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God's Voice In Mankind
by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

On the nature of conscience

Once an impoverished woman stole something in a store and carried it away. No one saw her. On her way home a disturbing feeling gnawed at her peace of mind. She had to return to the store and replace the stolen item, after which she returned home feeling relieved. There are countless similar examples of people being compelled to do not what they want but what is right.

Every person is familiar with his inner voice which on occasion accuses and oppresses him, and on occasion brings him joy. This small subtle voice, an inborn feeling, is called conscience. Conscience by its nature is a spiritual instinct, which more clearly and quickly differentiates between good and evil than does the mind. He who listens to the voice of his conscience will never regret or be ashamed of his behavior.

In the Holy Scripture conscience is also called "heart." In the Sermon on the mount the Lord Jesus Christ compared conscience to the "eyes" by which a person can evaluate his moral condition (Matt. 6:22). The Lord also compared conscience to a "rival" with whom a person must come to terms before he presents himself at God's Judgment (Matt. 5:25). The word "rival" stresses the main attribute of conscience: to oppose our evil desires and intentions.

Our personal experience convinces us that this inner voice, called conscience, is not under our control but expresses itself spontaneously in spite of our will. In addition, just as we cannot persuade ourselves that we are full when we are hungry or that we are rested when we are tired, similarly we cannot convince ourselves that our behavior is correct when our conscience tells us otherwise.

In the words of Christ regarding the "indestructible worm" (Mark 9:48), the Fathers of the Church see the guilty conscience that will punish sinners in the future life. The Russian poet A. S. Pushkin very vividly described these torments in his dramatic play "Miserly Knight:"

"Conscience -

A sharp clawed animal, which scrapes the heart;

Conscience - an uninvited guest, annoying discourser,

A rude creditor; and a witch,

Which dims the moon and graves."

And further in the play, the old knight remembers in terror the pleading and tears of all those whom he deprived mercilessly. In a different drama, "Boris Godunov," Pushkin again recreated the sufferings of a guilty conscience, placing in the mouth of the king Boris the following words, "...Yes, pitiful is the one in whom conscience is foul!"

Published with the kind permission of Bishop Alexander Mileant

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