The Pinch of Want

Monday: The Human Conscience

Genesis 42:1-5 In this week’s studies, we see what the conscience is, how it works, and the need for our conscience to lead us in wise and righteous ways by the Word of God.
The Human Conscience

The human conscience is a very strange thing. Considering how evil men and women are, it is surprising that we have a conscience at all. Yet we do. At times it plagues us. One of my resource books on Genesis points out that since 1811 the United States government has been receiving anonymous sums of money as self-imposed fines for a variety of offenses, such as taking army blankets for souvenirs, deliberately failing to put the correct postage on a letter or cheating on one’s income tax. A widow was looking over her late husband’s books and discovered that he had cheated the government out of fifty dollars the year before. She promptly mailed a check for that amount to the Treasury. These monies have been placed in a special account named the Federal Conscience Fund, which now totals over three million dollars.1

Conscience lies at the heart of William Shakespeare’s best-known play, Hamlet. For much of the play it restrains Hamlet from bold action. “Conscience doth make cowards of us all,” he explains (act 3, sc. 1). On the other hand, it is the device he used to reveal the guilt of King Claudius of Denmark, who had murdered his father. 

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” he cries as act 2, scene 2 ends. 

George Washington called conscience “that little spark of celestial fire.” Lord Byron, who needed but seemed to profit little from his conscience, called it “the oracle of God.”2

But here is the problem. It is true that we have something called conscience which sometimes makes us feel guilty for past wrongdoings. But conscience is often far from overwhelming in its effects, and it is tragically possible for us to kill it or at least put it very soundly to sleep. I mentioned a proper working of conscience in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But of all Shakespeare’s characters the most wicked is Richard III, and he, though bothered at one time by an accusing conscience—

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, 

And every tongue brings in a several tale, 

And every tale condemns me for a villain 

(Richard III, act 5, sc. 3)—

nevertheless successfully triumphs over it, so that at the end he is able to call out, “Conscience, avaunt, Richard’s himself again!” (act 5, sc. 3). 

One man who was obviously struggling to put conscience to rest wrote to the government saying, “I have cheated on my income tax. I can’t sleep. Here is a check for seventy-five dollars. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the balance.”

1Leslie B. Flynn, Joseph: God’s Man in Egypt (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books/SP Publications, 1979), 93. 

2Cited in Roget’s International Thesaurus, new edition (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1953), 630. 

Study Questions
  1. How would you define the conscience?
  2. In what way can we depend on our conscience as a guide?

For Further Study: Download for free and listen to Donald Barnhouse’s message, “Conscience: Its Nature and Origin.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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