How Do You Guide Your Life?
“Happy are the ones faultless in their way, the ones walking in the law of Jehovah.”—Psalm 119:1.
1. What does history show to be important for happiness?
‘WHAT does it take to have a happy life?’ Many persons would reply by mentioning material things, such as food, clothing and shelter, or forms of recreation and pleasure. Yet history proves that more important to your happiness are your outlook on life and your way of life. As you deal with your employer, associates and family—will you tell the truth? will you take what is not yours? will you share in certain questionable work or entertainment?
2. How do some persons guide their lives, leading to what questions?
2 In deciding such questions, some prefer definite rules that they either know or search out when needed. Others do what “feels” right according to their conscience. However, you may be inclined to ask, Since the Bible has much to say about “conscience,” what is it? How does it function? Does it play a vital role in our making decisions and finding happiness? And how can we be able to say, as did the apostle Paul: “I have behaved before God with a perfectly clear conscience down to this day”?—Acts 23:1.
Your Conscience—What Is It?
3, 4. What is “conscience,” and who have one?
3 Most persons think of conscience as a general sense of what is right and wrong. We have, though, a source of more exact information about it—God’s Word. The Bible helps us to appreciate that conscience is an internal witness bearer. Thus Paul said: “My conscience bears witness with me in holy spirit.” (Romans 9:1) He used the Greek word syneiʹdesis, meaning, literally, a co-knowledge with oneself. So conscience is a capacity to look at oneself and render a judgment about oneself, bear witness to oneself.
4 Conscience is not a mere social development, for the Bible shows that God implanted it in the original human pair. (Genesis 3:7, 8) Discussing the accountability of Jews and Gentiles, Paul wrote: “For whenever people of the nations [Gentiles] 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.” (Romans 2:14, 15) Yes, even peoples without a written law from God have viewed as wrong things such as murder, stealing and incest. We can see also from these verses that conscience is an interplay of the heart and the mind (“thoughts”).
5. What is one way your conscience functions?
5 The function of conscience that we likely are most familiar with is its judging our conduct ‘after the fact,’ after the wrong deed. When we conclude that we have done wrong or acted dishonorably, our conscience accuses and condemns us. (Compare 2 Samuel 24:10; 1 John 3:20.) If we respond to it, this role of conscience can help us by moving us to avoid repeating a wrong. And it might cause us to repent, apologize or even undo the damage if we can.—Psalm 32:3, 5; Matthew 5:23, 24; Luke 19:1-8.
6. How else can your conscience operate?
6 Our conscience can serve in another way. Though some say that a good conscience is a silent one, when we face a decision or problem, our conscience should speak up and prod us to do what is right. We find a good example in Joseph’s refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Though God had not yet given a written law against adultery, Joseph’s conscience moved him to reject immorality. (Genesis 39:1-9) If, prior to acting, we listen to our conscience, we may avoid the anguish of a troubled conscience.
7. What are we desirous of determining from this study?
7 The question remains: How influential should conscience be? Do you believe that most moral and personal issues should be decided on the basis of conscience? Or are rules preferable? We need to know. Also, are there dangers of which we need to be aware? What is indicated by God’s Word, which states that it is “beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness”?—2 Timothy 3:16.
8. Morality has been viewed from what two extremes?
8 The conflict between rules and conscience is age old. In the article “Casuistry” the Encyclopædia Britannica (11th edition) explains that morality “has sometimes been thought of as an outward law, sometimes as an inward disposition. . . . Believers in law have put their trust in authority or logic; while believers in disposition chiefly look to our instinctive faculties—conscience, common-sense or sentiment.” Extremes in both positions existed when Jesus and the apostles walked the earth. We can better appreciate the Bible’s helpful balance and godly wisdom by noting the situation then.
9, 10. (a) How did the Pharisees manifest one extreme approach? (b) In contrast, what position was common among Greeks and Romans?
9 The Jewish Pharisees zealously advocated rules. Not content with the Mosaic law, they developed numerous rules or “commands of men” that invalidated God’s commands. Besides developing these rules that went beyond what God asked, their legalistic outlook encouraged the view that righteousness could result from knowing and keeping these human regulations.—Matthew 15:1-20; 23:1-5; Luke 18:9-12.
10 “At the opposite pole stood ancient Greece,” comments classical scholar Samuel H. Butcher. “Among the Greeks . . . no system of doctrine and observance, no manuals containing authoritative rules of morality, were ever transmitted in documentary form. . . . Unvarying rules petrified action.” As to the Romans, the Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Cicero and Seneca took common-sense as their guide. They decided each problem on its merits, looking more to the spirit than to the letter.” This Grecian/Roman philosophy was popular in the first century. Would it appeal to Christians? Paul wrote: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception . . . according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.”—Colossians 2:8; Acts 17:18-21.
11. How were the two extremes evident later in history?
11 In later centuries, too, both extremes had their advocates, even among persons called Christians. The Jesuits were noted for stressing a morality based on innumerable Church laws. After the Reformation, Protestantism emphasized individualism and conscience, which has led to the current view known as “situation ethics,” popularized by Episcopalian Dr. Joseph Fletcher. The National Observer reports: “Dr. Fletcher has spelled out a controversial manifesto of individual freedom and responsibility, based on an ethic of brotherly love, which he says should free modern man from rigid, archaic rules and codes like the ‘Ten Commandments.’ . . . With love as the only guide, then, abortion, premarital sex, divorce, . . . and other conventional wrongs become morally acceptable to Dr. Fletcher in some situations.”
12. What danger confronts us that we need to avoid?
12 Clearly, humans tend toward extremes—being guided either by rules or by conscience. Some who see the weakness of one extreme overreact by going to the other extreme, just as a pendulum swings from the far right to the far left. For example, during the Middle Ages the pendulum swung from the rule-minded attitude of the Jesuits to the Reformationists’ stress on freedom and conscience. Also, you may know parents who were overly strict in rearing their children. But when these children grew up, they reacted by going to the opposite extreme, allowing their own offspring to take any and all liberties, with disastrous results. We can see the truth of the Bible comment: “I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.”—Jeremiah 10:23.
God’s Balanced, Helpful Guidance
13. The Bible provides us with what help as to morality and conscience?
13 Jehovah has provided balanced help for Christians in the Scriptures so that we can avoid: (1) legalistically overstressing rules, which can lead to a petty, rigid view of life and worship, or (2) overemphasizing freedom of conscience, which has led some into human reasonings that even excuse wrongdoing. To absorb the balance of God’s Word and benefit from its guidance, we need David’s attitude: “Make me know your own ways, O Jehovah; teach me your own paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me, for you are my God of salvation.”—Psalm 25:4, 5.
14, 15. What can we learn from the Christian Greek Scriptures as to the Jews’ view of the Law and God’s?
14 The Bible reveals Jesus’ disapproval of the rule-oriented mentality of the scribes and Pharisees. A few Jews who did not want to use their God-given thinking ability might have liked regulations on how far up the arm to wash, what was “work” on the sabbath,a which crops must be tithed, and so on. That approach resulted in burdensome rules, called for endless interpretations and diverted attention from the spirit and weightier aspects of the Scriptures. Jesus told the religious leaders: “You give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.”—Matthew 23:23; Mark 7:3, 4.
15 The Mosaic law contributed to the spirituality, morality and health of the Jews, also proving to them that as sinners they needed the Messiah. (Galatians 3:19, 23-25; Romans 7:7-14) Because it was a perfect standard, no Israelite could keep it faultlessly and thus obtain a perfect conscience. (Hebrews 9:9, 10) Hence, even though this legal code was of divine origin, once God’s purpose for it was ended, he took it out of the way. Then, instead of dealing with his Name people on the basis of an extensive written code, God would ‘put his laws in their minds and in their hearts.’—Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 10:16; 2 Corinthians 3:5-11.
16. What lesson is here presented for (a) persons who are very strict with themselves, and (b) us and our view of rules?
16 With this in mind, persons today who oversee or coordinate others’ activities must take care not to burden them with unnecessary human regulations. The inclination to do that may be strong in those who are very strict or demanding of themselves and who thus feel that others should view matters the same way. Paul, however, wrote Christians: “Not that we are the masters over your faith, but we are fellow workers for your joy, for it is by your faith that you are standing.” (2 Corinthians 1:24) Related to this, Christians in general should guard against wanting someone with authority to make rules on every matter. We should, instead, increase in knowledge of what God’s Word says so as to train our consciences and perceptive powers.—Hebrews 5:14.
17. Against what other incorrect view do we need to guard?
17 Another danger, though, is swinging to the opposite extreme, feeling that each Christian is free to do virtually anything that his conscience permits. A few recently have made an issue of this, saying “Christianity is not a religion of rules” and referring to passages such as: “You were, of course, called for freedom, brothers; only do not use this freedom as an inducement for the flesh, but through love slave for one another. For the entire Law stands fulfilled in one saying, namely: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13, 14) It is true that Christians are not under the Mosaic law or any other extensive code of divine laws. Yet we should watch that ‘no man deludes us with persuasive arguments (“persuasive and attractive arguments and beguiling speech,” Amplified Bible),’ for an honest examination of the Bible shows that it does provide some laws or rules for us.—Colossians 2:4.
Christians Are Not Lawless
18, 19. Where do Christians stand regarding Bible laws and rules?
18 Paul wrote to the Corinthians that a man guilty of fornication should be expelled. He added that idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy persons, drunkards, revilers and extortioners “will not inherit God’s kingdom.” (1 Corinthians 5:1, 6, 7, 11-13; 6:9-11) We also read that Christians must ‘abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from fornication’ and that supposed brothers who promote false teachings are to be rejected. (Acts 15:28, 29; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11) Plainly, laws are involved here. A practicer of such sins cannot become a true Christian. And if a servant of God unrepentantly carries on these sins, he must be disfellowshipped.
19 We also find Bible rules on matters that are not disfellowshipping offenses. For example, Paul wrote that single Christians should marry “only in the Lord,” and he ordered that “if anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.” (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Thessalonians 3:10) Someone might reason, ‘Since I would not be expelled for disobeying that advice, these must not be serious rules.’ What unwise thinking! God views these rules as serious. Did not Paul tell the Thessalonians to ‘mark’ and “stop associating with” lazy persons willfully disobeying the rule about working?—2 Thessalonians 3:14, 15.b
20, 21. What can we learn about congregational guidelines, and how should we feel about them?
20 Some rules are specifically for the congregation’s good. For instance, in the past some Christians could speak in tongues. Paul directed that only two or three of them speak on an occasion, that they take turns, and that a translator be present—rules that promoted peace and order. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33) Similarly, the elders of a congregation today might provide directions about keeping Kingdom Hall exits clear, not saving seats needlessly, or parking vehicles with consideration for neighbors and safety. Such congregational rules are not unscriptural for they have the same purpose (peace and good order) as did Paul’s advice about tongues. Related to this is the Biblical advice: “Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you.” (Hebrews 13:17) Since our avoiding sins such as lying or stealing involves obedience to God, this text must refer to our obeying the elders’ guidance in congregational matters. Nor is it difficult to do so if they are not legislatively “lording it over those who are God’s inheritance.”—1 Peter 5:3.
21 Other “rules” or ways of doing things benefit the worldwide flock. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are asked to turn in reports on their witnessing. (Compare Acts 2:41, 42; 8:14.) A person who swings toward the extreme of individual freedom might disagree with this procedure. Yet think of the good done because those overseeing the flock have been able to know from the reports the extent to which the kingdom witness has been given, where help is needed, and when new disciples can be formed into a congregation. And have we not enjoyed reading the worldwide reports? (Ezekiel 9:11; Mark 6:30; Acts 14:21-23; 15:3; 19:1-6) Trusting that God is directing his people, we can manifest a spirit of support and cooperation.
22. Why do we need to study the matter of conscience further?
22 Beyond specific laws or rules, the Scriptures contain helpful principles that wise Christians may apply in order to be “faultless in their way.” (Psalm 119:1) Principles are especially helpful in attuning our conscience to God’s thinking. But what does that mean as to ‘matters of conscience’? Some have had the feeling, ‘If it is something that is up to my conscience, it is entirely a personal matter what I do.’ Let us examine the matter in the following article and learn further how we can train our conscience to get the greatest benefit from it.
a See “Questions From Readers” on page 30.
Can You Explain?
□ What is your conscience, and in what ways can it help you?
□ What two extremes as to morality have existed?
□ How does the Bible help us to have the right view of moral guidance?
□ We need what Scriptural viewpoint as to laws or rules?
[Blurb on page 20]
Persons who are very demanding of themselves need to guard against the tendency to make and enforce many rules for others
[Blurb on page 21]
Some have mistakenly felt that a Christian is free to do anything that his conscience permits
[Picture on page 18]
In moral matters, people have often swung from one extreme to another
DUTY SENTIMENT CONSCIENCE
LAWS RULES AUTHORITY