries to show that conscience can be distorted, perverted or seared and uses the passage from Timothy above, as evidence. At times I can be sceptical and hard to convince—some might call me obstinate—and I have trouble believing that our conscience is not the voice of God. Consider Romans 1:18-20:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. NIV (emphasis added)
From this, it seems clear that God has given all people an awareness of him and what is right and wrong; how else would he do this except through the conscience?

So I went to my trusty online Bible tools to find the meaning of “seared.” It turns out that the whole phrase, “seared with an iron” comes from one Greek word; a word used only once in the Bible: “kauteriazo.” What does it mean?
1. to mark by branding, to brand, branded with their own consciences
--whose souls are branded with the marks of sin
--who carry about with them the perpetual consciousness of sin
2. seared
3. in a medical sense, to cauterise, remover by cautery
I immediately picked up on the third definition. “Cauterise” and “kauteriazo” look so much alike that I think it’s reasonable to say that our English word is derived from this Greek word. It also gives me a clearer understanding of this passage. If we go with definitions one or two, it’s hard to get a picture of what a branded conscience would look like. But a conscience that has been cauterised seems more graspable.

What does “cauterise” mean? “Cauterization is a medical term describing the burning of the body to remove or close a part of it.” So we could restate the passage to say: “Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been removed and closed off.” They don’t have a conscience anymore or, if they do, they don’t have access to it.

To me, this supports the idea that the conscience is from God. (Jeffrey Brian White, in his discussion of consciousness agrees with Chambers, by the way, and gives a very good treatise on the subject.)

Chambers writes, “The words “consciousness” and “conscience” meant the same thing originally.”* Again I went looking for definitions:
In common parlance, consciousness denotes being awake and responsive to the environment, in contrast to being asleep or in a coma.
Both words have their roots in the Latin word “conscire" which means “to be mutually aware”--active and awake. White, above, says it means "to be conscious of guilt.”

Regardless of the definition you use, conscience has the aspect of awareness to it. Aware of guilt, as White says? Aware of God, as Paul says in Romans 1? Aware of right and wrong? In any case, the hypocritical liars whose teachings cause Christians to: “abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” have been cut off from this awareness. It has been cauterised from them. Paul is telling Timothy to warn his congregations about such teachers because:
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:3, 4 NIV
These teachings come from people cut off from their consciences? Without this warning from the Holy Spirit through Paul, such instructions have the appearance of being very noble, self-sacrificing and godly and yet they are given by people cut off from God and awareness of his values. The only way we can know the truth, the only way we can know what is truly godly, is by staying connected to God and aware of all he tells us; by not allowing our consciences to be cauterised.

God, it is so easy to be cut off from you and yet, like those “hypocritical liars,” think I am living in your will. Orders about not marrying and abstaining from certain foods look so much like something you would ordain (and in fact did with Moses) that without keen ears listening to your Holy Spirit, your very children could be fooled. In what ways do I think I’m living in your will but am not? Am I truly connected to you or has my conscience been cauterised? How would I know, God? Please keep my ears and eyes open so I stay always aware of you and your will. Keep my heart and mind away from anything that would cauterise the connection between us. I want you above all else.



*In ”Ourselves: I; Me; Mine: Ourselves and Conscience” in “Biblical Psychology” in The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, pages 195-199.

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