Does a clear conscience matter?

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

1 Corinthians 4:4

One of the things I’ve always struggled with was whether I was unwittingly awful, sinful, or condemned. It made sense in my Calvinist upbringing. There really was no way to know if I was actually saved or simply deceiving myself. And, well, I turned out queer, trans, and not at all a Calvinist, so… good point, brain. But the mentality sticks with me in all my self-evaluations still. Does it ever really matter how certain I am that I’m on the right track? There’s so much I’ll never know and so many things I could be wrong about.

So, what is a clear conscience worth? Does it heal those wounded by our unwitting or careless harmful actions? Does it correct our misunderstanding or fill in the shadows of ignorance set up by this world of oppression and segregation? Does our good intent and positive feeling about what we’re doing make the world a better place or make us better people? Will clear consciences bring about the Kingdom of God?

Paul’s statement seems to acknowledge that the clear conscience and positive intent doesn’t undo wrongs or sanctify one’s actions or being. But what does it mean that the Lord judges him? I don’t think it means he can throw up his hands and refuse to reflect critically on what right action is or how he’s falling short, because he can never know the mind of God. In fact, he follows up with a whole collection of statements about right and wrong action after and a litany of things that should be judged. Like, a lot.

While Paul and I may land in different places about the judgment of some of those actions, he’s modeling critical reflection for us. It’s not enough to think you’re doing right. It’s not enough to sigh and say God will sort it out in the end. We need to be looking for the things that have been systemically hidden from us, and paying attention to the impacts of our actions. There are times we need to be troubled, and times we need to be comforted, but in all of those times we should be reflecting.

In activist spaces I tend to see an increased focus on impact and action over belief or intent. A focus on belief and intent offers an easy path to a clear conscience. Say the right words, believe the right things, convince yourself you meant well, and you’re on the right side of things. The switch to impact draws our attention to caring for others, and can help us focus on allowing our lives to be transformed by our beliefs. However, our impacts will never be purely positive. We’ll never think through every contingency or prevent every possible harm. Dwelling on all the possible impacts of every little action spins me right back into a Calvinist panic that I may yet be a monster in human skin. And that kind of debilitating anxiety also does nothing to bring about a new world.

There’s personal, emotional value in a clear conscience, and that matters for our health and sustained work. It doesn’t matter more than the well-being of others, and it doesn’t matter more than our pursuit of perfection. But I, at least, need that comfort of a positive self-evaluation from time to time to avoid sinking into panic and overwhelming doubt. Our beliefs, if they are alive and sincere, should be calling us constantly to break through the barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and all the ways the negative impacts of our actions on others are hidden from us. A critical, contemplative, but active faith will guide us toward perfection if we let it. When we worry that we may be secretly terrible, it’s important to remember that we are here to seek perfect love and care for all (in spite of the ways our segregated, disconnected lives set us up to fail at this.) And no matter how we are judged by ourselves or others, there is one who will always judge us in love.