We are all familiar with Paul's statement concerning his conscience in Acts 23:1 "Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day." Usually we discuss whether he was being literal, if he included his pre-Christian life, and what this means, but I recently discovered that this is not the only time Paul mentions his conscience. (How many times have I read Acts and I'm just now noticing this?) In Acts 24:14-15 Paul says, "having hope toward God, which these also themselves look for, that there shall be a resurrection both of the just and unjust. Herein I also exercise myself to have a conscience void of offence toward God and men always." Note here that Paul says that he had to exercise himself to keep his conscience "void of offence". His lifelong good conscience did not just happen.
I've gained quite a bit of weight over the last few years. Now that I’m back in school I find it really hard to come close to replacing 50+ hours a week on my feet, moving quickly around, unloading trucks, storing freight and stocking cases. Add to that being on the wrong side of 35 and I'm roughly 40 pounds heavier. I've recently begun, again, to try to get back into exercising regularly and being more reasonable in my diet. You know what? Exercising is hard. I'm riding my bike a lot and walking on the beach -- and walking on that loose sand for any distance is very good exercise -- and I get really hot and sweaty. My muscles cramp and my lungs burn. I'm spent when I get done. But that's what exercise is! As soon as we get into good enough shape that those symptoms stop, we've got to up the resistance/distance/time until the symptoms return if we want results.
Exercise is hard. And this is precisely the word Paul uses to describe his efforts to keep his conscience clean. Exercise. Keeping his conscience clean wasn't easy. He faced the same types of temptation that we so often fall to and yet Paul kept his conscience clean. How? He worked at it. He didn't just give in whenever the temptations got very, very tempting. He exercised himself to keep that clear conscience. And I'm sure that sometimes, in a spiritual way, the sweat ran into his eyes, his muscles were cramping and his lungs were burning. But just like I feel like the effort of exercising is worth it when I notice my wind coming back and my energy levels up (and my weight down), I'm sure Paul thought all the effort to stay pure was worth it when he could say that he had "lived before God in all good conscience".
Make no mistake, though, it is hard work. Besides exercise, Paul describes his efforts at self control as "press[ing] on" (Phil. 3:14) and "buffet[ing] my body, daily" (1 Cor. 9:27). It is work. It isn't easy. But we can have clean consciences too. Paul was just a man, no different from you or me. He kept his conscience clean through hard work. I can too. I just have to care as much about the conditioning of my spiritual self as I do the conditioning of my physical body.
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