“The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts.”

Proverbs 20:27

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Proverbs 20:27

Perhaps our greatest temptation is to see conscience as an act of human autonomy, an exercise of moral will that separates ourselves from other people, from social convention or from God (or whatever one calls the transcendent).

Granted, some people use the language of conscience this way to defend their moral choices – more often than not bad ones! Conscience in this respect is dangerous. It can serve one’s self-interest, often under the delusion that I am being ‘good’.

The quote from Proverbs serves as a challenge to a false notion of conscience. It connects it to the human spirit which the author describes as “the lamp of the Lord”. For religious and secular people alike (the latter can read it as allegory after all), this is the ‘inner light’ that sometimes gently – and sometimes less gently! – nudges us to examine what are the deepest values we need to uphold.

As we’ve already noted, we have a strong capacity for self-delusion, for rationalising wrongs that serve selfish interests. A few theologians have been wary of conscience, rejecting it or arguing for its limitation in moral action because of this. I disagree with them because I believe that people, apart from sociopaths, do have a deep sense of right and wrong.

When we act wrongly, even when we rationalise wrong actions by appealing to ‘conscience’, there is often a deep sense of unease, even if for a while we do not ‘connect the dots’. It sometimes manifests in a kind of ill health without apparent cause. Mostly it manifests in an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction or lack of feeling fulfilled.

That’s the lamp going on, searching our “innermost parts”, as Proverb puts it.

It also happens, positively, when we are grappling with tough decisions. We should let it guide us to the right actions.


Shine your lamp on our deepest selves. Challenge us when we need to be challenged; And may you guide us in all our decisions.


Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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