By Archimandrite Alexander (Mileant)
The Nature of Conscience
Once an impoverished woman stole something from a store. No one saw her. On her way home, a gnawing feeling disturbed her peace of mind. She had to return to the store and replace the stolen item. She then returned home with a feeling of relief. There are countless similar examples of people compelled to do not what they want but what is right.
Everyone is familiar with his inner voice, which sometimes accuses and oppresses him, and sometimes brings him joy. This small, subtle voice, this inborn feeling, is called conscience. By its nature conscience is a spiritual instinct which differentiates between good and evil more clearly and quickly than does the mind. He who listens to the voice of his conscience will never regret or be ashamed of his behavior.
In the Holy Scripture conscience is also called "heart." In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus Christ compared conscience to the "eyes" by which a person can evaluate his moral condition (Matt. 6:22). The Lord also Compared conscience to an "adversary'' with whom a person must come to terms before he presents himself at God's Judgment (Matt. 5:25). The word "adversary” stresses the main attribute of conscience: to oppose our evil desires and intentions.
Our personal experience convinces us that this inner voice, called Conscience, is not under our control but expresses itself spontaneously in spite of our will. Just as we cannot persuade ourselves that we are full when we are hungry, or that we are rested when we are tired, similarly we cannot convince ourselves that our behavior is correct when our conscience tells us otherwise.
In the words of Christ regarding the "undying worm" (Mark 9:48), the Fathers of the Church see the guilty conscience that will punish sinners in the future life. The Russian poet Pushkin vividly described these torments in his dramatic play, The Avaricious Knight:
Conscience - a sharp clawed
animal that scrapes the heart;
Conscience - an uninvited guest, an annoying discourser,
A rude creditor, and a witch
That dims the moon and graves.
Later in the play, the old knight remembers in terror the pleading and tears of all those whom he had mercilessly defrauded.
In a different drama, Boris Godunov, Pushkin again recreates the sufferings of a guilty conscience, placing in the mouth of the Tsar Boris the following words: "Yes, most pitiable is the one in whom conscience is foul!"
Conscience - A
Universal Natural Law
As narrated in the Bible, during creation God imprinted into the nature of man His Divine Image, 'which draws man toward everything that is morally good and averts him from everything that is morally evil. This inner law works through the voice of conscience, which justly is called the voice of God in man. Because it is an integral part of human nature, it is active in all people -- regardless of age, race, education, or development.
Indeed, studying the culture and customs of past and present nations, one notes that all people, even the most primitive tribes, distinguish between what is good and what is bad, between a good man and an evil man, between virtue and vice. They are all agreed on this: that the good is worth striving for, that evil be shunned, and that the one deserves praise, the other -- censure. Although they may not be in accord in denoting whether a particular thing is good or evil, they are nevertheless agreed as to the general principle of pursuing good and avoiding evil. The occasional discrepancy in labeling some actions good or evil seems to come from the particular circumstances in which a given nation develops. It is a universally recognized principle that one should not do to others what he would not wish them to do to him. Vice everywhere seeks to hide itself, or at least to put on a mask of virtue.
The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, explains in some detail how moral law operates in man. The Apostle reproaches those who know the written Law of God but willfully violate it. He contrasts them with the pagans who "not having a written law, naturally observe the prescriptions of the Law. By this they show that the process of the Law is written in their hearts which is witnessed by their conscience and thoughts, which either punish or justify one another (Roan. 1:32). According to Saint Paul, on the coming Judgment Day, God will judge men not only according to their faith but also according to their conscience. Thus, even the pagans may be saved if their conscience will testify to God of their righteous life.
In general, conscience is a very sensitive moral evaluator -- especially in children and young people, who are still pure and innocent. If we were not stained by sin, we would not need any external guidance, and conscience alone could precisely direct our behavior. The need for a written law arose from original sin, when man, dimmed by passion, failed to hear clearly the inner voice. In the present condition, both the written law and the inner natural law of conscience are needed; and they both speak of the same: Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them (Matt. 7:12).
In our daily relationships with people, we subconsciously trust their conscience more than written laws and regulations. Indeed, it is impossible to have laws for every possible situation and to foresee how to preclude any attempts at breaking them. After all, shrewd people manage to twist and manipulate even the dearest of laws. So we hope that conscience, which operates inside every person, will compel the person we are dealing with to do what is morally good and just.
No secular book witnesses about the existence of conscience in man as clearly as does the Bible. Let us examine a few more prominent examples of this. Focusing first on some negative examples, we ,see that unkind behavior evokes in man shame, fear, suffering, feelings of guilt and even acts of desperation. Adam and Eve, having tasted the forbidden fruit, felt ashamed and attempted to hide from God (Gen. 3:7-10). Cain, after having killed his younger brother Abel out of envy, began to fear for his life (Gen. 4:14). King Saul, after persecuting innocent David, wept in shame when he learned that instead of retaliating David had spared his life (Kings, ch. 26). Proud scribes and Pharisees, having brought forward an adulteress to Christ, dispersed in shame when they saw their own sins written by Christ on the ground (John, ch. 8). Merchants and money lenders scattered in shame from the temple when Christ drove them out, saying that the temple of God was not to be turned into a marketplace (John, ch. 2).
Sometimes the pangs of conscience become so intolerable that a man prefers to end his life. We see the most vivid example of an accusing conscience in Judas Iscariot, the traitor, who hanged himself after betraying Christ to the high priests (Matt. 27:5). In general, all sinners, believers as well as unbelievers, feel responsibility for their behavior. Thus, in the prophetic words of Christ, sinners at the end of the world, seeing the approaching judgment of God, will plead for the earth to swallow them and the mountains to cover them (Luke 23:30; Rev. 6:16).
It happens that a man in turmoil, caught in the swirl of strong passion or overwhelmed by fear, appears not to hear the voice of his conscience. But later, he feels the pangs of conscience even more acutely. When troubles came upon the brothers of Joseph, they remembered their sin of selling their younger brother into slavery and understood that they were being justly punished for their cruelty (Gen. 42:21). King David, captivated by the beauty of Bathsheba, understood his sin of adultery only after it was revealed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12:13). The impulsive Apostle Peter, under pressure of fear, denounced Christ, but when he heard the cock crow, he remembered Christ's prophecy and wept bitterly. The wise thief, hanging on the cross next to Christ, understood only just before his death that his sufferings were a just reward for his crimes (Luke 23:40). The publican Zaccheus, touched by the love of Christ, remembered the offenses he had committed in his greed and determined to make amends (Luke 19:8).
On the other hand, when man is aware of his innocence, his clear conscience strengthens his hope in God. For example, the righteous Job knew that the reason for his sufferings was not because of any sins he had committed, but that it was in God's plan, and he hoped for God's mercy (Job 27:6). Similarly, the righteous king Ezekiel, dying from an incurable disease, became well when he pleaded to God for healing in reward for his good deeds (Kings 20:.3). The Apostle Paul, whose life was dedicated to God and the salvation of men, not only did not fear death, but, on the contrary, wished to be relieved of his earthly body in order to be with Christ (Phil. 1 ;23),
For a sinner, there is no greater relief and happiness than to receive
forgiveness and peace of conscience. The Gospel is rich with examples of
repentance. One sinful woman in the house of Matthew, upon receiving pardon for
her transgressions, in gratitude washed Christ's feet with her tears and wiped
them with her hair (Luke 7: 38). By contrast, disregarding one's conscience,
along with recurring sins, darkens the soul to such a degree that a man can
experience, as Saint Paul forewarns, "the shipwreck of his faith," so
that he can irrevocably sink into evil (I Tim. 1:19).
The Psychological Side of Conscience
The study of the relationship of conscience to man's spiritual attributes is the domain of psychology. Psychologists attempt to clarify two issues: 1) Is conscience an inherent attribute, or is it the result of learning and environment? 2) Is conscience a result of the way our mind, feeling and will operate, or is it an independent characteristic?
In response to the first question, a closer examination of man's conscience convinces us that it is not the result of a learned attitude or physical instinct in man, but has an unexplainable, higher source. For example, children develop a conscience before any adult teaching or modeling takes place. If physical instinct dictated to conscience, then it would induce man to behave in a profitable or pleasurable way. However, conscience often prompts man to do that which is unprofitable or unpleasant. In spite of the appearance that evildoers enjoy the good life and virtuous people suffer, conscience tells us that a higher justice must exist. Eventually all have to receive their just reward. For many people the universal presence of conscience is the most convincing argument for God's existence and the immortality of the soul.
Regarding the relationship of conscience to other spiritual attributes of man: with his mind, feelings, and free will, we observe that conscience not only speaks of that which is theoretically good or evil, but it also obliges man to do good and shun evil. Good deeds are followed by feelings of joy and satisfaction, whereas deeds of evil produce shame, fear and spiritual unrest. In all of these manifestations, conscience uncovers in us the awareness of free will and responsibility.
Of course, reason alone cannot decide what is morally good or evil. It bases its judgment on the observation of something logical or illogical, wise or foolish, useful or useless. It is a property of reason to select useful opportunities over deeds of kindness. Nevertheless, something in man compels his reason to not only search for profit, as an abstract mathematical computation, but also to evaluate the morality of his intentions. Does it not follow then, that if our conscience influences our reason, it is independent from it and even above it?
Considering how conscience works through free will, we observe that free will can desire anything. This ability, however, does not dictate to man what he must do. Human will, as we know it, often battles with demands of morality and attempts to free itself from its bondage. If conscience were a product of the free will, there would be no battle, no conflict. But the voice of conscience attempts to guide man's decisions. He may not always fulfill its demands, being free to choose, but he cannot ignore its voice without incurring an inner punishment.
Finally, conscience ~cannot be viewed as the product of feelings in the human heart. The heart craves pleasant sensations and avoids the unpleasant. But the rejection of moral demands often brings with it a strong spiritual conflict, which tears the human heart apart. We cannot escape the outcome in spite of our desire and effort. Therefore, in spite of being enclosed and dwelling within man, should we not concede that conscience is an independent and superior characteristic which directs man's reason, will, and heart by a Divine law?
Guard your heart more than anything you treasure, for it is the source of life (Prov. 4:23). With these words, Holy Scripture calls us to preserve our moral purity. But what hope can a sinner have with an unclean conscience? Is he forever doomed? Fortunately not! In contrast to other religions, the great privilege offered by the Christian faith is that it opens a path and gives the means for a complete cleansing of the conscience. This path exists in the repentance of one's sins, and in the sincere desire to turn life around for the better. God forgives us because of His Only-Begotten Son, Who on the Cross brought cleansing sacrifice for our sins. In the sacrament of Baptism, and then in the sacraments of Confession and Communion, God cleanses man's conscience "from dead works" (Heb. 9:14). That is why the Church places such great significance on these sacraments.
Moreover, the Church of Christ, through its teaching and the grace of the Holy Spirit abiding in her, enables the faithful to perfect themselves morally and make thief conscience more discerning and sensitive. This is one of the high goals of our Christina life, as Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8). Through a clear conscience, as through clear crystal, God's light enters our soul and permeates its every comer. As long as this light remains in us, it guides our thoughts, elevates our feelings, strengthens our will, and helps us in every good undertaking. Through this blessed illumination, many Christians become instruments of God's providence. When this happens, a Christian not only enjoys spiritual blessings, but also becomes an instrument of salvation to others. Church history illustrates this with innumerable examples in the lives of its saints: Seraphim of Sarov, John of Kronstadt, Ambrose of Optina, Herman and Innocent of Alaska, Xenia of Petersburg, Archbishop John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and others who saved so many souls.
In conclusion, a clear conscience is a wellspring of all Divine blessings. People with clean hearts enjoy inner peace; they are gentle and benevolent. It seems that already in this temporal life, filled with trials and turmoil, God gives them a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Saint John Chrysostom puts it: "Neither fame nor wealth, neither great power nor physical strength, neither a magnificent table nor elegant clothing, nor any other human advantage can bring true happiness. This comes only from spiritual health and a clear conscience."
Leaflet 9E, ©1996 Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Church, Los Angeles CA 90068
Do not treat your conscience with contempt, for it
always advises you to do what is best. It sets before you the will of
God and the angels; it frees you from the secret defilements of the
heart; and when you depart this life it grants you the gift of intimacy
with God. St. Maximos the Confessor
After God, let us have our conscience as our mentor
and guide in all things, so that we may know which way the wind is
blowing and set our sails accordingly. St. John of the Ladder
He who fives in evil is punished in hell
prematurely, being pierced by the conscience. St, John Chrysostom
[The conscience] should not be evaded, since it
tells us inwardly how to live in conformity to God's will, and by
severely censuring the soul when the mind has been infected by sins, and
by admonishing the erring heart to repent, it provides welcome counsel
as to how our defective state can be cured. St. Philotheos of Sinai
A peace above all earthly dignities, A still and
quiet conscience. Shakespeare
Fr. Alexander Mileant is rector of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, and works with NASA. He was tonsured at Holy Trinity Monastery on the 6th week of Great Lent, 1995.
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