Aligned with True Moral North, God's Word can CORRECT your conscience so it functions as an accurate moral compass for your life.
Illustration by Jim Lamb, taken from Discussion Manual for Student Discipleship, written by Dawson McAllister and Dan Webster, pg. 71.
2 Timothy 3:16–17 (NET)
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for CORRECTION, and for training in righteousness,
17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.
Many years ago, in my 20’s, I attended a morning workshop on orienteering where I received training on reading a topographic map and properly using a compass. Before the craze of geocaching (using a cell phone and GPS to find hidden cache of “treasure”), orienteering offered a similar competitive experience for individuals or teams. The goal in competitive orienteering is to reach a destination or find a “treasure” in the shortest amount of time using a topographic map, a compass, and any additional instructions given by the event organizers. The morning workshop I attended trained us in the skills of orienteering before we needed to utilize those skills in an afternoon team competition to find a cache of goods that was awarded to the winning team. Though my team was within a few feet of the prize, sadly we didn’t find the cache that was hidden on the steep slope of a creek bank.
Even without competition, learning the skills of orienteering is vital if you are going to spend a lot of time hiking or backpacking in the wilderness. Knowing how to use a compass in conjunction with a topographic map could save your life.
Like most, I had known from childhood that a compass arrow points north, but it wasn’t until that workshop that I learned the difference between magnetic north and true north, and how to use the features of an orienteering compass to navigate the variance. True north is equivalent to the north pole, a fixed geographic point on the earth that is directly opposite the south pole. The north and south poles mark the axis around which the earth rotates. All the longitude lines on a globe run from the north pole to the south pole like the segments of a peeled orange run from the stem to the navel.
Image of globe from Imgbin. Image of orange from Pixabay
Unlike the fixed position of true north, magnetic north is determined by the earth’s magnetic field which is generated by molten iron flowing in the earth’s outer core. Because of fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field, magnetic north migrates. In the past two centuries, magnetic north has moved from northern Canada east of Cambridge Bay across the Canadian Artic and toward Siberia.
Image from https://gisgeography.com/magnetic-north-vs-geographic-true-pole/
Because magnetic north and true north are not the same, an orienteering compass is equipped with a declination scale. Declination is the angular difference between true north and magnetic north, which varies depending on your location. Most compasses come with a dial marking 360 degrees all around the circumference of the compass. The declination scale sits within this outer ring and can be rotated to compensate for variance between true north and magnetic north based on your location. The purpose of the declination scale is to CORRECT the compass so that you know where truth north is, and you don’t end up missing your destination, or even worse, getting lost somewhere in the wilderness.
An orienteering compass also comes with a clear base plate and other helpful features such as measuring scales and often a magnifying glass. Fancier ones add features such as a mirror and a sighting notch for lining up with a distant destination target. These specialty features on an orienteering compass are designed to work in conjunction with topographic maps. Topographic maps contain a lot of important terrain information such as land contours, elevation, bodies of water, roads, trails, bridges, key landmarks, and of course a map legend and a scale of distance. The clear base on the compass allows it to be placed directly on the map for measuring distance, aligning topographical features, and getting your bearing in relationship to map landmarks.
Image from www.WildernessCamping.com
Topographic maps are always oriented to true north, NOT magnetic north. To compensate, they contain another very important feature, a magnetic declination diagram. Depending on where you are, magnetic north may be east of true north, west of true north, or aligned with truth north. The magnetic declination diagram will let you know how many degrees east or west you must rotate the declination scale on your compass to compensate for this variance. If you are in central Canada or central U.S., true north and magnetic north will be more closely aligned, but if you are closer to the west or east coasts, you may need to adjust your scale east (+) or west (-) up to 20 degrees to know where true north is located. Obviously, how far north or south you are will also increase or decrease the declination angle.
Image from https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/compass-declination.html
The only time your compass will actually point to true north is when you are in perfect alignment with both magnetic north and true north. This only happens when you are situated on the longitude line that runs directly from the north pole through magnetic north and your location. This zero-declination line is called the agonic line (agonic meaning “not forming an angle”). The agonic line currently runs through Nunavut, the northeastern tip of Manitoba, and western Ontario in Canada, then enters the U.S. at the northeastern tip of Minnesota, and runs down through Wisconsin, Illinois, the western edges of Kentucky and Tennessee, then through Alabama and finally through the western tip of the Florida panhandle and into the Gulf of Mexico. Unless you are located in this narrow path, you will need to adjust the declination scale on your compass to compensate for the variance between true north and magnetic north.
Image from https://www.usgs.gov/educational-resources/magnetic-declination-varies-considerably-across-united-states
Because of the constant changes in magnetic north, it is also important to have an up-to-date map giving the most recent declination settings, or if using an older map, to get the latest declination settings for the map you are using. With today’s technology, this can be easily found online. Certainly, if you are hiking in an area with cell tower access, you can use your cell phone’s GPS, but this will not work in remote areas where there is no signal.
Even one degree variance over a long distance can make a huge difference in where you end up, but a 20-degree variance can make a massive difference in just a short distance. So, even a working compass can lead you astray if you don’t compensate for the declination variance of your location.
We can apply many of the skills of orienteering to the Christian life. The conscience has been broadly described by some as a moral compass for giving guidance on right and wrong. This is a helpful metaphor, but there needs to be a more detailed comparison to make it practical for daily living. From my own personal reflection over the years, I have come to see numerous points of comparison between a compass and the conscience. The conscience shares both the strengths and weaknesses of a compass and needs to be adjusted accordingly to improve its accuracy for navigating life. To explain these comparisons, let me first set up the metaphorical parallels in my analogy.
True North: I see the Lord as True North. He alone is innately “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY” and righteous. He alone is innately faithful and true. True Moral North is based on God’s character and the standards that flow from His character.
Magnetic North: I liken magnetic north to a general standard of honorable moral values that have been upheld by moral teachers throughout the ages and recognized by many civil societies. I call this “magnetic moral north.” This standard is not absolute, it shifts in emphasis, and it doesn’t address some very important moral issues. However, it upholds general principles of morality that are foundational to civil societies.
Compass: As already noted, the conscience acts like a moral compass, helping us navigate our world and guiding or judging our moral choices. It doesn’t make our moral decisions but it brings our understanding of right and wrong to bear on those decisions. It has a capacity to be a moral guide, but its accuracy is determined both by outside factors and the condition of the conscience itself.
Topographic Map: I view the Bible like a spiritual topographic map, defining the contours of reality, truth, and morality. Aligned with True North, the Bible helps us to assess the thinking and morality of our lives and society in light of God's standards, and it CORRECTS the moral compass of conscience to align with True Moral North rather than magnetic moral north.
Geographic Location: I see geographic location as the dominant societal and moral culture or subculture in which you are living. This culture has adopted a common set of beliefs and values regarding what is true and what is moral. These views are promoted through that culture’s education, media, entertainment, and authorities (political, judicial, and other forces that wield significant influence). This is the contextual moral landscape we are navigating as we seek to align our walk to True Moral North, living in a way that pleases God, and reaching the destination that God has for each of us.
With these parallels established, I will explain four critical points of comparison between the compass and conscience; and, further, how God’s Word as a moral topographic map CORRECTS our conscience, bringing it into alignment with True Moral North so that we can walk righteously even in this crooked and perverse world (Philippians 2:14-16). Due to length, I have chosen to divide this post into two parts and will cover two points of comparison in this post and two in the next.
1. Like a compass, your conscience has a “magnetic” capacity to point to a general standard of right and wrong and to inform you where you stand in relation to that standard.
In a general sense, the conscience is a compass guiding to magnetic moral north. "The conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong." The apostle Paul writes that even the Gentiles who are without God’s law instinctively know that certain things are right and wrong, “their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14-16). Most people, for example, know intuitively that murder, adultery, dishonesty, and thievery are wrong because these activities harm other people. It’s not difficult to reason, “If I wouldn’t want others to harm me in these ways, I shouldn’t harm others in these same ways.” It’s also easy to see how these activities damage a peaceful and prosperous society.
Yet even with this God-given capacity, not all people see these activities as wrong or experience guilt over engaging in one of these activities. Further, though there are societal reasons for avoiding these behaviors, this doesn’t necessarily mean these activities are inherently morally wrong. If one believes in naturalistic materialism and survival of the fittest, what is wrong with taking the life of another, misrepresenting the truth, or stealing another’s spouse or goods to guarantee his own survival and success? Apart from a higher authority, we have no True North for determining morality.
Furthermore, this general sense of morality has some obvious limitations. For example, the greatest commandment in the Bible is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). If this is the greatest commandment, then the greatest sin would be to not give God his rightful place in your life. This truth and standard is glaringly absent in the “universal” moral norms that do not acknowledge the existence of a Holy and Sovereign God.
Image adapted from https://bibleversestogo.com
Moreover, though “universal” magnetic moral north rightly emphasizes loving one’s neighbor, the guidelines for this are man-centered, not God or morality centered. For example, society tells us all behavior is right so long as it doesn’t hurt someone else. However, this general principlizing of love does not alone determine right and wrong. For example, society tells us that any sexual activity is fine if it is mutually consented to, yet the Bible sets clear parameters for consensual sexual activity. The only sexual activity approved by God in Scripture is within the boundaries of a monogamous heterosexual marriage (Hebrews 13:4). All other forms of sex including incestual, premarital, extra-marital, homosexual, bestial, prostitutional, and pedophilic are all deemed sinful in the Bible even if consensual (a topic for another time).
Further, it is sometimes loving to hurt your neighbor. Like a doctor will intentionally hurt to heal, faithful are the wounds of a friend (see my previous post on reproof). Physically pushing your neighbor to save her from an oncoming truck is more loving than affirming her “right” to stand in the road. Similarly, speaking the truth in love to warn someone of impending consequences should she continue in the current path is loving. Yet, in the current climate of political correctness, to have an alternative viewpoint or say anything “offensive” is deemed “morally wrong” and receives public rebuke by woke celebrities, media personalities, politicians, and educators.
2. Like a compass, your conscience is not an infallible guide because of your “geographic” location.
Just like a compass does not point to true north, neither does your conscience. True Moral North can only be defined by God who is innately thrice holy, who created all things, and who is sovereign over all things. In fact, the moral standards defined in the Bible are extensions of God’s character. God is love, so we are to love (1 John 4:7-8). God is righteous, so we are to be righteous (1 John 2:29, 3:7). God is holy, so we are to be holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-16). God doesn’t lie, so neither should we (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18; Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9-10). In contrast, the devil is a liar, a murderer, and unrighteous. Those who practice these sins are expressing the devil’s character (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8-15).
So, it is the character of God that defines moral uprightness, and the moral commands in the Bible define in more detail how to walk out God’s righteousness in daily life and relationships. Unless your conscience is aligned with God’s Topographic Moral Map and is adjusted for the declination variance between True Moral North and magnetic moral north, the accuracy of your moral compass will vary depending on your current moral geographic location in relation to magnetic moral north and True Moral North. If your culture or subculture happens to be in the narrow longitudinal range, metaphorically speaking, in which all three are vertically aligned, your moral compass may be quite accurately pointing you to True Moral North, but the further west or east of that alignment, the less accurate your compass will be. The only way to know True Moral North is by aligning your moral compass to the Topographic Moral Map of God’s Word.
I liken this moral geographic misalignment to the moral drift of society from ethical norms that were once common in societies influenced by strong Judeo-Christian values. The closer a culture is to Judeo-Christian values, the more accurate the alignment of social conscience with True Moral North. The further to the left or right of Bible-based values, the less accurate is the moral compass of a society.
This does not mean that all who live in a morally compromised culture share those same values. Even while living in the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Bible describes Abraham’s nephew Lot as a righteous man, “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds)” 2 Peter 2:7–8 NASB). In short, the sin all around Lot really bothered him. Yet, even Lot’s compass needed some declination adjustment since he offered his virgin daughters to appease the sexual appetites of the deviant mob wanting to have sex with his angelic guests, thereby prioritizing his obligations of hospitality over the safety of his own daughters. (Genesis 19:8).
Lot speaking to the deviant mob. Image from https://www.freebibleimages.org/illustrations/sodom-gomorrah/
Unless an individual is compensating for the declination variance between societal norms and True Moral North, his conscience will be susceptible to societal influences, and he will likely adopt the moral norms promoted through the voices of family, friends, education, and media that influence his life and dominate his culture. Today, society has reinterpreted the “universal” norms of love and tolerance to mean agreement with, acceptance of, and even approval of all behaviors, rather than promoting a principled love that “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6 NASB), that speaks the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and seeks the highest good of another by upholding eternal truths even if viewed intolerant.
There are cultures and subcultures that are far “left” of magnetic moral north, advocating all forms of licentious decadence. On the opposite extreme are those who are far “right” of magnetic moral north, such as subcultures isolated from society and trapped in oppressive legalism. The key for both groups is not to pick a mid-point between the two extremes, but to bring the moral compass of individual and collective conscience into alignment with Scripture, which like a topographic map is aligned with True North. The Scriptures can give an accurate declination setting for adjusting one’s conscience to True Moral North. Obviously, just like a topographic map must be correctly “interpreted” to align one’s compass with true north, God’s Word as a topographic moral map must be correctly interpreted to align one’s conscience and life to True Moral North, but this topic will have to be reserved for future posts.
Because Jesus knew His Father and understood the Scriptures, he was able to avoid “right” and “left” extremes. When the religious leaders paraded the adulterous woman in front of the crowds to get to Jesus, flaunting her sin in public saying, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, the very act,” and they appealed for Jesus to render a judgment on Moses command to stone her, Jesus avoided both judgmental legalism and reckless license (John 8:1-11). By appealing to the court of conscience saying, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone," Jesus disqualified anyone from throwing stones, then he dealt very personally with the woman, balancing both truth and love.
While the far-right legalist would say, “I condemn you, go!” and the far-left liberal would say, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin!” Jesus responded with “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” (John 8:11 NKJV). He offered forgiveness for her sin, but also called her to turn from sin and walk in moral uprightness. Aligning to True Moral North often requires both, upholding God’s standard of moral righteousness on one hand, while reaching out redemptively to those who have fallen short of that standard with the other. This is true love!
Summary and Looking Ahead
If your conscience is not aligned to True Moral North through alignment with the Topographic Moral Map of God’s Word, it will lead you astray. In this post, we looked at two ways that your conscience as a moral compass is similar to a real compass both in its strengths and weaknesses. In my next post, I will cover two additional similarities between your conscience and a compass, and how the Topographic Moral Map of God’s Word can CORRECT your conscience.
 I should note that there is a slight difference between true north and grid north. Because the earth is spherical, longitude lines narrow as they approach the north pole. Because topographic maps are drawn flat, gridlines are used to indicate north/south and east/west, but these regional maps do not show the slight narrowing seen in longitudinal lines on a globe. The variance between true north and grid north on area topographic maps is so trivial that it doesn’t impede reaching the desired destination.
 Andrew David Naselli and James Dale Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016), 41.
 The word “tolerant” means that you bear with something with which you disagree or disapprove. The fact that "tolerance" has been twisted to mean “approval” shows how far society has drifted.
 By today's moral norms, Jesus would be viewed as far right. This further shows how far current society has drifted from Judeo-Christian values.
 I owe this insight to Joe Dallas, Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness and Clarity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2016)