As a parish pastor and even now as a professor, it’s common to deal with people with troubled consciences. When we hear that phrase, we think of Tom and Jerry cartoons, where an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other vie for dominance in an ethical quandary. Or we think of guilt and shame over having done wrong. But we misunderstand the term.
When Martin Luther pointed to a “troubled conscience,” he meant those times when we understand that our relationships with others have gone awry. Luther used the Latin word coram, which means “in the face of” or “in regard to,” when talking about the three places our consciences are troubled: coram mundi (in relation to the world), coram hominibus (in relation to other people), and coram deo (in relation to God). The three corams form the web of relationships in which our days are lived.
People who come to their pastor because of a troubled conscience understand that things are somehow out of whack. Often, it’s happened because of their own actions. It’s rarely a surprise that some breach has happened. People understand the consequences of sin. But what does come as a surprise is that it was never planned. They think, “I was only living my best life” or “It seemed like a good idea at the time” or “I was always told to follow my instincts.” David Byre put it well in his Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”:
You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?”
When the conscience becomes troubled, the first question the sinner asks is, “How did this happen?”
In the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s main character Alexander Hamilton finds himself in such a place. He has a troubled conscience in each of the three corams. His relationship with God has dwindled as he fails to attend worship. His relationship with his wife Eliza has splintered because of his infidelity and the blackmail money he’s paid. His relationship with the world is broken as the other founders he’s bickered with lay bare his deeds in public. Hamilton’s son Philip, indignant at other’s shredding his father’s reputation, calls out another man and is killed in a duel.
In his own mind, Hamilton saw his actions as well-considered. He only did what needed to be done, whether to satisfy his own ambition or to establish and improve the fledgling American system. He found himself bound by what he thought of as honorable deeds that landed him in the most unimaginable place. At the beginning of the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica describes Alexander’s situation: “There are moments that the words don’t reach / There is suffering too terrible to name / You hold your child as tight as you can / And push away the unimaginable / The moments when you’re in so deep / It feels easier to just swim down.” Angelica says that Alexander and Eliza are learning “to live with the unimaginable.”
The best thing about a troubled conscience is that it pushes us to fess up to reality.
This is what we sinners must face with fearless and searching honesty if release is to be found. It’s what Luther called despairing of ourselves (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 18). In Romans 3, Paul sings a litany of Scripture passages that refuse to let us ignore our troubled conscience. Again and again, he quotes the Old Testament’s various assertions that “there is no one who is righteous.” It’s all done “so that every mouth may be silenced.” Coram mundi, coram hominibus, coram deo, the unimaginable has happened. We have been laid bare as captives to sin.
Only then can we see clearly how the trajectory of our relationships has changed. Before our actions, our relationships have an expected path. It’s usually one of hope and fulfillment. But when sin enters in and lives are disrupted, the trajectory goes south. Destination: hell. Mode of transportation: handbasket. There doesn’t seem to be a single action we can take to salvage things. All we can do is sit in our self-made muck, knowing it’s all happened “by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault.” The best thing about a troubled conscience is that it pushes us to fess up to reality.
In a musical about the vast import of the founding of the American system and its protagonist’s place in it, the emotional high-point comes not with the revolutionaries’ victory at Yorktown or with Hamilton’s win in creating a federal banking system or in the nation’s capital. Instead, it arrives in the quiet uptown as Alexander experiences a quelled conscience via confession and forgiveness.
Because Hamilton’s hubris, ambition, and infidelity all lay behind their son’s death, Eliza wants nothing to do with her husband. Alexander spends his days wandering his garden. In his stillness, he comes to know God again: “I never liked the quiet before / I take the children to church on Sunday / A sign of the cross at the door / And I pray / That never used to happen before.” Again, Angelica sings, “He’s working through the unimaginable.” This time the unimaginable is his deep need to confess.
Now Alexander can confess to Eliza: “Look at where we are / Look at where we started / I know I don’t deserve you, Eliza / But hear me out. That would be enough / If I could spare his life / If I could trade his life for mine / He’d be standing here right now / And you would smile, and that would be enough / I don’t pretend to know / The challenges we’re facing / I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost / And you need time.”
Then Alexander declares that he has nothing left of his own power to manage their future. Instead, all he has is Eliza’s own faithfulness: “But I’m not afraid / I know who I married / Just let me stay here by your side / That would be enough.” It’s a moment worthy of the Psalmist who calls on God to pay out the promised mercy that God declared to the Israelites. God’s “anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). Like Alexander’s trust of Eliza, we can trust that we have a God whose primary quality is unstrained mercy.
God’s mercy is also eschatological. It breaks in from the future or, better yet, from eternity.
Hamilton receives his wife’s mercy as she reaches across the six-inch chasm between them to grasp his hand. In the walk uptown, Alexander is given Eliza’s eschatological gift of a new trajectory, based not on his past deeds, but on her beneficence. Eliza holds in her hands an entire future. It is not Alexander who will establish that future. Eliza will spend the next fifty years, bringing back her husband’s good name. After all, it’s his face on the American ten-dollar bill, not Vice-President Aaron Burr, who shot him dead. Hamilton must be powerless and be passive, including the ultimate passivity of the grave, for this future to come to pass.
God’s mercy is also eschatological. It breaks in from the future or, better yet, from eternity. In Christ, God has determined that he will be the God of mercy, salvation, and redemption for you. This judgment he promises to make on the Last Day is something he slips into your hand at the moment of your confession. Now your trajectory is no longer a troubled conscience but is instead one of freedom.
“It’s Quiet Uptown” ends with the chorus singing “Forgiveness. Can you imagine? / Forgiveness. Can you imagine? / If you see him in the street, walking by her / Side, talking by her side, have pity / They are going through the unimaginable.” Unimaginable in the sense that it’s unimaginably difficult for a relationship to be rendered new. But more so, unimaginable in the inability to fathom what it’s like to live with such hope and freedom.
Paul declares the same thing in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Now the freedom that comes with forgiveness — “the entire forgiveness of all your sins,” as the absolution declares — is yours. It’s not something you need to wait for. In the quiet of your own uptown, where your own sins bear down on you and create a troubled conscience before the world, before others, and before God, your Lord reaches across the chasm of brokenness to take your hand. He establishes a new relationship with you. Unimaginable? No. Utterly real and eternal. Start imagining what it’ll look like.