Not long ago, in a careless moment around the grill, I burned a couple of my fingertips—not badly, but enough that once the pain went away those fingertips were numb for a few days.
I couldn’t help thinking of some words from the apostle Paul. Describing the pagan Gentiles, he said, “they, having become callous [past feeling, NKJV], have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Ephesians 4:19). Elsewhere he spoke of people whose consciences are “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2).
Those word pictures should be easy to grasp. Just as callused or cauterized skin no longer feels pain, a person’s conscience—his internal “moral umpire”—can become numb so that he feels no remorse over doing what he knows (or ought to know) is wrong. Like burns and blisters that give way to a dulled sense of touch, repeated sin injures and dulls a person’s moral sense. The more he defies the voice of conscience, the easier the sin becomes to do—and to forget. Repeat the sin often enough, and conscience may fall silent. Where one should feel the sting of shame, he has instead become comfortably numb.
Ephesians 4 goes on to say that such people have “given themselves over to sensuality.” Sensuality is a rejection of self-discipline that produces shameless, unrestrained behavior. (The word’s connotation is often, but not always, sexual.) The more I sear and dull my conscience, the more I surrender to selfishness.
The result is “the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.” Impurity is uncleanness, dirtiness—specifically dirtiness of the moral sort. (This word, too, often has sexual overtones in Scripture.) Sin is the spiritual equivalent of wallowing in filth. And, while “with greediness” might be read as tacking avarice onto the list, more likely Paul is saying that a seared conscience makes one “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (NRSV). A callous disregard for what is right leads to a hunger to pursue what is wrong.
This doesn’t happen only on an individual level; a culture can grow comfortably numb to sin, too. Ephesians 4:19 is not, of course, saying that the entire pagan world was made up of clinical sociopaths—people literally unable to feel remorse or empathy. But Paul is describing a state of mind that has done sinful things so much, for so long, that it has grown immune to feelings of guilt about them. He is describing a culture that has habitually rejected God’s will until people neither recognize it nor feel any shame about trampling it.
Paul attributes the Gentiles’ numbness of conscience to futility of mind, darkened understanding, ignorance, and hardness of heart (verses 17-18). He uses similar language in Romans 1:18-21. This was no innocent lack of knowledge; it was willful disregard of the truth. The results were horrific (see Romans 1:24-32). As commentator William Barclay wrote:
In the heathen world, Paul saw three terrible things. He saw men’s hearts so petrified that they were not even aware that they were sinning; he saw men so dominated by sin that shame was lost and decency forgotten; he saw men so much at the mercy of their desires that they did not care whose life they injured and whose innocence they destroyed so long as those desires were satisfied. (Galatians and Ephesians 153-154)
And today, Barclay continued, the same spirit “can be seen invading life at every point and stalking the streets of every great city.” Just like Paul, we live among countless thousands whose moral sensibilities have become comfortably numb. They are like many in Jeremiah’s day who “refused to be ashamed” and “did not even know how to blush” (Jeremiah 3:3; 6:15).
For believers, living in such a world presents serious challenges:
• The personal battle for my own conscience. Every time I choose to sin, I risk searing my conscience just a little. I may excuse it with, “It’s only this once,” but that once may weaken my conviction enough to make it easier to excuse the next time.
The risk is magnified when the world around me treats the sin in question as harmless, even good. It’s harder to feel guilty about lying if you’re surrounded by people who lie without hesitation. It’s harder for your conscience to shout “No!” to sex outside of marriage (in whatever form) when the prevailing culture treats it as something as natural as eating. Even things we read, listen to, or watch can desensitize us to evil if we aren’t careful.
• The pain caused by the callousness of others. If people around me are “past feeling” when it comes to sinful behavior (even if they are not all numb to the same extent or about the same things), then some of that behavior is bound to affect me and people I love. There’s no avoiding it. Who among us has not been hurt because someone else felt no guilt over stealing property, or spreading slander, or abusing drugs? A world full of people who are past feeling is, oddly enough, still a painful place to live.
• The challenge of sharing the gospel. The New Testament is the message of God’s remedy for sin. That message can be hard to impress on those who have no sense of guilt over sin. The gospel calls on people to repent—to acknowledge their sin and guilt before God, and to surrender to Him. That surrender includes making God’s word the standard to which conscience is set. For many people, that may be a radical change. Sharing the message will demand that we have patience, persistence, and courage.