Thick Skin

“This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense towards God and men” (Acts 24:16).
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1,2).
Ginseng Tamang is an elderly farmer in the mountains of northern Nepal, near the Tibetan border. I have a picture of him in short pants showing the skin of his lower legs wrinkled and toughened to the point that they are almost impervious to cold. It is fascinating to see people of that area in winter time dressed in multiple layers of thick wool clothing on their upper bodies, but with their feet and legs bare. But they have experienced the harsh winter conditions to the point that they are conditioned to it and it does not seem to be a hardship.
Humans are resilient and can become used to almost any conditions. This is true emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. Just as our skin becomes thicker and less responsive to harsh stimuli, so do our hearts and consciences. A child raised in an abusive environment may develop the ability to ignore and endure neglect, harsh words, and even physical abuse. This is not to say that he or she is not affected and damaged by such treatment, but the child may develop the ability to sublimate, burying the experience to the degree that he is barely aware of it.
This ability can be either positive or negative. Paul speaks of heretics whose harmful teaching is made possible because their conscience has become seared. They do great harm, but it does not affect them. They have become insensitive to the suffering of others. Their spiritual nervous system is damaged and they do not have the restraints and controls God intended.
But, just as one can train one’s conscience to allow evil, so another may toughen his resistance to temptation. The conscience is more sensitive, more in control, and the desire to do wrong has become dulled and blunted. Such a person “strives to have a conscience without offense towards God and men.”
The difference in the two kinds of sensitivity lies partially in the exposure to which one’s spirit has been subjected. Just as Ginseng’s skin is toughened by year-round outdoor life in the cold mountains, so our consciences reflect the environment in which we live. One constantly surrounded by sin and evil may develop great tolerance for them, and the inability to identify them for what they truly are. Conversely, those living in the warmth of God’s love and joy are not easily distracted by coarser, temporary pleasures.
Paul himself developed this ability. Late in his life he said, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). Let us be careful to spend our time in the right spiritual conditions so that our “toughening” is of the correct kind.

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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