The Quest for a Clear Conscience as a Potential Sin

My wife has been reading the book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Unless you are either growing/slaughtering all your food yourself or, at minimum, a locavore vegan, reading it will cause you to examine your eating habits and find yourself wanting. By which I don’t mean that you will feel like you need to eat better, or more healthily at the end of the book; I mean that you will question your ability to consider yourself a good person if you continue to eat the way you do.

I assume, however, that most people will have the reaction that I will most likely have after reading the book: putting my fingers in my ears and shouting “La La La” to the heavens. For that matter, I also assume that the reason most people haven’t read the book is the same reason I still haven’t read the book (I’m relying on Mrs. John C’s vivid descriptions of the contents): Don’t investigate what you don’t want to know. Ignorance is always blissful when you have a sure knowledge that knowledge will bring guilt. However, she is reading it and I am hearing about it and now I wonder if I’ll ever be able to eat a hot dog in good conscience again. Now, that’s a laudable goal, isn’t it?

One of the things that we teach about repentance is that repentance erases the sin. We are pure and white once again, no longer stained by our faithless, selfish, silly, and/or malicious actions. To some degree, then, we assume that the purpose of repentance is to regain a clear conscience. We rely on our feelings of guilt to determine whether or not God has forgiven us. To a lesser degree, I think that we rely on guilt to tell us whether we’ve sinned at all. If I tell my brother or sister what I think of them, and feel entirely justified in the act, have I sinned in my own eyes? Am I willing to admit that I might have sinned in the Lord’s eyes, even though it felt really good to get the words out?

I think that the quest to achieve a clear conscience can be problematic, specifically if it leads to a lack of empathy. Once I have worked out my own salvation to my own satisfaction, I might be tempted to start spending so much time contemplating my grand mansion in heaven that I forget the real needs of people here on earth. For example, in the American economy you are always, always harming someone, somewhere, just by participating. We tend to choose to ignore these harms or their severity, out of the belief that paying attention to them would quickly absorb all of our time. So, instead, we just consider ourselves entitled to the relative wealth and security that we enjoy and blame those who don’t enjoy equal amounts for their own squalor. Clear conscience is achieved by shifting the blame. Similarly, the tendency to “blame the victim” of sexual assault can be traced to a desire to shift blame (or fear) from ourselves. If the victim invited the assault, then we can protect our daughters and sisters by insisting that they subscribe to a certain set of rules of behavior. If our sisters or daughters are attacked, then we did all we could to protect them by teaching them the rules. Again, shifting blame allows us a clear conscience.

The truth is we are all guilty of several sins (more than we even consciously know about) daily. We need to repent, to become better, but the result of that process should be a renewed knowledge of the many ways in which we do sin, not an assurance that we’re clean and will be clean forever. The Lord has made promises about sinning in ignorance, but I’m not sure that they extend to willful ignorance. Working toward and achieving a clear conscience can be an attempt to achieve complacency, a peace in the world that requires us to ignore the world around us, sitting around in holy refuges doing the important work of sitting around in holy refuges.

My purpose here is not to denigrate temple work, but rather to point out that our time is a sort of zero-sum game. There is a time for temple work, sure, but there is also a time for direct help, for casseroles and for soup kitchens. That we choose one over the other is a product of our comforts, just as much as it is a product of our desire to serve the needy. Nor is my desire to deny the power of the Atonement to heal people who are broken, including those who have broken themselves. I would never argue that the peace that the Savior brings is itself an inherent evil; my argument is that it, like all earthly experiences, is and should be temporal. We will always sin again; pretending to ourselves otherwise is an attempt to wrench false comfort from our sorrows. Perhaps we should exit our comfort zone a little more; perhaps we should learn to live with a certain level of holy guilt.


  1. Each person can and should try to achieve peace in this world. Some will do it by working in the temple. Some will do it by baking and delivering casseroles. Some will do it by working in soup kitchens. There is beauty in all of that. Some will do it by withdrawing from the world. Some will do it by moving out into the world. Some will find happiness in their forgiveness in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some will find sorrow in their sin. May God bless each person for his or her choice. As Paul said, let every man be fully convinced in his own mind. And may we sustain fellow Saints in their choices.

  2. In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself

    The buzzard never says it is to blame.
    The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
    When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
    If the snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

    A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
    Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.

    Though the hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
    in every other way they’re light.

    On this third planet of the sun
    among the signs of bestiality
    a clear conscience is Number One. – Wislawa Symborska

  3. ji,
    I don’t think any of the potential groups you mention are mutually exclusive. I also don’t think “withdrawing from the world” generally is ever a good idea (although I do acknowledge the restorative power of alone time). Finally, my point wasn’t to say that some choices are good and others bad (although I do believe that), but rather to say that we each should consider our own choices and why we make them. We are rarely as altruistic as we’d like to think we are.

    Right on.

  4. I realize that this post involves more than vegetarianism, but on that note, Section 89 has the Lord saying that it is pleasing to Him that meat should only be eaten in times of famine, winter, cold, and excess of hunger, that is, as I infer, when plant life is not available to sustain one. The Refrigeration Theory, that in pioneer days, there were no refrigerators and meat would spoil unless found in a cold environment and hence the references to cold and winter, does not reach famine and excess of hunger, which would clearly include times of heat or moderate temperature. “And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” D&C 49: 21. The JST adds: “And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands.” It would seem that animal life has not been placed on earth merely for our convenience, as some have taught, but that they have some value in themselves where they might enjoy some modicum of a fullness of joy, as Nibley has taught, and that our right to kill them for our sustenance is limited to occasions when we need their flesh to save our lives, a far cry from the wanton and brutal killing that permeates our society for our barbecuing and fast food pleasures. The foregoing language suggests that for the Lord, this is not a mere trifle. As for one of the broader thoughts, guilt exists in order to identify sin and to be removed. Matthew 25 teaches that the essential quality that will distinguish the sheep from the goats at the last day will be how we respond to the least fortunate in our midst, not how many temple sessions we have attended over a life time, or how much tithing or even paltry fast offerings we have paid, or how great we were as parents, or so on. We are try to live to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and that honest effort goes a long way in removing the guilt that God wants us to feel (as opposed to the self-inflicted and unnecessary guilt that may require a good clinician to help remove).

  5. Fred,
    I’m open to the argument that the dead are among those least fortunate, as well as arguments regarding the use of fast offering to help the living less fortunate, so I don’t think those forms of service should be dismissed. The post tries to ask whether we should be doing more and the answer to that is always yes. How you feel about that being the perpetual answer is really what the post is about.

  6. Interesting thoughts. It makes me think of the process of seeking a clear conscience in terms of 2 Nephi 28:21.

  7. I constantly feel tons of guilt. About what I feed my family, what I spend money on, how I spend my time. Everything. I’m still hating myself for feeding my kids hot dogs at Target for dinner last night. It’s hard to know what parts of that guilt might be holy and what parts are non-productive.

  8. The disciple of Christ should be aware of the costs required before choosing to follow Him. What does it say in D&C 93:1?

    Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every sou who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am.

    Jesus told his disciples that He had so much to accomplish and such demands by those around Him for His help that He had nowhere to lay His head. He called them to forsake everything in order to join Him in His work.

    So the question is, what does that mean today for faith professing Saints? The list is long.

    As a father I should be there for all the activities my children are involved in, have sit down meals with them as often as possible, study the scriptures with them, say family prayer, work with them on their homework, teach them skills and and how to work, engage them in acts of service for those in their community.

    As a member of Christ’s flock I should be serving diligently in my calling, stay deeply involved in the lives of the families I’ve been called to support, regularly attend the temple, attend all the MANY meetings that are scheduled at the Ward, Stake, Regional, and Global level. Build my food storage and ensure I am emergency prepared. I also need to be engaging with my neighbors in ways that will help them feel the light of Christ and work toward finding those the Lord is preparing to receive the Gospel. I need to feed the missionaries, participate in Ward Choir, support the Bishop’s Storehouse, and help clean the building when it’s my turn.

    In my community I should be engaged with the schools and local government, participate in local politics, support charitable causes, work in the local soup kitchen and outreach to those of other faiths to collaborate on ways to improve the community. I need to be ecologically sound in the choices I make which requires immense levels of research in order to truly understand the impact of the choices I make. If I’m doing it right then I should be growing my own garden too. Many of those privileged choices that are less harmful to the environment and the community around me are typically more expensive so I need to be frugal about all of my other consumer choices.

    Whew, and we haven’t even started on the work I’m already doing for the organization that pays me to spend 60-70 hours a week laboring at making them profitable. Unless I’m fortunate enough to be separated from the rat race in which case there are even greater demands on my time because those cows aren’t going to milk themselves and the hay isn’t going to cut, dry, and bundle itself either.

    And then there’s the question of focusing time on the most important person in my life, my wife, who does deserve a date and time apart from the children on a regular basis. If I’m fortunate that time is found and spent doing some of the above activities that are non work related.

    So in the midst of all of these demands on my time and effort where as a disciple of Christ focusing on getting about His work, when am I supposed to find time to feel guilty about all of the things I’m not getting done? Every day has its priorities and every stage of life also. I do the best I can today but tomorrow I can do better because I’ll know more tomorrow than I did today.

    In the end, feeling guilty is a privilege. Mormons are so guilt ridden I think we would be better off accepting that we’re imperfect publicans, and on a daily basis pound our chests as we look to the floor and declare, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and keep moving forward.

    There is too much to do in this lifetime let alone multiple lifetimes and we must focus. I had a friend who lived in West Africa relate the thought to me that everywhere she went she encountered great need and initially found herself almost frozen with her inability to solve every problem. Until she realized that if she was focusing where her heart felt she should be engaging, with a few people, then she was doing the Lord’s work and that was sufficient. Note, Jesus didn’t rectify all of the world’s ills when He came to Earth. He could have cured every sick person He passed. He could have fed every child in the market. Instead he put a focus on areas of importance. And that is what we should do also.

  9. OD,
    I agree, specifically that we shouldn’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. I certainly didn’t intend to advocate for that in this post. We have to find a way to get to good enough. We should just remember that good enough also doesn’t mean that our poop don’t stink, as the saying goes.

  10. Thank you for giving voice to something that’s been sitting in the back of my mind for a while now. I spend a lot of time in the temple, and that of course is a service in itself, but I also do it for reasons that are pretty selfish- because *I* need the peace, because *I* need revelation and time for reflection. Obviously I need to work on my motivations, but I’ve also felt the need for more direct forms of service, ones that require some sacrifice on my part- walking two blocks to the temple is not much of a sacrifice.

    I learned a long time ago not to wallow in guilt for things I can’t easily change (for example: “in the American economy you are always, always harming someone, somewhere, just by participating”- this may be true, but I don’t even know what to do with that statement/where to begin/how not to feel completely hopeless about it), but rather to focus my energies on things that lie within my power. The focus of my service is one of those rare things over which I have total control and to which I can make changes as I see fit.

  11. BHodges says:

    Great post, John. Also, made me wonder how to balance this for people who already spend too much time magnifying their faults/sins/errors/blindspots, etc. I like the idea that we should be about more than simply clearing up our consciences. You’ve given me plenty to think about here.

  12. Joe P. says:

    Wonderful thoughts, John. Thank you. I’m a long-time reader, almost-never commentor, and I just couldn’t not join in on this one.

    I love the idea of “holy guilt,” and have been face to face with this idea for the last couple weeks while reading the Russian prophet (half-joking about the prophet part) Dostoevsky.

    For Dostoevsky, man is a creature with a dual nature, one idealistic and spiritual, one earthly and sensual. These two components of a human being are intertwined and inextricable. In other words, to try to deny either one of them would be destructive and ultimately impossible. So, how do we deal with the earthly, sensual part? The solution isn’t to embrace evil and satisfy our desires indiscriminately, but neither is it to pretend that we can secure for ourselves a life completely free from the sin and suffering in and around us. For Dostoevsky, what drives such a pretension is almost always fear and pride. Fear of guilt and the dark desires that hide in our own hearts and the heart of every being, and a sense of pride in being more sensitive, more enlightened that those around us, more enlightened than God himself.

    The Brothers Karamazov is in large part about this tension and about what can happen to a character, like the brother Ivan, who realizes (as alluded to in the OP) that he himself is implicated and partially to blame for the evil and suffering around him. Ivan can’t abide it, and is so determined to clear his conscience that he ends up hating others and blaming and rejecting a God who would allow such depravity, and denying that anything (like an Atonement) could repair or justify the torture or death of “even one tiny creature.”

    Through the voice of the Russian Orthodox monk, Zossima, Dostoevsky says that “all is like an ocean, all is flowing and bending; a touch in one place sets up movement in the other end of the earth.” In this way, as part of this creation, we are all in some way responsible for the good and the evil on this earth. We are indeed, as Zossima says, “responsible to all for all.” As opposed to Ivan, Zossima encourages his listeners to accept their place as participants in the grand, messy, divine laboratory of life, and to love actively and unceasingly in a most difficult way.

    As Zossima says: “There is only one means of salvation, then: take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins; that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things.” Taken out of context, this can seem extreme and unhealthy, but the section as a whole is quite beautiful, and I do not think Dostoevsky is talking about us literally doing what Christ did and offering to fix the whole world single-handedly. He is talking about being like Christ, and about a personal transformation, an inner journey away from pride and our attempts to completely insulate ourselves from the evil and suffering around us. Insulation leads to isolation. But we can’t love in isolation. “Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin,” Zossima says. And later: “For we must love not only occasionally, for a moment, but forever. Everyone can love occasionally; even the wicked can.”

    Like Mae says above, we shouldn’t wallow in guilt or try to accumulate it, but we can simply accept our portion of the blame, as agents that do both good and harm, sometimes without even trying, and accept the Messiah’s holy sacrifice, and then serve without fear and without hesitation. This is hard, and I am often afraid. But my feeling is that, past a certain point, God is less impressed with how absolutely “clean” our hands are (how far we’ve distanced ourselves from anything or anyone ugly or sinful), and more hopeful that we’ve gotten our hands a little “dirty” (loved and lifted even in the face of sin and unpleasantness, and even when that sin and unpleasantness is ours).

    Sorry for the long comment. I just had to get it out. Keep it up BCC.

  13. Thank you for your comment, Joe. The Brothers Karamazov has been an important book in my life, but I hadn’t drawn this connection until you pointed it out.

  14. I know this is late on the thread. I had a nice long conversation with my daughter where we discussed being parents, I to her, she to her children. We had a good laugh about the fact that raising children is extraordinarily guilt producing.

    Some time ago we visited friends from even further back. I am a softy liberal, he is the epitome of tough conservative. Our children left the Church in about the same ratio. The conversation was oddly comforting to both of us, I think, because it eased our guilt, for him, for being too tough, for me, for being too liberal. (Although I think my departed kids did it with more style!)

    Parents — that is the definition of guilt, at least, if you are doing it right.

  15. Neal A. Maxwell called it “Divine Discontent”.

  16. Rachel E O says:

    I often think of the concept “the blood and sins of this generation” as representing the sin that I partake in by being a consumer in the modern market economy — or by being a payer of taxes that fund unjust wars, indirectly subsidize abortion, etc. — or by voting for an individual that enacts the aforementioned policies, even if I don’t support those policies per se — and of course, I could go on ad nauseum. Together with “this generation,” I am complicit, to some degree, in this blood and in these sins.

    In fact, I think in our contemporary approach to religion–highly personalized, highly individualized–we perhaps tend to think of sin as being much more individualistic than it is in reality, or than it used to be thought of. The priests in the Old Testament sacrificed on behalf of the people — in some ways, seeking absolution for collective sin. Perhaps there was something to that. “For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.”

    So how do I approach this problem of collective sin (or at least, how do I aspire to do so)? Well, first of all, I try to be aware of it — by reading, by listening, by studying the issues. Because while I totally understand you’re being cheeky, I don’t believe that deliberate ignorance is the kind of ignorance that gets us out of moral responsibility. As God revealed to the Prophet Joseph, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” I.e. If I have a vague awareness that my consumption choices are contributing to the deaths of Bangladeshi garment workers, but I don’t *know* that for sure because I’ve avoided reading about what companies source from those factories, etc., etc. — that doesn’t absolve me from at least some small degree of responsibility for their deaths.

    Beyond knowledge, I strive for individual and collective repentance, turning from the sin. E.g. My husband and I ate pescetarian for about a year and a half, and when we stopped, we started a habit of thanking God in our blessings on the food for the life of the animal[s] we are about to eat. And we try to purchase locally raised produce and meats or slightly more ethically produced ones — while fully recognizing that what we are doing doesn’t even begin to cut it. We also plan to move back to the country and start raising some of our own produce and animals as soon as we can save up the capital, which we’re actively working on. More generally, we try to vote for, donate to, publicly express support for individuals and organizations and principles that are working to counter these sins — i.e. agents of collective repentance.

    But of course, while the spirit is indeed willing, the flesh is weak. And sometimes, the spirit is not even willing. Not to mention the fact that, as the OP describes, nothing I do could ever possibly fully disconnect me from the blood and sins of this generation. So I am ultimately left with the burden of my guilt, made particularly poignant by the fact that there is much I could quite easily do differently that I am not.

    But ultimately, I do find some — comfort? hope? — in the concept that through the Atonement of Christ, I–and all of us–can be pronounced clean every wit from the blood and sins of this generation. Do I deserve that pronouncement, given my current knowledge and behavior? Definitely not. Will I ever deserve it? Again, no. Does that mean God will not grant it? That’s for him to decide I suppose… but I believe he is a loving and forgiving God that wants us to come to him line upon line, precept upon precept. Forgiveness is not contingent upon perfection, but upon confession and efforts to progress. And as you say, repentance and the Atonement is not primarily about giving us a “clean conscience,” but rather it’s about progression toward a higher and better state of being and doing — and also, I think, it’s about satisfying the demands of justice.

  17. Thank you, Rachel. That was an excellent response.

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