The Conscience
1 Peter 3:14-17
But and if you suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are you: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled;…

The word "conscience" does not occur often in the Bible. It does not occur once in the Old Testament, but the thing "conscience" is in the Bible from first to last. Why was it that our first parents, when they had eaten the forbidden fruit, were ashamed to look in each other's faces; and why was it that they hid among the trees? That was conscience. Or take the very next story in the Bible — the death of Abel. Why did Cain hear a voice rising from his brother's blood to heaven, and why did he flee from it, a fugitive and a vagabond? That was conscience. Conscience, in fact, is everywhere in the Bible. Without conscience there would be no religion. But let us define clearly what conscience is, and what it does. Conscience has been called the moral sense. Now, what does that mean? It means this: that as by the sense of taste we distinguish what is sweet and what is sour, and by the sense of hearing we distinguish what is harmonious and what is discordant, and by the other bodily senses we discriminate the qualities of material things, so in the soul there is a sense which distinguishes right from wrong, and that is the conscience. There have been many nations who have never seen the Ten Commandments, and yet they have known quite well that to lie, and to steal, and to kill are wrong. How did they know that? St. Paul seems to tell us when he says, in one of the profoundest passages of his writings, "When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law," etc. In opposition to this sceptical philosophers have pointed to the barbarities which have claimed the sanction of conscience, and from these undeniable facts they have drawn the inference that conscience knows no more and no better than custom; but the power resident in human nature of rising out of superstitious practices, and seeing the better life when it shows itself, appears to prove that behind such mistakes there is a power of discerning "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest," etc. The conscience is the categorical imperative. That is a name given to it by the German philosopher Kant. I suppose it is too big a name. It brings out a second feature. As soon as it is ascertained that one course is right and the opposite one wrong, the conscience commands us to follow the one course and avoid the other. Thus it is imperative; and it is a categorical imperative — that is to say, it accepts no excuse. The course which conscience commands may apparently be contrary to our interests; it may be dead against our inclinations; it may be contrary to all we are advised to do by friends and companions; but conscience does not on that account in the least withdraw its imperative. We must obey. We may yield to temptation, or be carried away by the force of passion; but we know that we ought to obey. It is our duty, and that is the grand word of conscience. It is conscience that tells us what duty is. I am sure you all remember in the "Heart of Midlothian" how Jeanie Deans, with her heart bursting with love for her frail sister, yet refuses to deviate one hair's breadth from the truth, although her falsehood would save her sister's life. But such scenes do not occur merely in fiction. Perhaps the grandest scene of modern history is the appearance of Luther at the Diet of Worms, when, facing the hostile powers of all Europe, he said, "It is neither safe nor honest to do anything against conscience. Here stand I; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." There is never an hour passes but in the secrecy of some man's soul or in the obscurity of business life some one, putting aside the promptings of self-interest and the frowns of power, pays the same tribute to conscience by doing right and taking the consequences. Conscience has often been compared to a court of justice, in which there are the culprit, the judge, the jury, and the witnesses; but, strange to say, these all are in every man's own breast. Ay, and the executioner is there too who carries out the sentence. There is not one of us who does not know in some degree both the pain and horror of a condemning conscience, and the pleasure of an approving conscience. A habitually approving conscience gives even to the outward man elasticity and courage, while a habitually condemning conscience gives to a man a look of confusion and misery. One of the great writers whom I have already quoted has a wonderful passage in which the two characters are put in contrast. I wish I could quote it all, but I will quote a few of the most significant sentences. Here is first the picture of a very good man, with a habitually approving conscience: "He was sleeping peacefully, and was wrapped up in a long garment of brown wool, which covered his arms down to the wrists. His head was thrown back on the pillow in the easy attitude of repose, and his hand, adorned with the pastoral ring, and which had done so many good deeds, hung out of bed. His entire face was lit up by a vague expression of satisfaction, hope, and beatitude — it was more than a smile, and almost a radiance. There was almost a divinity in this unconsciously august man." And here is the opposite picture. The burglar, on the contrary, "was standing in the shadow with his crowbar in his hand, motionless and terrified by this luminous old man. He had never seen anything like this before, and such confidence horrified him"; and then he adds, "The moral world has no greater spectacle than this — a troubled, restless conscience, which is on the point of committing a bad action, contemplating the sleep of a just man." In all ages the higher imaginative literature has found its best resources in depicting the horrors of a guilty conscience. The ancient Greeks represented these terrors by the Furies, who with shadowy, silent, but remorseless steps, pursued the criminal until they pulled him down; and in such dramas as "Macbeth" and "Richard III" Shakespeare is dealing with the same theme. You all remember how, when King Duncan was murdered, a paralysing and agonising terror fell on his murderer; and how, in "Richard III," on the night before the battle in which the tyrant received the reward of his deeds, ghosts of the victims of his tyranny passed one by one through his tent, summoning him to meet them on the battlefield, until the man, streaming with perspiration, sprang from his bed, crying —

"My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain."But observe this, that not only does a man's own conscience pass sentence on his conduct; but the consciences of others, if they chance to be acquainted with it, do so too, and to this may be due a great intensification either of the pleasure or the pain which conscience causes. For instance, a man may have committed a crime and suffered for it in his conscience, but gradually time assuages his pain, and he is forgetting it. Well, suddenly it is found out, and the conscience of the public is brought to bear on him. He is put out of respectable society, and feels now for the first time the full enormity of what he has done. The conscience is an intuition of God. We have seen that as soon as the choice is made and the deed done, conscience inflicted immediate reward or punishment. But it has another function. It hints unmistakably at reward and punishment yet to come, and from another source. You remember how Hamlet expresses this when contemplating the crime of suicide:

"The dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country, from whose bourne

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."In the Egyptian book of the dead, which has just been published in Europe, but is many centuries older than the Christian era, two hundred and forty figures are represented as meeting the soul when it enters the other world. These are virtues, and to each of them the soul has to answer how far it has practised these virtues in this life; and besides this strict inquiry, up in the corner of the picture God is represented weighing the heart. Analyse your own consciousness when conscience is acting, and see if it does not inform you that God is looking on. For instance, when you have done something wrong, and are feeling ashamed and horrified, are you not aware that God is near you, and that it is from His hand that retribution is to come? Will you permit me to say a word about the cultivation of the conscience? Conscience is the foundation of character. Does a man listen to the voice within him? Can he look himself straight in the eyes? That is the most important question you can ask about any man. There are some men and women that would almost as soon meet a tiger in the jungle as meet themselves in solitude. But if a man is accustomed day by day to bring his conduct under the survey of his own conscience, and if he is moved with joy and sorrow according to the sentences which conscience pronounces, that man is safe. He will not need to mind much what the opinion of other people is about him. Yet conscientiousness is not everything. It may be only a petty and self-satisfied pharisaism. There are few things that astonish me so much as to find how many people there are whose final judgment on themselves is this, that they have never done anyone any harm, and they have not much to reproach themselves with. That betrays an unenlightened conscience. The conscience requires to be made observant and sensitive by acquaintance with the law of God, as revealed in His Word, and especially as expounded by Christ Himself, when He taught that even when the outward conduct is correct the law may be broken, in the secret thoughts and wishes.

(J. Stalker, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled;

WEB: But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you are blessed. "Don't fear what they fear, neither be troubled."

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