The Voice of Conscience Within
“Whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, . . . [they] demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them.”—Rom. 2:14, 15.
1, 2. (a) What is the situation today as respects moral standards? (b) Why is moral guidance needed particularly since 1914?
TODAY what is “right” or “wrong” is in a state of constant change. In a speech on “Public Morality” Dr. Emanuel Demby stated: “An important reason why it is so difficult for us to pin down the exact moral nature of our times is that it is a period of great transition.” What were widely followed as the accepted standards just a few years ago have been altered or replaced. And with life becoming ever more complex, who is to say how valid the new standards are, or for how long they will last? What guidance does one have?
2 This situation faces particularly us living since 1914 C.E. Why especially since then? Dr. Archibald Chisholm observed: “So great has been the upheaval in thought and morals, that some suggest that we should regard ourselves as living in the year  A.B. (anno belli [the year of the war]), thus indicating their view that a new epoch began with the outbreak” of World War I. The very fact that there has been such upheaval in thought and morals since 1914 emphasizes our need for a guiding voice, for proper direction.
3. What questions arise as to relying on conscience?
3 Many persons who are aware of this need express the view that in the final analysis each person ought to rely on his conscience. They say: “Let your conscience be your guide.” By “conscience” they have in mind that each person seems to have a “voice” within him, an inner sense that tells him what is right or wrong. But is that true in all cases? Do you know what is the source of conscience and just how widespread it is? Also, just how reliable is this inner sense? Even if others can depend on their conscience, can you?
4. According to some worldly authorities, what is the source of conscience?
4 Were you to look to intellectuals and philosophers for an explanation of the source of your conscience, you might be told that it is merely a social product of evolution. The opinion of evolutionist Charles Darwin was “that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, . . . would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” And Sigmund Freud felt that we could “reject the suggestion of an original—as one might say, natural—capacity for discriminating between good and evil.”
5. Does the Bible uphold these views of man’s conscience?
5 But do such views represent the true explanation? The most ancient and consistently reliable record of man’s history and dealings answers, No! In the first place, the Bible correctly states what has been borne out by honest scientific observation, that all living things reproduce ‘after their kind.’ Thus man is not merely a product of evolution, nor is his conscience. (Gen. 1:21-26) The Bible, furthermore, accurately identifies the source of that voice within you, your conscience. It shows why—despite efforts of men such as Hitler, who boasted, “I am liberating man from the degrading chimera known as conscience”—humans earth wide continue to have a conscience. And it can help us to use and benefit from conscience.
6, 7. (a) God’s Word indicates what about the origin of conscience ? (b) What was Adam’s conscience?
6 The Scriptures tell us that the Creator made man in His own image, with intelligence and a moral sense, just as God himself has these. (Gen. 1:27) And right from the start the first man possessed a God-given conscience; it was not something that simply developed as society grew. This can be seen in the account of Adam’s actions and attitude after he broke God’s command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. (Gen. 2:17) The record says that Adam and Eve then “went into hiding from the face of Jehovah God in between the trees.” And when Jehovah spoke, Adam did not quickly respond. Why not? Because he sensed his guilt; it was as if there were a voice within him that was condemning him, accusing him, testifying that he had sinned.—Gen. 3:7-10.
7 So, the oldest historical record available indicates that man’s conscience was in evidence right from the start. Interestingly, in the first century C.E. the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing in Greek, pointed out that Adam’s reluctance to reply to God was evidence of his “evil conscience.” For the word “conscience” Josephus used the Greek term syneiʹdesis, which means literally “having knowledge of something with oneself” or “co-knowledge.” Adam’s conscience was from God; it was his inner moral sense, and it involved his intelligent mind. Since he was created in God’s image, when Adam acted contrary to God’s qualities or revealed will he felt an inner conflict. But how does this relate to our feelings and actions? Was conscience passed on to Adam’s descendants? Yes, both Biblical and non-Biblical evidence proves that it was, even down to each of us today.
8. What later Bible account reflects an inherited moral sense?
8 Note the historical account of what occurred with Joseph over two thousand years after Adam’s sin. Joseph was a slave in the household of the Egyptian court official Potiphar. Tempted perhaps by Joseph’s masculine beauty, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. Since he was but a slave, he easily could have felt obliged to obey her, possibly with the hope of bettering his position. Yet, Joseph flatly rejected her immoral advances, saying, “How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” (Gen. 39:1-9) What moved Joseph to view adultery as a sin against God?
9. Why did Joseph reject adultery as a “sin against God”?
9 He did not respond that way because of a written law of God forbidding adultery, such as only later appeared in the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 20:14) And here was Joseph in Egypt, far from any family pressure or patriarchal rules. Clearly Joseph’s conscience was involved. Adultery violated his moral sense. He likely could “feel” that it was wrong to take what did not belong to him, another man’s wife. And this feeling could have been strengthened by his having reflected on the fact that a man and his wife are “one flesh,” a fact with which Adam was well acquainted. (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4, 5) Also, he would have heard of the experiences of Abraham and Isaac, which did not show approval of adultery. (Gen. 20:1-18; 26:7-11) Hence, even without a law against adultery Joseph’s conscience could move him to reject it.
10. What evidence is there that other peoples, too, inherited the faculty of conscience?
10 But if Adam passed on to his descendants a measure of conscience, should not Potiphar’s wife, too, have sensed that adultery was wrong? Yes, though obviously she let passion control her. The Egyptians, along with people earth wide, realized that adultery was a grave moral offense. Their oldest religious texts associated the Last Judgment with the weighing of the “heart.” And over what was one judged? The ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead” depicts the deceased as declaring his innocence, saying, ‘I have not robbed. I have not killed men. I have not lied. I have not defiled any man’s wife.’ So, it must be that conscience led them to sense the wrongness of adultery. Bringing conscience into the picture, historian Josephus later wrote of Joseph’s urging Potiphar’s wife to shun a lust that would bring remorse and suffering, but to be faithful to her husband and enjoy “a good conscience.”
11. How do both Biblical and non-Biblical sources illustrate a functioning conscience?
11 Additionally, we find both Biblical and non-Biblical descriptions that illustrate a functioning conscience. On one occasion King David of Israel had a census of the nation taken. The Bible describes David’s reaction when he realized that he had sinned. Showing the operation of conscience, the Bible says that “David’s heart began to beat him.” (2 Sam. 24:1-10) A similar effect of a smitten conscience is mentioned in an ancient cuneiform tablet that gives the prayer of a Babylonian who had sinned. He implored his god to listen “on account of his breast, which complains like a resounding flute.”
12. (a) So, what can correctly be concluded about the faculty of conscience, as pointed out by the apostle Paul? (b) Is conscience manifested by all people?
12 All of this shows that we have a conscience because of inheriting intelligence and a moral sense from Adam. Thus, even nations that knew nothing of the Mosaic law, given by God, forbade things such as stealing, lying, incest, murder and adultery. Yes, though they “do not have law,” they “do by nature the things of the law.” The apostle Paul highlighted the basis for their moral standards, saying, “their conscience [Greek, syneiʹdesis] is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused.” (Rom. 2:14, 15) So universal is the God-given faculty of conscience that one encyclopedia states: “No culture has yet been found in which conscience is not recognized as a fact.” And regarding individuals who seem to “have no conscience,” Dr. Geoffrey Stephenson wrote: “It was, and still is by some, regarded as a genuine form of insanity or psychosis.”—Compare Titus 1:15.
CONSCIENCE—ITS OPERATION AND TRAINING
13. Why is more needed than just knowing that we have a conscience?
13 Hence, can we simply “do by nature the things of the law”? No, more is needed. Just understanding the true source of conscience and how it is that we have that faculty does not assure us that we are fully benefiting from it. Recall that the ancient Egyptians had certain moral standards that manifested the effects of conscience. But was that sufficient in itself? Did that alone protect them from every improper thing? Their repulsive worship of animals, rendering “sacred service to the creation rather than the One who created,” proves that merely having a degree of conscience was not sufficient. (Rom. 1:20-25) Consequently, we need to know more than just that we have a conscience. We ought to know how it operates, how it can be trained and what God says about our using it in daily life.
14. What is one way in which your conscience operates?
14 The Biblical examples we have considered illustrate two essential ways in which your conscience can and should function. Likely the most commonly-thought-of operation of conscience is that of looking back and judging one’s past moral performance. We noted this function in the case of Adam’s sin and the experience of David after he had acted improperly. Their consciences smote them. Have you not felt your conscience operating in this way? This inner voice of conscience afflicting those who have done wrong can be so insistent that they take drastic action to clear their conscience or they may be pained by their conscience for years.
15. This can help you in what important way?
15 A far more important effect, though, of this operation of conscience is that it may move one to godly repentance. David wrote: “When I kept silent my bones wore out through my groaning all day long. My sin I finally confessed to you, and my error I did not cover. I said: ‘I shall make confession over my transgressions to Jehovah.’ And you yourself pardoned the error of my sins.” (Ps. 32:3, 5) Thus, your functioning conscience can bring you back to God, aiding you to recognize the need to have his forgiveness and to follow his ways in the future.—Ps. 51:1-4, 9, 13-15.
16. How else can and should your conscience function?
16 The other function of conscience is its operation ahead of time in guiding and advising one who needs to make a moral choice or decision. Lecturer Eric D’Arcy observed: “In the pagan writers conscience did not appear on the scene until after the action was performed, and its role was purely judicial; but in [the Bible], conscience is credited with a legislative function.” It was this aspect of conscience that enabled Joseph to sense beforehand that he must not commit adultery. He followed his conscience in rejecting a course that was against his moral sense. Has your conscience functioned in this way? Is it aiding you as it should?
17, 18. (a) What danger exists if a person suppresses his conscience? (b) In what condition would this leave one?
17 Both of these functions of our conscience need attention and training if we are to be guided and benefited by it. That neither aspect can be ignored or suppressed is evident from what occurs when that has been done. Normally, as a result of inheriting it from Adam, a person’s conscience might prick him or signal him that it is wrong to lie or steal. This is similar to the signal you get when your hand comes near a flame; your built-in sense receptors alert you to the danger and you can pull your hand away. But what if you had already developed a heavy callous on that part of your hand, or maybe your hand was badly scarred from a previous burn? In that case your senses might be blocked; the callous or scar tissue would make the area insensitive, unresponsive. In like manner the conscience can become deadened if it is repeatedly ignored or suppressed. The apostle Paul wrote about men “whose consciences are as dead as seared flesh.” (1 Tim. 4:2, J. B. Phillips) Such men, without pangs of conscience, could lie, act hypocritically or intentionally mislead Christians, as Paul said.
18 Consequently, an ignored or suppressed conscience not only no longer pains a person after he has done wrong, but it fails to provide reliable guidance beforehand. Persons in that situation were described in Ephesians 4:19: “Their sense of right and wrong once dulled, they have abandoned themselves to sexuality and eagerly pursue a career of indecency of every kind.” (Jerusalem Bible) It is easy to understand why Hitler wanted to bring people into that condition. Their conscience would not restrain them at all, but they could do anything asked of them, no matter how debased. Surely we want to avoid becoming like that, but, rather, want to keep our conscience functioning and responsive.
19. How is the Bible an aid to one’s having a functioning conscience?
19 The Bible is an invaluable aid in this. Since it presents the greatest indications we have as to God’s qualities and ways, it can aid us to become attuned to his image. Thus the psalmist sang: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Your spirit is good; may it lead me in the land of uprightness.” (Ps. 143:10) The more we learn of and appreciate his dealings and will, the more we will strengthen the influence of godly conscience in our lives. (Ps. 119:1-16) The inner voice becomes stronger and clearer, just as through cultivation and training the soloist gains more accurate voice and hearing and the watchmaker sharpens his sight.
20. Since conscience is inherited, why does the Bible contain laws against certain moral offenses?
20 The Bible contains clear laws or commands from God against some grave moral offenses, such as stealing, lying, adultery and murder. Such wrongs were forbidden in the Law he gave to Israel, and the prohibitions are repeated in God’s counsel for Christians. (Ex. 20:13-16; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:9; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Rev. 21:8) Hence, even if by his upbringing or experience in life, a person’s conscience had been deadened to any of these sins, he could easily see from the Bible that they are wrong. There would be no basis to say, ‘But my conscience did not bother me; I did not feel it was wrong.’ Additionally, such laws would allow those responsible for the Christian congregation to act so as to protect its members from any practicer of sin. He would be disfellowshiped or cut off.—1 Cor. 5:11-13.
21. Of what additional value are Bible principles?
21 But in addition to laws against gross wrongs, the Scriptures contain many principles of conduct that reflect God’s personality, ways and standards. These are broad indications of how we can be in his image. While numerous examples of Bible principles could be cited, note the clear indications that God is just and impartial. First of all, we are told that directly. (Deut. 32:4; Job 34:10, 12; Acts 10:34, 35) And this is backed up with instances of God’s displaying such qualities. For instance, when an anointed king of Israel sinned and acted unjustly toward some of his subjects, Jehovah plainly showed the wrongness of his course. And, in accord with God’s own justice, he did not exempt from punishment even the king. (2 Sam. chaps. 11, 12) By our impressing on our heart and mind such principles of conduct and indications of God’s personality, we fortify our conscience so that it acts in a reliable way. Thus we read: “In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.”—Prov. 3:6; Ps. 16:8.
22. Give an example of an important Bible principle. How might this affect one’s conscience, with what benefit to the individual?
22 Having learned that God is just and impartial, would not your conscience be more responsive to injustice or partiality toward others? Perhaps you were raised with a prejudice against individuals of a certain background, and so it did not bother you to discriminate against them. If you were waiting on customers in a store, you might have tended to ignore such ones or treat them with less care or kindness. But then you learned from the Bible of God’s justice and that he urges justice and impartiality on the part of those who would have his approval. (Mic. 6:8; Prov. 24:23) And you came to appreciate that all humans are from the same original human parents, Adam and Eve. (Acts 17:26; Gen. 3:20) Confronted with a similar situation in which in the past you would have acted unjustly, the “voice” of your conscience now urges you to act with justice and impartiality. Also, if you should go ahead and follow your former prejudice, likely afterward your conscience would afflict you. It would be as if you heard a voice within condemning you for taking a course you knew to be wrong. So you can see that your conscience has received training, it has been sharpened, become more responsive. Now it provides better guidance for you, bringing you closer to God’s image.
23. Why is it increasingly difficult to decide matters today?
23 As mentioned, we today are confronted with widespread moral change and breakdown. This makes it increasingly difficult for those who want to cooperate with the voice of their conscience. Also, does it not seem that life is getting ever more complicated? There seem to be so many factors that have to be considered in making a decision. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once observed: “There is hardly a question of any real difficulty before the Court that does not entail more than one so-called principle. Anybody can decide a question if only a single principle is in controversy.”
24, 25. (a) What can we do when faced with a complicated decision? (b) How, then, will our conscience be of aid to us?
24 Nonetheless, the more comprehensive our knowledge of the divine principles found in the Bible is, the better able we are to weigh matters and decide. When faced with a question or decision, we can reflect on Bible principles that seem to apply. Depending on the nature of the matter, the principles might be ones such as: respect headship (Col. 3:18, 20); be honest in all things (Heb. 13:18); hate what is bad (Ps. 97:10); pursue what makes for peace (Rom. 14:19); obey governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1; Matt. 22:21); render exclusive devotion to God (Matt. 4:10); avoid bad association (1 Cor. 15:33); do not stumble others (Phil. 1:9, 10). While the principles themselves will help us, by our increasing our knowledge of and appreciation for God’s principles and ways, the voice of our conscience will be more reliable. Paul said that his conscience was a ‘witness-bearer.’ (Rom. 9:1) Our will be too. The proddings of our conscience that has been trained by God’s Word will help us to reflect God’s personality and qualities in our decisions.
25 Thus, we all have available for our guidance a measure of conscience, provided by God. But by increasing our knowledge of God’s qualities and principles, our conscience can become even more valuable in guiding our steps and making decisions.
[Picture on page 209]
Joseph listened to the voice of his conscience and fled from a “sin against God”