There is nothing mystical about it, but this moment of hesitation, this quiet voice of self-restraint is something that everyone experiences at some point, just as the apostle Paul wrote that it was something that affected Christians and pagans alike (Romans 2:14-15).
We may call this our conscience or use some other term. Some say it is God speaking to them, others that it is just the result of learned social behavior. In the Middle Ages many people thought it was an angel whispering in their ear. Albert Einstein called it an “inner voice” and others have called it an “inner light.” But no matter what we call it, or where we feel it comes from, it is an established fact of human psychology. We are not talking about hearing voices in one’s head – just a feeling or awareness that some action or response isn’t good or right. It’s like an internal warning system that is suddenly sounding in our minds. The problem, of course, exists when we turn down the volume and stop listening to that alarm. Typically, before we act in error, our conscience warns us to stop. If we choose to ignore its warning, or begin to think up rationalizations why we need not heed this feeling, the alarm will turn off and the urging of our conscience subsides – only to return later to condemn us if we go ahead with behavior we knew was not right.
The apostle James wrote about this progression between the awareness of something wrong and the results of tuning out that awareness: “but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). The beginning of this chain is the still small voice that, if rejected, temporarily disappears. The amazing thing is that this is something we all understand, yet something that we so often don’t act upon. Yet the battle for good habits and right living is almost always fought at this point – at the very beginning of the trajectory. If we ignore the restraining call and proceed regardless, we invariably end up, as James affirms, in sin.
As a result, it’s possible that one of the greatest things we can do in overcoming wrong and growing in doing what is right in our lives is to train ourselves to listen to that voice and immediately act on its guidance. To listen and stop immediately has been called, in theology, the obsta principiis – the determination to “resist the beginnings,” because, as we have seen, that’s where the real battle is always fought at the moment the alarm sounds. Again, there is nothing mystical about this, it’s simply a matter of acting immediately on what we know is right. But the key lies in understanding that every time we ignore the inner voice of restraint and go ahead with what we wish to do, say or think, we actually move further away from where we really want to go in life. Every time we stop at the first “sound” of that alarm we move further toward our real goals. We need to train ourselves to listen for that inner alarm, learn to recognize it and to stop in our tracks. Counter-intuitive as it might seem physically, if we want to move forward further and faster spiritually, we need to stop more often.