The voice of conscience: A look at some who were willing to die
The word conscience does not appear in the Old Testament (KJV), but the concept of conscience is evident throughout. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves from “the presence of the Lord God” (Genesis 3:8, KJV). Their conscience was at work. When David took a census of Israel against the counsel of God, his “heart smote him” (2 Samuel 24:10). His conscience was at work. The New Testament (KJV) uses conscience some 31 times. Paul stressed the need to keep one’s conscience clear before God, and personally strived “to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16, NKJV).
Ellen White defined conscience as “the voice of God, heard amid the conflict of human passions; when it is resisted, the Spirit of God is grieved”1 She counsels: “The Lord requires us to obey the voice of duty, when there are other voices all around us urging us to pursue an opposite course. It requires earnest attention from us to distinguish the voice which speaks from God. We must resist and conquer inclination, and obey the voice of conscience without parleying or compromise, lest its promptings cease.”2
Examples of conscience at work
The Bible and history are abundant with instances of men and women who obeyed or defied their conscience. “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God,” said Joseph as he fled the enticing temptations of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:9). All the bounties of the king’s table could not induce Daniel to go against his spiritual resolve. On the other hand, a betrayed conscience, dulled again and again by compromise and moral ineptitude, drove Herod to a position where “his moral perceptions had become more and more degraded by his licentious life.”3
John Hus was willing to die rather than violate his conscience. “‘What errors,’ said Huss, ‘shall I renounce? I know myself guilty of none. I call God to witness that all that I have written and preached has been with the view of rescuing souls from sin and perdition; and, therefore, most joyfully will I confirm with my blood that truth which I have written and preached.”4
Martin Luther illustrated the power of conscience at the Diet of Worms. The power and pomp of the authorities put one simple question to Luther: “‘Will you, or will you not, retract?’” The Reformer’s answer was an appeal to the Word and to his conscience: ‘“My conscience [is] bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen.’”5
The whole assembly were for a time speechless with amazement. They could not believe that a person would be willing to risk his life to stand up to the powerful leaders of the church and state. Later many leaders came to see Luther in his room. They “made no attempt to conceal their sympathy with Luther. He was visited by princes, counts, barons, and other persons of distinction, both lay and ecclesiastical.… Even those who had no faith in his doctrines could not but admire that lofty integrity which led him to brave death rather than violate his conscience.”6
The Pilgrim Fathers didn’t come to the shores of America seeking wealth or fame. “It was the desire for liberty of conscience that inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness, and with God’s blessing to lay, on the shores of America, the foundation of a mighty nation.”7
More recently, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the keeper of the conscience of our times—in upholding the biblical principle of human dignity and achieving the dream enshrined in the U.S. constitution that all persons are created equal. For what will Martin Luther King remembered the most? For the marches he led to ensure civil rights for the oppressed? For the language of non-violence he chose to speak to those who violated his people’s civil rights? For his famous march on Washington and the historic speech, “I have a dream”? For the Nobel Prize he won? All these are remarkable events, but in my opinion Martin Luther King was a great man because his conscience was awakened and tempered by his commitment to the Scriptures. The day before he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, he spoke in Memphis, Tennessee:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”8
With that glory still beaming on his face, he died the next day. He was true to His conscience.
The greatest want
“The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”9
When we are brought to the point where we must choose between duty and inclination it is easy to rationalize and attempt to minimize the dangers of violating our conscience. Let me be plain. Do any of these thought processes sound familiar?
“I know I shouldn’t be watching this, but…” (I am adult and it won’t hurt me. I can handle a little cursing and nudity and violence. I am in the privacy of my home, etc.)
“I know I should be tithing, but…” (I can’t afford to. I am in debt. The church misuses the money. The church has apostatized. I am supporting what I believe is best, etc.)
“I know I shouldn’t be eating or drinking this, but…” (A little bit won’t hurt me. God knows my heart is right. It’s hard to eat/drink right when you are traveling, etc.)
If I engage in this rationalization I am really trying to quiet my conscience. I am arguing with the Holy Spirit.
Postponing to a convenient day
I’ve heard some Adventists say: “It’s premature to get excited about the second coming of Christ now. We are a long way from that event. When we see the Sunday Law come we will believe that we are really at the end. Then we will get more involved and get right with God.” But will they? History clearly indicates that it just won’t happen that way. Think of Noah’s generation. “The period of their probation was about to expire. Noah had faithfully followed the instructions which he had received from God. The ark was finished in every part as the Lord had directed, and was stored with food for man and beast. And now the servant of God made his last solemn appeal to the people. With an agony of desire that words cannot express, he entreated them to seek a refuge while it might be found. Again they rejected his words, and raised their voices in jest and scoffing. Suddenly a silence fell upon the mocking throng. Beasts of every description, the fiercest as well as the most gentle, were seen coming from mountain and forest and quietly making their way toward the ark. A noise as of a rushing wind was heard, and lo, birds were flocking from all directions, their numbers darkening the heavens, and in perfect order they passed to the ark. Animals obeyed the command of God, while men were disobedient.…But men had become so hardened by their persistent rejection of light that even this scene produced but a momentary impression.”10
In spite of this amazing miracle of the animals entering the ark, not a single person changed their mind and accepted Noah’s invitation. Persistent rejection of the call of God’s Spirit had rendered them helpless to change.
We face a similar danger. The time to stand for right is now! The voice of God speaking to our conscience must not be silenced, but obeyed.
G. Edward Reid, a lawyer and a minister, serves as stewardship director for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists. His address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. E-mail: email@example.com
Notes and references
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 120.
- Ibid., p. 69.
- White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 730.
- White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), p. 109.
- Ibid., p. 160.
- Ibid., p. 165.
- Ibid., p. 292.
- From A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. by James M. Washington.
- Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1952), p. 57.
- White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1913), p. 97.