The Request for a Good Conscience
What is conscience? How does it work? Is it a sure guide?
MOST of us are acquainted with safety devices. There is a buzzer in some automobiles that warns by buzzing when one exceeds the speed limit; the smell of gas warns of danger when gas from the kitchen range is escaping; a fever in the human body warns of infection, and there is also conscience.
Conscience, too, is a safety device. It is that faculty of the mind that tells us whether we are doing right or wrong. It either accuses or excuses us. It judges. It decides as to the moral quality of our thoughts and acts. It demonstrates to us the hidden motives. Besides expressing judgment, conscience does something else: it imparts pleasure or inflicts pain for one’s own good or bad conduct. So conscience is a moral safety device.
The term conscience is not found in the inspired Hebrew Scriptures or among the words of Jesus Christ. It was introduced into the Christian writings by the apostle Paul. The word also appears in the book of Acts and in the first epistle of Peter. Paul shows the function of conscience in these words: “For whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, these people although not having law are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused.”—Rom. 2:14, 15.
Other aspects regarding conscience are brought out by the following worldly authorities. Dr. Mackenzie in his Manual of Ethics says: “I should prefer to say simply that conscience is a feeling of pain accompanying and resulting from our nonconformity to principle.” Shaftesbury, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, regards conscience as the consciousness of wrongdoing, not of rightdoing. Carlyle in his Essay on Characteristics asserts that people would not know they had a conscience if they never sinned or offended anyone. He teaches that its use is negative, to provide a safeguard against wrongdoing. However, Theophilus Parsons in his Deus Homo: God-Man states: “By conscience is meant not merely the knowledge that there is a difference between right and wrong, but a preference of right over wrong, and something of happiness in choosing, doing and being right, and something of pain in choosing, doing or being wrong.”
WHAT CONSCIENCE CANNOT DO
What conscience can not and does not do is provide us with a standard for right or wrong. It does not infallibly instruct us as to what right is or what we ought to do in every case. It does not prevent us from doing wrong. Since the judgment of right and wrong varies in different places and is subject to change and conflict, conscience cannot be considered an infallible guide in every case. So unless it is enlightened and trained by a sure standard of righteousness, that conscience is merely one’s own judgment of his actions. An unenlightened or a misguided conscience can lead to disaster. That is why it is not always wise to “let your conscience be your guide.” God’s Word declares: “There exists a way that is upright before a man, but the ways of death are the end of it afterward.”—Prov. 14:12.
No one should assume that he is doing right simply because his conscience does not accuse him of wrongdoing. His conscience, if untrained, may very well deceive him. It may excuse him for doing something corrupt. The apostle Paul stated: “All things are clean to clean persons. But to persons defiled and faithless nothing is clean, but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Titus 1:15) For example, there are worldly persons who would never think of stealing from a friend or the corner store, because they believe it is wrong and their conscience would disturb them if they were to steal. But these same persons think nothing of stealing from their employers or the insurance company, or cheating on their income tax forms. Such consciences untrained in righteous principles cannot be depended on as reliable guides, because they are not.
Another example is Adolf Eichmann, the man accused of killing six million Jews. His conscience was not disturbed by his dastardly acts. He excused himself from these crimes by saying he was merely taking orders from his superiors. However, all men must have consciences, even soldiers.
When Israel’s officers and men of the Border Police killed forty-three Arab villagers while enforcing a curfew, the accused pleaded that the orders to shoot curfew breakers had come from higher echelons and that they had not acted according to their own wishes. But Justice Moshe Landau, who upheld the conviction of eight officers and men, said: “A soldier, too, must have a conscience.” Justice Landau explained that the obviously merciless order should have aroused the conscience of every man, down to the last private, even under special circumstances such as existed at that time. Their consciences should have prevented them from killing innocent people. They were unable to shift the blame.
A man without a conscience is like a beast. He makes his own rules. He generally avows that the end justifies the means. He shows no regret or sorrow for his actions. Therefore, a man without a conscience is a dangerous man.
HOW THE CONSCIENCE WORKS
How does the conscience work? It has been likened to a fever. When the temperature soars, it is a sign that something is wrong with the person physically. When a conscience acts up, it is a good indication that there may be something wrong with one’s moral conduct. The conscience may also be likened to a warning buzzer in an automobile or the reaction of the olfactory organ to the smell of gas. The buzzer warns the driver that he has exceeded the speed limit, but it does not stop him from speeding. This the driver must do himself. He can go right on speeding, ignoring the buzzer or even turning off its annoying sound. At the first sniff of gas the smell organs warn the body of danger. But if action is not taken immediately, the organ becomes dull and fails to sound the warning. The conscience functions very much in the same way. One can listen to the warning signals of his conscience or he can ignore them or even turn them off. If he refuses to listen, he injures his conscience. It becomes dull and seared.
A seared conscience has issued so many unheeded warnings that it has become weary in well-doing. It no longer sounds the warning, or if it does, it is a very faint or feeble one. It simply became tired of not being listened to. To ignore warning signals is to harden the heart toward right, as Pharaoh did. It is to put light for darkness and darkness for light, as the ancient Israelites did—a course much too easily achieved today.
TRAINING NECESSARY FOR RELIABILITY
The conscience is not automatic; it is not infallible. The conscience must be trained. Much depends upon the kind of information that we take into our minds as to the value of our conscience. For example, a conscience trained in an environment of crime, polygamy or polyandry accepts these practices without a twinge. Another reared in surroundings of moral laxity, where common-law marriage, adultery and fornication are the general practices, takes such wrongs for granted. Still another conscience brought up in an atmosphere of sly business methods, among lying, cheating and grafting, silently condones such wrongs on the ground that everyone is doing it, that these are the accepted ways. A misled conscience, in fact, may excuse the wrongdoer of wrongdoing; yet this fact does not excuse the man before God. Paul said: “I am not conscious of anything against me. Yet by this I do not stand vindicated, but he that examines me is Jehovah.”—1 Cor. 4:4.
A conscience is reliable only when it has been trained in the will of God. It is the divinely educated conscience with its prickings and proddings that helps in safely guiding Christians in the way of life. It helps them apply righteous principles to their daily living, making unnecessary detailed and written laws of conduct.
Accurate knowledge of God’s Word, the Bible, is needed to train the conscience in the righteousness of God. For the Word of God is alive and is “able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word has the power to discipline the conscience in righteousness. A weak conscience is due to lack of accurate knowledge. Study of God’s Word and faith in that Word will build up the conscience. Obedience to God’s commands will help Christians to carry out the injunction: “Hold a good conscience.”—Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 3:16; 1 Cor. 8:7.
MAINTAIN A GOOD CONSCIENCE
To maintain a good conscience one must continually take in knowledge of God. Then one must make decisions and conduct oneself in harmony with the principles of God’s Word. One must be able to say as Paul said: “I am exercising myself continually to have a consciousness of committing no offense against God and men.”—Acts 24:16.
It is very easy to defile the conscience. If we relax our vigilance and adopt worldly standards of morality instead of Scriptural standards, our conscience will stop working for us. We must be alert to errors and learn from our blunders. When wrongs are committed we should seek the forgiveness of Jehovah and our brothers. Faith in the blood of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to make the request to God for a clean conscience. (1 Pet. 3:21; Heb. 9:14; 10:22) So do not nurse wrongs or plague yourself with continual self-condemnation, but accept the forgiveness that God gives, and erect barriers through prayer and study to further transgressions.
A good conscience is not the certainty of reconciliation but the mirror of our moral condition. Hence its chief characteristic is its sincerity. Hypocrisy accuses the conscience. For the conscience to remain the practical thing that it is, we must make correct use of it and take proper care to heed its warnings and cultivate its powers.—Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12.
The diligent servant will continually examine and correct his own conscience. Properly looked after, the conscience has power to lead the servant of God to reach a greater responsiveness to the call of duty and higher virtue. Whereas the negligent servant, and still more the perverse, may become dead to the workings of his conscience.
It is fear-inspiring to contemplate the execution of God’s judgment against all wrongdoers. (Mal. 3:5) Yet not just for motives of fear should we avoid wrongdoing and do good. The motivating force should be a conscientious love of righteousness. Hence Paul says: “There is therefore compelling reason for you to be in subjection, not only on account of that wrath but also on account of your conscience.” For conscience’ sake, therefore, we should want to subject ourselves to God and do right.—Rom. 13:5.
CONSCIENCES OF OTHERS
Christians must show regard not only for their own consciences, but also for the consciences of others. To disregard one’s own conscience will force it to callous and scar over for its own healing and protection. To disregard the consciences of others is to offend them and stumble them on the way to life. Paul was well aware of this fact. He said that he preferred to forego his freedom, if by using it he would trouble his brother’s weaker conscience.—1 Cor. 8:7-13; 10:27-29.
On the other hand, Paul would not compromise his conscience just to satisfy the miseducated consciences of false religionists. It was up to them to re-educate their consciences. While regard must be shown for weaker consciences, under no circumstance should the defiled and faithless consciences of worldlings be a Christian’s guide.
If all the world had a true Christian conscience, men would feel an obligation toward one another, as brother to brother. They would be moved to love, not only themselves, but their neighbors and enemies. Where there is a Christian conscience there is no desire to kill, no desire to destroy savings and the fruits of toil, no desire to threaten the unity of millions of homes throughout the world. There is only a desire to live and to let live in peace, according to God’s principles. Therefore, all men should seek a good conscience. Request God for such a conscience and act in harmony with your request.—Matt. 5:43-48.