Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. [Romans 2:14-15 (NLT)]
Looking back, I realize we’d heard a chirp once or twice earlier that day but had ignored it. Busy running errands, we’d given the odd sound no thought. At 12:22 AM, however, the source became obvious and could no longer be ignored. The bedroom smoke alarm was chirping loudly every minute or so. I looked at my husband with envy—without his hearing aids, he was oblivious to the annoying noise above our heads. Since there was no way I was going to return to slumber, I woke him and we replaced the battery. Two nights later, when the same thing happened with the brand new battery, we simply took it out and went back to bed. I’m embarrassed to admit we had no battery in that alarm for the next several months. Since 60% of home fire deaths occur in properties without a working smoke alarm, we were foolish to ignore the problem.
Rather than replacing the battery, we actually needed to replace our 15-year old smoke alarms. The U.S. Fire Administration (part of FEMA), suggests replacing smoke alarms every ten years. After a decade, alarm sensors are compromised by dust, insects, contaminants and circuitry corrosion and their failure rate is 30%.
The smoke alarm got me thinking about another alarm we have—conscience. Made in the image of God, we all have an innate understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. Like a smoke alarm, however, its sensors can fail to work properly. Rather than dust or spider webs, things like pride, selfishness, prejudice, materialism, envy, and jealousy can corrode its circuits. Fallible, it can be convinced to condone, excuse, or justify the indefensible, inexcusable, and sinful. By themselves, consciences can be as unreliable as thirty year old smoke alarms (nearly all of which fail).
Fortunately, as Christians, we have something in addition to a conscience—the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is His voice that points us to God’s ways. His presence renews and reshapes our conscience into a much bigger and better alarm—one based on God’s word rather than convenience or objectives. While we can manipulate our conscience into seeing things our way, we can’t sway the Holy Spirit; God’s standards don’t change with the situation or our desires. Moreover, the Spirit’s voice doesn’t stop at determining right from wrong; it convicts us of the need for repentance and change. It’s like the new smoke alarms we now have that interconnect, inform us of the type and location of the danger, and tell us to evacuate. Fortunately, instead of a seven year warranty, the Holy Spirit can last a lifetime!
Our new improved Holy Spirit-powered conscience won’t do us much good if we don’t recognize and heed it. Unless we read God’s word, it’s easy to mistake which voice we’re hearing (ours or the Spirit’s). While gentle and loving, the Spirit’s voice can be brutally honest and, like a smoke alarm, it demands action. When the Psalmist asked God to point out anything He found offensive, he had to expect a truthful answer and one that he might not like. Although we can’t remove the Spirit’s batteries, we can ignore His words of conviction. Like those people without functioning smoke alarms, however, we do so at our own risk.
Let us therefore not deceive ourselves. In walking according to the spirit we shall hear the direction of conscience. Do not try to escape any inward reproach; rather, be attentive to its voice. [Watchman Nee]