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.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Much of life in this fallen work leads to a dysfunctional conscience. Habitual indulgence of sin as well as damaging injury from the sins of other people scars the conscience so that a person cannot rightly see himself as God sees him. When the conscience is under attack the devil drives a person toward despair, pounding home the conviction that he is unlovable and that God could not possibly love him. Tragically this condition is epidemic. To one degree or another, every child of God wrestles with a scarred conscience every day of his life.
This means you and I have a clear focus for our pastoral work. Everything we do, from teaching a Bible class to visiting the sick and dying to counseling the discouraged to confronting the erring—and of course preaching, baptizing, and distributing the sacrament—every pastoral act zeros in on this one vitally essential task: delivering a good conscience to people who are constantly under spiritual bombardment from every side, being driven to a bad conscience by the devil, the sinful world around them, and the lusts of their own sinful heart.
No wonder, then, that when Paul instructs young pastor Timothy in the art of the cure of souls he targets the conscience as the center of attention for pastors; “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). Faith clings to Christ. When you have Christ Jesus by faith you have all his gifts: forgiveness, life, and salvation. In Christ you are therefore justified; all your sins are heaped on him and in exchange you are given his righteousness so that God the Father regards you innocent before him. But by faith in Jesus you are also sanctified; the defilement and impurity of your sin is washed away and you are wrapped in Christ’s own holiness, healing all your hurt and bestowing purity and innocence before God your Father in heaven. There you have it: A pure heart and a good conscience go together, all yours by virtue of your faith in Christ Jesus.
Now pastoral work begins to come into sharper focus. While pastors clearly have instructional work to do, helping people to grow in knowledge and understanding of the word of God, you and I are not trainers in a spiritual health center or life coaches of some sort. 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. 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.