This last week, the Tsarnaev family, neighbors, and media voiced bafflement over how two nice young men could have so ruthlessly mangled people in the Boston Marathon bombing. Were they “radicalized”? What went wrong in them?
Similarly, the lack of compassion and remorse of a child labeled with RAD can be mystifying. How can any person, especially a child, be so cold and cruel? It certainly gives the appearance that he has no conscience. Since the Bible teaches that everyone has a conscience, how does the Bible explain the lack of remorse?
First, the Bible identifies a starting point different from that of psychologists. Psychologists propose that a child is born without a conscience and morally good. Scripture teaches that a child is born with a conscience and a sin nature, morally corrupted. As children are ignorant of many important facts of life, so they are of God’s written standard. Therefore, the conscience lacks knowledge and already leans toward self-justification.
Knowledge is vital. Misguided people can think that some wrong things are right, even murder (John 16:2). The apostle Paul originally thought that killing Christians was a service to God (Acts 26:9-11).
Second, the Bible teaches that there are different types of conscience. Knowing what is right and acting upon it, either in rejection or in submission, are what determine the type of conscience a person develops. Hebrews 5:14 describes the good conscience of the spiritually mature “who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” They know what is right and heed it. As they practice, they become more sensitized and more skilled at identifying what is right and what is wrong.
On the other hand, Ephesians 4:18-19 indicates that those who do not discern good and evil do not “because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality.” With practice, refusing to act on the truth becomes a habit and hardens a callous over moral sensitivities. Eventually, the person quits trying to resist certain temptations. It is like the adulteress of Proverbs 30:20. “She eats and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” If she feels remorse, her own words self-teach her conscience that its evaluation is incorrect, so guilt feelings go away. In this way she becomes less able to distinguish wrong from right.
The problem with a seeming lack of conscience is not its absence but to what direction it is trained.
I think our incredulity at the degree of cruelty and remorselessness of others (hardly ever of ourselves), of criminals and terrorists, of children labeled RAD, reflects a lack of recognition and comprehension of our own moral depravity. We presume that we are basically good and that people who demonstrate remorseless cruelty are strangely evil. Granted, extreme expressions are not the norm. But Jesus presumed that we all have corrupted hearts capable of evil when He said, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts…” (Matt. 7:11).
Consider Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, recorded in Luke 10. A man was robbed and left for dead in the road. Later, a traveling priest came upon him and diverted his course so as to avoid coming near to him. Then a Levite did the same. Two people who were supposed to represent God who is love refused to be moved by compassion.
How could they be so calloused!? We ask because we view ourselves as good, as like the Samaritan who later helped the victim. Yet, at one time or another, we have all refused to demonstrate compassion. It is inconvenient. The responsibility of compassion is burdensome. Feelings of empathy incite an uncomfortable sense of our own vulnerability, so we avoid it.
In what ways are we at some point on the continuum of the calloused? The list is endless. We tell others to do things when we should ask respectfully or even do it ourselves, and never even think that we might have been rude. We criticize and never give it a second thought–is that not condemnation without remorse? We are ungrateful, presume upon others, complain, say insulting things. Have we not all been angry at someone? According to Jesus, such anger is moral murder. We even justify our anger, which is calling the wrong a right. We verbally slay the stupid driver who cuts us off in traffic. Or we are that stupid driver.
Worse, when we do become aware of having offended someone we so very seldom view the offense as against God. We’re so focused on the horizontal that we don’t even think of Him. We think it a small thing to neglect listening to Him by reading His Word and talking to Him in prayer, as though relationship with Him means nothing to us. We go through a day without a thought for God unless we get in a jam. How cold!
These are all very mild examples. How many cruel words and heartless acts precede every divorce? Domestic fights and abuse? Angry thoughts are precursors to angry words, and angry words are just actions restrained to verbal form while still on the same continuum as murder and bombings. Given enough latitude, we are all rankly selfish, capable of acting as cruelly as the priest and Levite, or the robbers who beat the man and left him for dead. Or the ordinary people who shouted for the torture and death of Jesus.
Christians who understand depravity should be shocked at remorselessness in children and at horrific acts of which we hear in the news because we ought to be sensitized to God’s holiness. But we ought not be surprised or mystified because the Bible explains man’s cruelty.
The difference in conscience between ourselves and those with a hardened conscience is only a matter of degree, not of kind.
Therefore, we can empathize with the children who have grown calloused, like those who behave befitting the label RAD. We can exercise compassion for them in the prison of their hard-heartedness.
We need to be careful of our terminology. When psychologists declare that a child has no conscience, hope is lost because a conscience is a moral capacity and no man can bestow a moral capacity upon another, nor can we self-install one. The child is left without an avenue to repentance and reconciliation. Oh, let’s not lock them into some exotic category described as lacking a conscience.
We need not be intimidated by the “experts” and their theories and special treatments. Scripture “de-mysts” the mystifying lack of remorse in your child. Study the Bible to learn what it says about the conscience and how to influence it.
We can be realistically hopeful. It is true that someone with a hardened conscience is in a serious position because he has habituated himself to rejecting the very truth that he needs. There are those who, like the hardened Pharaoh, will never repent. But even Joseph’s brothers repented, they who had hated Joseph for years, plotted his death, sold him into slavery, and callously let their father suffer years of grief. Even the Ninevites, noted for their cruelty, repented at the preaching of Jonah. The apostle Paul, who furiously hunted Christians and authorized their murders, repented. If you are a follower of Jesus, you also used to be an enemy of God, “alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds,” yet He brought you to repentance (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21).
We can teach the truth and discipline wisely with confidence. Your child has a conscience and the word of God is effectual. It is living and active and sharp, able to pierce to the core of your child, “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of [his] heart (Heb 4:12). It is able to lead him to salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).
We can offer our children hope by teaching and expecting compassion. Jesus did that very thing with the conscience-hardened Pharisees and His own disciples.
We can offer our children hope by teaching God’s standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus retaught the Law, drawing people to understand that obedience to it has always been a heart issue. He taught right and wrong in a way that convicted the conscience.
We can and must use the Bible. This is God’s very Word given for the purpose of turning hearts to Him; how can we not use it? It must be used wisely with love, not like a club. But since Scripture is able to lead one to salvation, able speak to the conscience, use it.