Orthodox America

  Conscience: The Voice of God in Man

(Continued from previous issue)

Examples of the Action of the Conscience Described in the Bible

        No worldly book explains so precisely all the various manifestations of the conscience in man as does the Bible. We shall cite here some cases in which the conscience is most apparent.

        In examining negative examples we see how evil deeds evoke in man feelings of shame, fear, grief, guilt and even despair. Adam and Eve, for example, having tasted the forbidden fruit, felt ashamed and hid with the intention of concealing themselves from God (Gen. 3:7-10). Cain, having killed his younger brother Abel out of jealousy, afterwards began to be afraid that some passerby would kill him (Gen. 4:14). King Saul, persecuting the innocent David, wept from shame on learning that David, instead of taking revenge, had defended his life (I Kings 26). The proud scribes and pharisees, who brought to Christ the woman caught in adultery, began to depart in shame when they saw their own sins written by Christ in the ground (John 8). When Christ chased the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple, they left without protesting, knowing that it was wrong to turn the temple into a market-place (John 2).

         Sometimes the pangs of conscience become so unbearable that a man prefers to cut short his life. The clearest example of this sharp gnawing of the conscience we see in the traitor Judas, who hung himself after he had betrayed Christ to the chief priests of the Jews (Matt. 27:5). In general, sinners--both believers and unbelievers----subconsciously feel responsible for their actions. Thus, according to Christ's prophetic words, before the end of the world sinners, seeing the approach of God's righteous judgment, will ask the earth to swallow them up and the hills to cover them (Luke 23:30; Rev. 6:16).

         It sometimes happens that a man compassed about by anxieties does not hear the voice of his conscience. But later, when he comes to himself, he feels its pangs with double intensity. Thus, the "brothers of Joseph, having fallen onto hard times,

remembered how they had sold their younger brother into slavery and understood that they had been justly punished for this sin (Gen. 42:21). King David, carried away with the beauty of Bathsheba, understood his sin of adultery only after he had been called to account by the prophet Nathan (II Kings 12:13). Out of fear the fiery Apostle Peter renounced Christ, but upon hearing the cock crow he recalled Christ's prophecy and wept bitterly (Matt. 26:75). The wise thief, hanging on the cross next to Christ, understood only just before he died that sufferings were sent to him and his comrade for their previous crimes (Luke 23:40). The publican Zaccheus, moved by Christ's love, remembered how he had offended people through his greed and resolved to recompense all those whom he had cheated (Luke 19:8).

        On the other hand, when a man knows he is innocent, he finds in the clean witness of his conscience an unshakeable support for hope in God. The righteous Job, for example, knew that the reason for his cruel suffering lay not with him but in the higher designs of God, and he hoped in God's mercy (Job 27:6). Similarly, when the righteous King Hezekiah lay dying from an incurable disease, he began to entreat God to heal him for the sake of those good deeds which he had earlier performed, and he became well (IV Kings 20:3). Apostle Paul, whose life was dedicated to God and the salvation of others, not only did not fear death, but, on the contrary, he desired to depart from his perishable body in order to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23).

      There is no greater relief or happiness for the sinner than to receive forgiveness of sins and peace of conscience. The Gospel is filled with such cases as the sinning woman who with gratitude washed Christ's feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:38).

      On the other hand, disdain for the voice of the conscience and repeated falls into sin darken the soul to such an extent that a man can expect, as the Apostle Paul warns, the shipwreck of his faith (I Tim. 1:19); i.e., he can become irrevocably immersed in evil. 

The Psychological Side of the Conscience

      Psychology is concerned with the study of the nature of conscience and its relation to man's other moral capabilities. Psychology tries to ascertain two things:

      a) Is conscience a natural human trait innate to man, or is it the result of upbringing and conditioned by those circumstances of life which affect man's formation?

      b) Is conscience a manifestation of the mind, the senses or the will of man, or is it a manifestation of some independent power?

      In answer to the first question, a careful observation of the presence of the conscience in man convinces us that the conscience is not the fruit of upbringing or physical instincts, but possesses a higher, inexplicable origin.

      For example, children give evidence of having a conscience before receiving any [moral] instruction from adults. If physical instincts dictated the conscience, it would prompt people to do what was pleasant and to their advantage. The conscience, however, very often forces a person to do precisely that which appears unpleasant and to his disadvantage. No matter how much the wicked may revel if they go un-punished, or how much good people may suffer, the conscience tells everyone that there exists a higher justice. Sooner or later each will receive a reward according to his deeds. For this reason, the most convincing argument for many people in support of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is the presence of a conscience in man.

       Concerning the mutual relationship of the conscience and man's other faculties--his mind, senses and win--we see that not only does the conscience tell a man what in and of itself is morally good or bad, but it obliges him to do without fail what is good and to avoid what is bad, accompanying the good deeds with a feeling of joy and blessedness, and wrong doings with a feeling of shame and torment. In these actions, which are proper to the conscience, are manifest rational, sensual and volitional aspects.

       Of course, on its own the mind cannot discern some actions as morally bad and others as morally good. The mind can only distinguish between which of our or another's actions are intelligent or stupid, expedient or inexpedient, advantageous or disadvantageous, and that is all. Meanwhile, for some reason the mind sometimes urges us to oppose the most seemingly intelligent or advantageous opportunities with morally good actions, to condemn the first and approve the latter. It deters in certain of man's actions not only a calculation or mistake, similar to an error in mathematical calculations, but also something vile, criminal. May we not therefore conclude that the conscience, acting upon the mind, sets before it purely moral reasons, independent from it in essence?

       In turning to the manifestations of the conscience in the area of the will, we see that in and of itself the will is the ability in man to desire something, but that this ability does not command a man what to do. The human will, inasmuch as we know it in ourselves and in others, very often struggles against the moral law and strives to tear itself loose of its binding fetters. If the commanding power of the conscience were merely a manifestation of man's will, this struggle would not exist. Whereas the summons of the moral law certainly weigh upon our will. Inasmuch as it is free, the will can refuse to fulfill these summons, but never is it able to renounce them. However, even in its non-fulfillment of the demands of the moral law, the will does not go unpunished.

      Finally, the sensory power of the conscience also must not be regarded solely as the sentient faculty of man's heart. The heart seeks pleasant feelings and turns away from what is opposed to these. Meanwhile, violations of the demands of the moral law are frequently accompanied by the most severe torments which cause the heart to be rent in two, and from which we can in no way escape, no matter how much we want or try. Clearly, the sentient power of the conscience also must not be regarded solely as a manifestation of the normal sensual faculty.

       In view of all this, should we not acknowledge that the conscience appears to be a power independent of us, standing higher than man and reigning over his intellect, will and heart, although it is both contained and lives within him?


On Preserving Purity of Conscience 

      Keep thine heart with utmost care; for out of it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). With these words the Holy Scriptures summon man to preserve his moral purity.

      But what is a sinful man to do? Having sullied his conscience, is he forever doomed? Fortunately, no! An enormous advantage that Christianity has over other religions lies in the fact that it opens the way and provides the means to a complete purification of the soul. This way consists in a repentant laying down of one's sins before the mercy of God, with the sincere intent to change one's life for the better. God forgives us for the sake of His Only-begotten Son, Who on the Cross offered the redeeming sacrifice for our sins. In the Mystery of Baptism, and again in the Mystery of Confession and Holy Communion, God completely cleanses the conscience of a person from dead works (Eph. 9:14). This is why the Church attaches such great significance to these Mysteries.

      In addition, Christ's Church possesses that grace-giving power which gives the conscience the possibility to perfect itself, to become highly refined and manifest itself with great clarity. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8). Through a clean conscience God's light begins to operate, ruling man's thoughts, words and deeds. In this blessed light a man becomes a vessel of God's Providence. Not only does he perfect himself spiritually and attain salvation, but he also contributes to the salvation of others, those who have contact with him. We recall Sts. Seraphim of Sarov, John of Kronstadt, Elder Ambrose of Optina and saints like them.

       Finally, a dean conscience is a source of inner joy. People with dean consciences are calm, pleasant, desiring the good of others, thinking well of others. People with clean consciences have a foretaste already in this life of the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven!

       "Neither greatness of authority," instructs St. John Chrysostom, "nor wealth of riches, nor extensive power, nor physical might, nor a sumptuous table, nor elegant clothes, nor anything else a man may possess can give joy and peace of soul; this comes only from spiritual well-being and a good conscience." 

Archpriest Alexander Mileant

Translated from Pravoslavnaya Rus', 8/28/1988; Jordanville, N.Y.

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