Letter to Timothy

February 15,1980

Dear Timothy, 

There are a few aspects of man’s creation which we must still discuss before we enter into the whole area of pastoral counseling itself. These areas include: 1) the conscience and the role that the conscience plays in the life of man; 2) the emotions and their importance in our physical life; 3) the question of the will including its relation to the mind and the broader question of what has been called the primacy of the will. We will try to say something about these questions in this letter and succeeding letters. 

The first question then is the question of the conscience. 

I have come increasingly to the conviction that the conscience is a very important part of man’s life and plays a major role in mental trouble and mental wellbeing. It is well that we have a clear understanding, of what Scripture teaches concerning the conscience. This word itself appears in a rather large number of places in Scripture and the idea is even more common. Let me remind you too that it is from Scripture that we must obtain our knowledge of what the conscience is. There is a danger here too that we have erroneous ideas about the conscience which we have picked up from the jargon of modern day psychology. If we have these erroneous ideas of conscience, this will cause all sorts of troubles and problems in our lives. We must be sure that we listen, also in this respect, to what God has to say to us. 

As an example of what modern psychology does when it talks about the conscience, I need only remind you that Freud already did a lot of work in this area. He identified the conscience with what he called, “the super-ego.” He said that this super-ego was developed over many years in the child by the influences of his environment, particularly the home, the Church, the school, and society. I.e., the child, in the environment into which he was born, gradually learned what were the prevailing customs, mores, moral values of the people with whom he came into contact and adopted them for his own. You see here already that Freud was wrong. By teaching this he flatly denied that there is anything which is an objective standard of right and wrong which is given by God. Society in general determines its own moral values, and society in general passes on these moral values to the next generation. These values and standards can change and do change from time to time, and whatever society considers to be right or wrong at any given time is, in fact, right and wrong. There is no objective will of God for man, no law which God gives, no standard of conduct to which man must conform, himself. All is relative and changing. 

It is not difficult to see how this idea has permeated our modern society. Today too there is little belief in an objective moral standard which absolutely determines for man what is right conduct and what is wrong. It is only the prevailing opinion of the majority which sets the moral standards of society. The Supreme Court of the United States, e.g., defined pornography in a recent decision as being that which was opposed by the prevailing social attitudes. If the majority agree that a certain book or movie is pornographic, then it is. But if society accepts certain literature as being acceptable reading material, then it is not pornography and is not punishable by the laws of the land. So too with the conduct of people. As people come more and more to accept drug use, homosexuality, gambling, etc., these things are no longer considered wrong conduct and sin, but are considered acceptable ways of life, socially acceptable life styles. It makes no difference that God has condemned these things, that God calls them sins because they are violations of His commandments. These laws of God are also said to be culturally conditioned, proper laws for the days in which they were made, standards of the times when they were enacted; but they are no longer in force for today’s world. They were then the inventions of men and were reflections of the social moral climate of the times, and they are subject to change as society develops and grows. 

But Freud went further in his thinking. He taught that these standards of society which formed the super-ego of the individual became a part of the personality of the individual to such an extent that they dominated a person’s life. They were so interwoven with the personality of a man or woman that he (or she) could never quite shake loose from them. They controlled his activity to such an extent that when the person did something contrary to this set of standards which was ingrained into his being the result was deep feelings of guilt. And when these feelings of guilt became overwhelmingly strong, then the person could no longer function properly nor cope with life and he became a mentally ill or a mentally malfunctioning individual who needed help and counseling. 

The trouble is that man has many instinctive drives which must come to expression if an individual is going to cope successfully with life. But the super-ego is a sort of check on these instinctive drives. And as this check on his drives functions in his life, the man must curb what really ought to come out if he is to live a balanced and happy life. And so he is caught in an impossible situation, and a great deal of work is required to teach him to cope with these competing forces in his personality.

In the nature of the case, the work which must be applied to his problems is geared to helping him get rid of his guilt feelings. How often do we not hear this same thing today. It is almost incessantly drummed into our ears that our problems are rooted in our feelings of guilt. And if only we would get rid of our feelings of guilt once, all would be well. I remember a psychiatrist telling a large group of pastors that they ought not to censure people who are guilty of stealing or adultery and such like sins when members of their churches do these things; such censure will only lead to guilt feelings and will create innumerable mental problems for these people. 

It is clear that if the thesis of Freud is correct, then the solution to the problem lies in two areas. One area is that the super-ego must be altered so that it no longer condemns people for doing things which are contrary to what they have been taught to believe is wrong. If, e.g., I have been taught to believe that adultery is wrong, and my super-ego condemns me when I commit this sin, then the solution to the problem is to change my super-ego so that I no longer consider it to be wrong. Then I will not have guilt feelings about this when I fall into the sin and will not have mental troubles because of these guilt feelings. The second area towards which solutions are to be directed is the area of my own instincts. I ought to live more by my own instincts and not allow my super-ego (or conscience) to interfere in the full expression of what I want to do. This has, indeed, been the direction in which our modern world has been heading. It is expressed in such crass sayings as: “If it feels good, do it”; and, “Let it all hang out.” A well balanced life can only be attained if one does exactly what he feels like doing without any restrictions and curbs on his conduct. In fact, the whole movement to incorporate sex education in the school systems is justified by the argument that children ought to give expression to their inner sexual drives and know how to do this freely so that they have no repressed guilt feelings about it. Sad to say, I even find this attitude among our own young people — and, presumably, among our parents. When young people are guilty of sinful conduct and the question is put to them: “Why did you do this?” the answer which one sometimes gets is: “I felt like it.” And this answer is given in such a way that the young person expects that we will believe that this is sufficient justification for what he did, and that a reproof is entirely out of order. Because he felt like doing it, he had a perfect right to do it; and to condemn his conduct is, therefore, the height of injustice. 

All of this has given rise to what is called, “the new morality” or “situation ethics.” And, sad to say, this evil has even infected the Reformed Church world. On no other basis, e.g., can homosexuality and open divorce and remarriage be condoned. Even, in a certain sense, the pleas for women in offices in the Church is based upon this line of reasoning, for the injunctions against this in Scripture are also casually dismissed as being culturally conditioned injunctions which are no longer in force today. 

Nevertheless, the conscience is an important part of man’s life. Scripture repeatedly refers to it and we ought to be clear in our own minds what Scripture teaches concerning it. The goal of the child of God is to live in good conscience before the Lord His God. If he has a good conscience before God, then he has peace, happiness, and spiritual wellbeing. If he has a bad conscience before God, then he can have only unhappiness, trouble, and distress in his life. The conscience plays a major role in the mental wellbeing of the Christian. 

But a fuller discussion of this matter will have to wait till next time. 

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko