What do you think of when you think of someone with a seared conscience? The natural thing that might come to mind is the image of a sociopath, someone who has no compunction about doing anything whatever. “Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron . . .” (1 Tim. 4:2). That is a natural move, but it is a mistaken one. In scriptural terms, when a person’s conscience is seared with a hot iron, he doesn’t become an anarchist, he becomes a fierce moralist. Notice the next verse — “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3). A man with a seared conscience is the prohibitionist, the wowser, the fusser.
On reflection, this should not be surprising. As long as we bear the image of God, we have to function in terms of antithesis, in the light of a foundational right and wrong. But because we are in rebellion against God, we violate His holy commandments. But we still have a need to feel righteous, and we have a desperate need to shout down our guilt. What better way to shout down the guilt than to go on a compensatory crusade? This is displaced moralism.
Thus we have a man who screams at his wife, but who drives a Prius with a smug look, a man who uses porn, but who is fastidious about avoiding gluten, a woman who has a botoxed face and siliconed chest, but who eats plenty of leafy greens because it seems “more natural,” a man beset with homosexual lusts who is on a fierce crusade for wealth redistribution, and so on.
Nothing is being said here about the gourmand who knows and understands good food, and would consequently prefer a meal bursting with the interplay of numerous intelligently placed spices to a meal on the couch from a crinkly bag, the name of which ends with that pervasive food group suffix -itos. That is simply a man getting good at something, just like other men get good on the guitar, or laying down asphalt, or building skyscrapers, or writing novels. Good on him, and maybe he should think about becoming a chef.
No, I am talking about the crusader, the devotee. I am talking about the person who, having eaten the cibus prohibitus, feels guilty. I am talking about the person who, observing his brother at Quiznos (from a high and lofty perspective), feels censorious.
The point is not just that this displaced moralism is a bad thing in itself, which it is. The point is that it is often a smoke screen distraction, an attempt to persuade himself, his family, his church, and his pastor, that he is a morally serious person — despite the hidden drunkenness, porn, anger, homosexuality, and so on. We are so constituted that we do not just set aside the Word of God. We do it by means of our own traditions.