Orthodox America


  Conscience: The Voice of God in Man


The Action of Conscience in Man

      One woman, by reason of poverty, took something from a store and carried it away surreptitiously. No one saw her. But from that moment a certain unpleasant feeling gave her no peace. She had to go back to the store and return what she had taken. Having done this, she came home with a feeling of relief. Such cases, in which people are forced to act contrary to their advantage or their pleasure, are impossible to enumerate.

      Each individual is acquainted with his inner voice which at times reproaches and persecutes him as it were, and at other times encourages and gladdens him. This refined, innate moral feeling is called conscience. Conscience--it is a kind of spiritual instinct which differentiates between good and evil more quickly and more clearly than the mind. He who follows his conscience will not regret his actions.

      In the Holy Scriptures the conscience is also called the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus Christ likens the conscience to the eye, by means of which a person sees his moral state (Matt. 6:22). He also likens it to an adversary with whom a man must make peace before he appears before the Judge (Matt. 5:25). This last comparison reveals the distinguishing characteristic of the conscience: to oppose our bad actions and intentions.

      Our personal experience likewise proves that this inner voice, called the conscience, is located outside our control and expresses itself independently, quite apart from our desire. Just as we cannot convince ourselves that we are full when we are hungry, or that we are rested when we are tired, so, too, we cannot convince ourselves that we have done something good when our conscience tells us that we have done something bad.

      Some see in Christ's words concerning the "worm that dieth not", which will torment sinners in the life to come, a reference to the gnawing of the conscience (Mark 9:44). Similar torments of the conscience were expressively and colorfully described by A. S. Pushkin in his dramatic work, "The Avaricious Knight":

"Conscience -
A clawed beast, scraping the heart; conscience is An uninvited guest, a tiresome interlocutor, A churlish creditor; it is---a witch,
Before whom the moon and the tombs grow dim."

      And further the knight with terror recalls the pleading and the tears of all those whom he pitilessly robbed 

A Common Natural Law

      The presence of the conscience gives evidence that indeed, just as the Bible relates, in the very process of creating man, God placed within the depths of his soul His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). For this reason it is customary to call the conscience the voice of God in man. As a moral law written directly on man's heart, it acts in all people, independent of age, race, upbringing and level of development.

      Anthropologists who study the morals and customs of various underdeveloped and primitive peoples testify that to this day they have yet to find, even among the wildest savages, a people lacking some form of an understanding of good and evil. Furthermore, many tribes not only place a high value on good and despise evil, but for the most part their views agree on the essence of the one and the other. Many even primitive tribes stand just as high in their understanding of good and evil as many cultured peoples. Even among those tribes which place a positive value on certain deeds which are unacceptable according to prevailing opinion, there is in general a marked consensus in the moral consciousnesses of all people

In the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the holy. Apostle Paul writes in some detail concerning the actions of the inner moral law in man. The Apostle reproaches the Jews who, knowing the written law of God, often transgress it, whereas the pagans, which have not the [written] law, do by nature the things contained in the law....Which [thereby] shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another (Rom. 2:14-15). Here, too, Apostle Paul explains how this law of conscience sometimes rewards and at other times punishes a man. Each person, therefore, no matter who he may be, Jew or Gentile, has a feeling of uneasiness, of distress and oppression, when he does something wrong or indulges in licentiousness; an inner feeling gives him to know that such actions will incur God's punishment (Rom. 1:32). At the coming Dread Judgment God will judge people not only according to their faith, but also according to the witness of their conscience. For this reason, as the Apostle Paul teaches, even pagans can attain salvation if their consciences bear witness before God of a life of good deeds.

      The conscience has a highly refined sense of good and evil. If man were not marred by sin, he would have no need of the written law. His conscience could rightly guide all his actions. The need for a written law arose after the Fall, when man, darkened by passions, ceased to hear clearly the voice of his conscience. But in essence, both the written law and the inner law of the conscience speak about the same thing: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Matt. 7:12).

      In our daily relations with people we subconsciously place greater trust in a man's conscience than in written laws and rules. After all, one cannot track down every violation, and even the law  "something drew a breath, you turn around, it's gone". Whereas the conscience contains in itself the eternal and immutable law of God. And because of this, normal relations between people are possible only as long as people have not lost within themselves the voice of conscience.   

(To be Continued)

Archpriest Alexander Mileant
Translated from Pravoslavaaya Rus', 8/28/1988; Jordanville, N.Y.


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society