THE FUNCTION OF CONSCIENCE
CONVICTION OF SIN
Convicts of Sin.—Conscience would seem to have but a single office—to convince us of sin—that is, of transgression. The older divines used to speak much of an approving conscience; but this approval would appear to be no more than silence; for self-approbation, as we have seen, is, in itself, an offence. Then, when conscience says nothing we are all right? you ask. By no means, for the verdict of conscience depends upon what we know and what we habitually allow.
We gather from the reports of travellers among uncivilised tribes that the consciences of all men forbid them to murder, to steal, slander, dishonour their parents, and commit certain other offences. The consciences of all require them to be hospitable to strangers and faithful to friends, and in even the most debased there would seem to be a sense of the honour and worship due to God, however low a conception they may form of the divine. Even the baby, not able to run, knows that it is ‘naughty’ to disobey.
Each of us has a mentor within to condemn his misdeeds; but the judge of our bosom gives his verdict only upon the errors he knows; and conscience waits, as we have seen, for instruction in many directions.
Ignorance.—Not even religion is a substitute for the instructed conscience, any more than the love of God would teach an ignorant man to read. Conscience is given to us, but the due instruction of this power we must get for ourselves. It is very important to bear this in mind in our reading of history, in our judgment of current events, of public and of private persons; above all, in our judgment as to what we may and may not do and think ourselves.
This reflection, again, gives us a certain power of moral adjustment. We do not seek to justify hard things said or done by a good man; we perceive that on that point the good man’s conscience has not been informed: we do not reverse our judgment of him and say, ‘He is a bad man,’ for this or that offence against gentleness or justice, but, ‘He has done wrong in this, because he has not taken pains to inform himself.’ Realising how liable the best and wisest are to err through moral ignorance, we are careful to keep ourselves open to instruction.
Allowance.—Not only may ignorance limit the action of conscience, but allowance may blind this inner judge. When we see offences in others, and do not call them by their right name; when we allow ourselves habitually to do that we ought not to do, or to think that we ought not to think, conscience stops speaking, as it were, and no longer testifies against the wrong.
Prejudice.—One more way of stultifying conscience we must watch against with jealous care, because this is an offence which has the appearance of righteousness: I mean the absorption of the mind by a single idea. Most wars and all persecutions, family quarrels, jealousies, envying, resentment against friends, half the discords and unhappiness of life, may be traced to this cause. The danger is, that good people may so fix their eyes upon one point of offence that they lose the sense of proportion. A spot the size of a penny piece hides the sun.
Bearing in mind that either ignorance, allowance, or prejudice makes conscience of little avail to its owner, we are not dismayed by even so appalling a vision of the Church in Alexandria as Kingsley gives us in Hypatia. Christianity itself does not suffer in our eyes. We perceive that the monks of Nitria, with Cyril at their head, sinned through moral ignorance, through the hardness that comes of allowance, and the madness wrought by a besetting idea; and that, through a conscience full of offence, they put shame on the Christianity they professed.
Considering these things, we do not miss the lessons of history, or of life, through the strife of contrary opinions about good men and great movements. We perceive the moral blind spot which might have been enlightened in many a great leader (and still we know him to be great and good); we discern the danger of the besetting idea in many a popular movement which is yet an advance.
There are few things more cheering to the student of history than the sense that the consciences of men and nations are under continually increasing enlightenment. From age to age and from year to year
we become aware of more delicate offences, more subtle debts, because our God is dealing with us and instructing us; and the reward of men and nations who seek for that wisdom which cometh from above is a continual advance in moral enlightenment, an ever greater power of seeing the right in small things and great.
Sin.—“Conscience doth make cowards of us all,” he said, who knew what was in men better than any save One. We put a gloss on the saying, and lose its force. We read: Conscience makes cowards of all wrong-doers; or, of us all, when we have done wrong, and, behold a loophole through which we escape condemnation on most days in the year. We hear it stated that the sense of sin is no longer a general experience, that people can no longer confess with conviction that they “have left undone those things which they ought to have done, and done those things which they ought not to have done.” In so far as this is true, it is because conscience is drugged or beguiled.
Uneasiness of Conscience.—That conscience makes us all cowards is still a luminous truth. We wake up in the morning with sense of fear, uneasiness, anxiety—causeless, so far as we know, but there it is—the horrid fear that something is going to happen to us because we deserve it. ‘Nerves,’ says the man of science: very likely, though the hale and hearty know this fear as truly as do the ailing. But to say ‘nerves,’ or ‘hypochondria,’ or ‘the blues,’ or the older ‘megrims,’ or ‘vapours,’ is only to name a symptom and not a cause. The cowardice of conscience drives us all, old and young, rich and poor, whether into what we call nervous ailments, or
into the mad and lusty pursuit of business or pleasure. Either of these we know for a soporific, carrying us through the day, passing the time, as we say; and, if we only get tired enough, bringing sleep at night. But the busiest and gayest lives have their moments of blank fear when the terrors of conscience are sprung upon them. Men call reason to their aid. There is nothing in their lives of which they can convict themselves; they live as other men do, kindly, respectable, even religious lives. Why should they fear conscience? Why, indeed?
Sins of Omission.—At such moments that accusation, from which there is no escape, comes with startling force to the memory,—“I was an hungered, and ye fed me not,” with those other charges summing up the casual omissions which seem to us at such moments to be the whole history of our lives. How can we ever overtake the little things we have not done? We are cast into the outer darkness of dismay, and are cowards, each of us, before his conscience. In a general way, we are content to confound sin with crime. Because we have not been guilty of lying or theft of any of the sins against society which the law punishes, we are like that young ruler, and say of the commandments, ‘All these have I kept from my youth up.’ Then, like him, we are shown the things we might do, and might have done, and go forth ashamed—aware of sin.
‘There is no health in us,’ we cry, with the sincerity of a broken heart; ‘I am such a poor thing,’ or, ‘such a worthless fellow’; or, ‘So foolish was I and ignorant, I was as a beast before Thee.’ Such as these are the cries of the unsophisticated conscience, as it catches a glimpse, now and again, of the vastness
of life, of the ten or thousand talents which it implies.
‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ And there is no rest for the uneasy conscience until we can say, ‘My sufficiency is of God.’
The Chiding of Conscience.—It is the office, we are told, of the Holy Spirit to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment; and, in the constant operation of the divine Spirit upon the spirits of men, we find the secret of how we become aware of sin when we have done nothing in particular to be ashamed of; how we crave after a righteousness greater than we know; and how the sense of a present judgment, to come upon us to-day or to-morrow, awakens with us many a morning and goes to bed with us many a night when no particular wrong-doing comes home to convict us.
Because these convictions are of God, we do not drive them away in the multiplicity of interests and amusements; neither do we sit down and pity ourselves, and encourage what are called nervous maladies. There is a more excellent way.
But when we count up our blessings, let us not fail to number this, of the continual chiding of conscience. A wise man has said that, were there no other evidence of the existence of God, the conscience of man is a final proof. Let us accept the strivings of conscience in this light, and rejoice.