Training Our Conscience to Do More for Us
“Hold a good conscience, so that in the particular in which you are spoken against they may get ashamed who are speaking slightingly of your good conduct in connection with Christ.”—1 Pet. 3:16.
1. What have we learned about the conscience in recent years?
IN RECENT years our understanding of the Bible-trained conscience, what it is and how it operates, has increased. We have come to appreciate that, far more than merely a mental activity, it is an inner moral sense that testifies for or against our thinking and conduct. Our conscience is a reflection of our basic moral nature due to our being created in the moral image of our God Jehovah. (Gen. 1:26, 27) A good conscience results from the cooperation of an intelligent mind with a heart having moral capacity.
2. (a) What part does the Bible play in improving the conscience? (b) What is the aim of a good conscience, and how is it realized?
2 By studying God’s Word, we can properly nourish our heart and mind, due primarily to the Bible’s ability and potential for encouraging a higher morality. The Bible is unique in its power to arouse and stimulate good, because it acquaints man with the personality of his Creator, Jehovah, whose personality man was designed to reflect. Therefore, the aim of a good conscience should be a warm, personal relationship with God, having holiness and everlasting life in view. This is what the Christian apostle Peter encouraged, saying: “In accord with the Holy One who called you, do you also become holy yourselves in all your conduct, because it is written: ‘You must be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pet. 1:15, 16; Lev. 11:44) The man who cultivates such a holy relationship will be rewarded with true peace and happiness.
3. What is the relation of the heart to one’s conscience, and how do its reasonings serve as a monitor?
3 The heart is vitally involved with this higher conception of moral duty, namely, the conscience. Hence, the need for what the Bible calls “a pure heart,” or ‘a clean heart.’ (Pss. 51:10; 73:1; Matt. 5:8) This is a heart whose only motive and desire is to serve Jehovah exclusively and to hallow his name. The reasonings of the heart deeply affect one’s conscience for good or for bad. So, if we examine our conscience and the way it operates we may also discern the heart’s desires and motives. We will see whether we have a good heart or a bad one. Also, as we become aware of our moral obligations, we will be able to look into the workings of our heart and mind, and see the kind of person we truly are within, as God sees us.—1 Sam. 16:7.
4. Why is it important to know what is in our heart?
4 We must know what is in our heart if we want to train the conscience properly. This can be most revealing, as Jesus Christ observed: “Out of the heart come wicked reasonings, murders, adulteries, fornications, thieveries, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things defiling a man.” (Matt. 15:18-20) Not only wicked reasonings that defile spring from the heart, but also virtues that purify. For Jesus said: “A good man brings forth good out of the good treasure of his heart, but a wicked man brings forth what is wicked out of his wicked treasure; for out of the heart’s abundance his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) To improve our conscience we must know and understand our heart.
5. What can an examination of the conscience further do for us?
5 An examination of the conscience can reveal whether our service to God and man springs from motives higher than those originating from mere obedience to a detailed code of laws. In other words, it will reveal whether we are motivated to a course of morality just because certain laws require us to be moral, or whether we strive to be moral because we truly want to please God, coming to realize more fully what his good pleasure is as a result of our relationship with him. (Rom. 12:2) An examination will force us to ask and answer the question: Would we be moral persons even if there were no Bible commandments saying we must be moral?
6. Where must morality find its source, and how did Jesus Christ make this fact plain?
6 Morality is God’s way. Unquestionably, it is the better course because it promotes true peace and happiness. Jesus taught that morality must find its source in God, saying: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you; that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens, since he makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous. For if you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Are not also the tax collectors doing the same thing? And if you greet your brothers only, what extraordinary thing are you doing? Are not also the people of the nations doing the same thing? You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48) Therefore, a good conscience must find its primary example in Jehovah, the heavenly Father. As Jesus said: ‘You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
7. (a) What is the best mirror of the conscience? (b) Why are we morally responsible to reflect what we know about God?
7 Jesus, who was a master at sensitizing the conscience, revealed that the love of God, reflected in everyday deeds of life, is the best mirror of a good conscience. All duties performed by man should be acts of love. “Love is the law’s fulfillment.” (Rom. 13:10) Morality is not born of force. It must be voluntary, prompted by love. For “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) And since Christians are no longer under a detailed law code but under the ‘kingly law of love,’ we today become morally responsible for everything we know about Jehovah—his personality, standards and purposes. (Jas. 2:8) Love should motivate us to use our increased understanding of the nature and operation of the conscience, not only so that we can improve its effectiveness in ourselves, but so that we may assist others in this respect also. A sensitive and effective conscience is necessary to us in safely guiding our lives in these increasingly complex and hazardous times, so that we may stay pleasing to Jehovah.
WHY KNOWLEDGE ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH
8. Why is increased Bible knowledge in itself not enough to improve the conscience?
8 How, then, can we improve our conscience? Knowledge alone of Jehovah’s personality, his standards and purposes is not enough. Increased Bible knowledge by itself will not improve the working of our conscience, even though it may have a profound effect on the mind and heart. The psalmist wrote: “The law of Jehovah is perfect, bringing back the soul. The reminder of Jehovah is trustworthy, making the inexperienced one wise. The orders from Jehovah are upright, causing the heart to rejoice; the commandment of Jehovah is clean, making the eyes shine. . . . Also, your own servant has been warned by them; in the keeping of them there is a large reward.” (Ps. 19:7-11) Yet, despite the rewarding goodness that flows from God’s Word, it must be remembered that the conscience is not simply a mental activity but a reflection of the moral nature of the whole person. The conscience must do more than tell us what we ought to be; it must identify what we are in real life.
9. What shows that harmony with Jehovah’s personality is the focal point around which to build a good conscience?
9 Therefore, with strong reason the Bible associates a good conscience with faith and the quality of love, not just with knowledge. At 1 Timothy 1:5 we read: “Really the objective of this mandate is love out of a clean heart and out of a good conscience and out of faith without hypocrisy.” Thus we see that faith, love and a good conscience go hand in hand. To reject any one of these is to reject the other two. To reject the conscience is to make shipwreck of faith. Also, to say that love is not needed is to deny the paramount quality of God, because God is love. Thus God’s personality, revealed in his Word and in his dealings with his servants, is brought to the fore as the focal point around which a good conscience is to be developed.
10. How did Paul show that love is the all-important quality?
10 The young man Saul of Tarsus, known later as the apostle Paul, had to learn this fact. He was well versed in the law of Moses, and had been trained in Jewish schools and in their methods. But after becoming a Christian he expressed this conclusion: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but do not have love, I have become a sounding piece of brass or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophesying and am acquainted with all the sacred secrets and all knowledge, and if I have all the faith so as to transplant mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1, 2) From these words of Paul it is evident that just adding fact to fact, or even just learning more Bible laws and principles, could fall short of improving the effectiveness of the conscience. One could end up with a head full of accumulated information, without the heart’s ever being touched.
11. Explain how knowledge alone or just outward acts could fall short of improving the conscience.
11 A real danger could develop. External observances could gain the ascendancy over true spirituality. External acts could be performed with or without a sincere spirit to supply the motivating force. Selfish considerations could lead one to live up to outward appearances of religious acceptability. Even acts of seeming love and self-denial could easily become mere outward acts with no inner reality or substance in the one performing them. A person could drift into a smug complacency, believing himself to have a good Christian conscience because of living up to a set pattern of rules and regulations. Life, even worship, could become routine, bookish, a calendar of events, impassively followed. Minor observances could easily be substituted for major responsibilities. Jesus pointed this fact out to the Pharisees, saying: “Hypocrites! . . . you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cummin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23) These small duties can soothe the conscience that condones lovelessness. Small gestures can excuse failure in all the weightier matters of justice and human understanding.
12. To be effective, what must knowledge of Jehovah do?
12 That is why increased knowledge of Jehovah must go beyond improving the mind. The informed mind must act along with a morally sensitive heart. It must make you, a person, more sensitive to the standards and purposes of another Person, namely, Jehovah, whose personality we should try to reflect.
BECOME MORE ATTUNED TO JEHOVAH AS A PERSON
13. (a) To improve the conscience, why is it imperative that we study the Bible? (b) What should Bible knowledge do for us?
13 How can man on earth become more attuned to the person of Jehovah who is in heaven? In this way: The Bible is God’s revelation of himself to man. It reveals his personality, his standards and his purposes. To improve the conscience, therefore, it is imperative that we study the Bible. Knowledge gathered through Bible study should build the basis for an intimate acquaintance and relationship with its Author, Jehovah. It ought to acquaint us with his thinking, his personality, in the same way that visiting regularly with a friend might do. Since God is the wisest and most loving Personage in the universe, what we learn from him should touch our minds and hearts in a real and vital way.—Col. 1:9, 10; Isa. 54:13.
14. Explain how knowledge gained from Bible study can be made to shape the conscience for good. Give examples.
14 For example, in the Genesis account we read of Jehovah’s loving provisions for mankind and that these did not cease even after the entry of sin. This should stir our hearts to show love toward our Creator. (Gen. 1:29, 30; 8:22) Later, we get a glimpse of God’s almightiness expressed in his miraculously giving Abraham a son. Abraham’s friendship with Jehovah caused him to believe that God was able to raise even the dead to life! (Heb. 11:17-19) The oppressed Israelites saved from Egyptian bondage saw Jehovah as “the One doing marvels.” (Ex. 15:11) Joshua saw Jehovah as a God of His word and promise, so that he could say to the people of Israel: “Not one word out of all the good words that Jehovah your God has spoken to you has failed.” (Josh. 23:14) The apostle Peter, when sent to the Gentile Cornelius, perceived that “God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) Jesus Christ declared: “I publicly praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual ones and have revealed them to babes. Yes, O Father, because to do thus came to be the way approved by you.” (Matt. 11:25, 26) How beautifully the Bible reveals Jehovah’s personality and majesty to us! Its inspired message should reach our hearts, to awaken and shape our consciences.
15. What is needed to build into the conscience a moral sense of responsibility?
15 In our study of the Scriptures we should endeavor to capture a sense of God’s justice, love and righteousness and implant these deep into our hearts so that they become as much a part of us as eating and breathing. We should try to awaken more fully to a sense of moral responsibility by cultivating a keen awareness of what is right and what is wrong. More than this, we should make our conscience feel strongly its responsibility toward the perfect Law-Giver and Judge. (Isa. 33:22) So while learning things about God, we should be trying to imitate him in every aspect of life.
16. How can knowledge of God be transferred into daily acts of life?
16 We learn that God is forgiving. But are we? God does not oppress or defraud. But do we? God is kind to widows, orphans and strangers. Are we also? God is faithful and upright in everything. Are we trying to be like him in our daily life? We can be. A trained conscience will be satisfied with nothing less than developing a personality that reflects in all things the image of God.
17. (a) What should we have in mind to gain through our Bible study? (b) How did the Jewish religious leaders miss the point of the whole Law?
17 In pursuing our study of the Scriptures, we should have in mind to get the spirit and substance of the truth, rather than just the letter or technical framework. The Jewish religious leaders of the first century had detailed knowledge but missed the point of the whole Law. They failed to recognize Jesus, who personified truth. (John 14:6) How often they saw only the straw in their brother’s eye but not the rafter in their own! (Matt. 7:1-5) When Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before a meal, this disturbed the Pharisees greatly. But they were totally blind and insensitive to their breaking of God’s commands by their traditions. (Matt. 15:1-20) On another occasion they saw the hungry disciples of Jesus plucking grain and eating the kernels on the sabbath. This made them indignant. But they saw nothing wrong with murder, and so took counsel against Jesus “that they might destroy him.” (Matt. 12:1-14) These hypocrites felt no twinge of conscience in paying Judas with money from the temple treasury to betray Jesus, but after he had committed his foul deed, they would not put it back in the treasury. Apparently they now viewed that money as unclean. (Compare Deuteronomy 23:18.) But could they, the murderers, have a clean conscience?
OBTAINING THE MIND OF CHRIST
18, 19. (a) Why should an effort be made to obtain “the mind of Christ”? (b) What high standard of morality did Jesus set for mankind?
18 Since Jesus Christ always reflects Jehovah’s perfect personality, we should make every effort to get “the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16) This means that we should acquire the mental disposition of Christ that ensures our personality’s becoming in every respect like that of Jesus rather than our giving just a grudging conformity. The exemplary relationship that existed between Jesus and his heavenly Father is reflected in these words of Jesus: “Most truly I say to you, The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing. For whatever things that One does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19, 20) We see the goodness of God mirrored in Jesus’ whole life pattern. As Jesus told Philip: “He that has seen me has seen the Father also.” (John 14:9) It is the example of Jesus that we are called upon to follow as Christians.—1 Pet. 2:21; see also Psalm 40:8.
19 What a fine example of morality he set! Peter, who walked with him, said: “He committed no sin, nor was deception found in his mouth. When he was being reviled, he did not go reviling in return. When he was suffering, he did not go threatening, but kept on committing himself to the one who judges righteously. He himself bore our sins in his own body upon the stake, in order that we might be done with sins and live to righteousness.” (1 Pet. 2:22-24) The example of Jesus has cleansing power and an effect for good. Follow it closely.
20. (a) In what way will an improved conscience act as a protection for us? (b) How does Paul say that this conscience is ultimately acquired?
20 As we come to know more and more the substance of the truth of God as revealed in Jesus, personally and as the Head of the Christian congregation, we should find that the whole bent of our mind and heart will be improved progressively. This will result in an increasingly effective conscience. With an effective conscience working within us we will be able to avoid the bad conscience of the people of the world, with their bedarkened minds and insensible hearts. Paul underscores this point for us at Ephesians 4:17-24, saying: “I say and bear witness to in the Lord, that you no longer go on walking just as the nations also walk in the unprofitableness of their minds, while they are in darkness mentally, and alienated from the life that belongs to God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the insensibility of their hearts. Having come to be past all moral sense, they gave themselves over to loose conduct to work uncleanness of every sort with greediness.” But note now what Paul says: “You did not learn the Christ to be so, provided, indeed, that you heard him and were taught by means of him, just as truth is in Jesus, that you should put away the old personality which conforms to your former course of conduct and which is being corrupted according to his deceptive desires; but that you should be made new in the force actuating your mind, and should put on the new personality which was created according to God’s will in true righteousness and loyalty.” Our entire life must be transformed by the force actuating our mind, and this results from acquiring “the mind of Christ.”
21. What will the Christian have to continue to do to reflect the image of the One who created him?
21 Our discernment of Jehovah’s personality, as exemplified in the life of Christ, will increase as we study the Bible more deeply. Thus we will be able to act more and more in the image of our Creator. Paul urged this, saying: “Become imitators of God, as beloved children, and go on walking in love.”—Eph. 5:1, 2.
22. What good and timely advice does the apostle Peter offer to all of us?
22 As “imitators of God,” we will become ever more closely united as a special people for Jehovah. We will become clearly identifiable as light bearers in this bedarkened world. Therefore, as Peter admonished: “Hold a good conscience, so that in the particular in which you are spoken against they [the immoral world] may get ashamed who are speaking slightingly of your good conduct in connection with Christ.” (1 Pet. 3:16) With clean and upright consciences Jehovah’s people will be seen zealously presenting the Kingdom witness while patiently awaiting the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ at the outset of Jehovah’s great day of vengeance.