During Jesus’ day, people would travel long distances from their homes to make sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. Imagine for a moment that you are one of those travelers, and let’s say you came from a nearby city—a few days’ walk from Jerusalem.
You’ve taken appropriate leave of your responsibilities at home, you’ve arranged for travel, and you’ve secured a place to stay near the city. Your family is likely with you, and perhaps others from your community who made the journey.
Once you arrive at the temple itself, you wait in line to purchase an animal that has been approved by the priests for sacrifice. You may have to deal with the infamous “money changers” to convert your currency. You may feel like you’re over-paying for your animal, but since you’ve come all this way, you really don’t have a choice. Good deal or not, you proceed.
Next, you wait in another line, since you can’t offer that sacrifice on your own. You need a priest to assist you in following the customs outlined in the law of Moses, and there could be hundreds of other people seeking the same help.
Finally, the priest motions you over, and you bring your offering with you to the altar. The priest is dressed in white, but his robe is likely splattered in blood. As he begins the rituals associated with sacrifice, something pops into your mind that you haven’t thought about for months. You recall that someone has something against you.
According to Jesus, what should you do in that moment?
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
What? Really, Lord?
I’ve discovered something over the years: Obeying God can be terribly inconvenient. In my human thinking, I would of course vote to go ahead and offer the sacrifice, then go and make things right with that offended person. But, as in many other areas of life where human instinct points in an obvious direction, Jesus asks us to go a different way!
The Goal of a Clear Conscience
The pursuit of being right with others, at least as far as it depends on us, is what the Bible calls the pursuit of a “clear conscience.” Paul mentioned it frequently, and throughout the Scriptures we see examples of those who had to make amends for their sins, offer restitution for their wrongdoing, publicly confess something, etc.
Here’s the definition I use when teaching about the need for a clear conscience: The ability to say there’s no one alive that I have knowingly wronged, offended, or hurt in any way, that I have not gone back to and attempted to make things right with God and with them.
Now, is that a realistic goal or just preacher-speak? Could our conscience ever be entirely clear, as far as we know, as much as it is in our power?
Paul certainly aspired to that standard, as he noted in Acts 24: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (v. 16).
Yet what would it really take for us to get to that place? Or to even begin that journey? Promises made to children still not kept, hurtful words spoken to a spouse, items stolen from employers, cheating, dishonesty, lies, slander . . .
There could be a whole host of things that need to be accounted for—situations where our “debt to justice” is still outstanding. If we were going to sort through it all, “leaving our gift at the altar” and working toward restitution and reconciliation, where would we even begin?
Here is a simple process I have found to be helpful and revealing:
- Confess your sin to God and repent. A process like this always starts with God, since every sin is ultimately against Him, and since He knows the depths of our hearts even better than we do. The Psalmist prayed in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (vv. 23-24).
If you are humble and willing, I believe God will prompt your heart about issues that need to be confessed, both in your relationship with Him and in your relationships with other people.
- Seek forgiveness from those you’ve wronged. It’s important that this comes out as, “Here is how I sinned against you; will you forgive me?” instead of the less-specific, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
I was leading a Life Action conference in Jefferson City, Missouri, when a couple came forward during the testimony time who demonstrated this principle well. The woman began speaking:
God found me with an unforgiving heart. He showed me the reason I could not forgive others was because I was the one who needed to seek forgiveness. My husband and I are newlyweds, just shy of one year. While we were dating, I was unfaithful to him. That was four years ago, and until this week, I had not confessed to him. There were several times over the years I felt compelled to confess, but I always found some justification or reason not to. During the teaching on clear conscience, God called me out. I spent the majority of that night bargaining with God to let me out of this. Finally, around 1:00 AM, I gave in, woke my husband up, and confessed this thing that I knew would break his heart. I was terrified that this would be the end. After a few moments of silence, he prayed over me. He asked God to clear my conscience and bring me peace. I was blown away. I know God will help us to be healed in our marriage, and He has better things in store for our future than would have been possible if I had not sought his forgiveness.
Then the husband stepped to the microphone and affirmed that he had fully forgiven his wife.
- Where necessary, make restitution for any damage you have caused. All of this is part of the process. It really isn’t appropriate to ask someone to forgive a debt that I could readily pay! Restitution is paying back, in part or in full, the debt that is owed (or the damage that was done, etc.).
For example, if I’ve slandered you or gossiped about you, of course I need to come to you first. But I may also need to go to those other individuals and clear up the record—admitting humbly that I have entangled them in my sin. I would need to seek their forgiveness as well. Or, as a more concrete example, if I have stolen something from you, then I need to pay you back (probably with interest, depending on the situation).
Remember the story of the “wee little man,” Zacchaeus? Jesus was coming into Jericho to minister, and up in the tree was short-statured Zacchaeus, who had found a branch from which he could see over the crowd. Jesus called him by name: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
And in that place, Zacchaeus met Jesus. He confessed Him as Lord. “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’” (Luke 19:5-9).
- Where possible, seek to restore the relationship. Romans 12:18 explains, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Depending on the nature of the hurt, the time that has elapsed, the damage that has been caused, and the willingness of the other party to forgive (and/ or trust), it may not be possible to reach a point of full relationship restoration. In situations where you aren’t sure whether or not to re-engage in a relationship with the person you hurt, I recommend talking with your church leaders, to gain their wisdom and perspective on your specific situation.
- Go forward with a sense of urgency. Remember, Jesus was suggesting that before we even bother giving a gift to God, or serving Him somehow, we should make past wrongs right. We should go and clear our conscience, and then come to offer whatever it is we wish to offer.
I don’t pretend that the process of gaining and maintaining a clear conscience will be easy, for you or for anyone else. In all likelihood, it will require humility, honesty, inconvenience, and perhaps even sacrifice. But freedom is well worth the work!
Why the Urgency?
- An unclear conscience is hindering your relationship with God.
- An unclear conscience means you may have become a stumbling block to another person.
- The longer you wait to clear your conscience, the harder it will be to finally do the right thing.
- This is a high priority in the eyes of God.
Gregg Simmons is an experienced pastor, family counselor, family life speaker, and Bible conference speaker with a great passion to see spiritual renewal in the home, church, and nation. He has served full time as a Revivalist on Life Action road teams since 2013. This article is from Revive magazine, Vol. 48, #1, copyright 2017 by Life Action Ministries.