And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offense toward God, and toward men.
There is nothing that men so often mistake as what we call conscience. With a Scotchman it is frequently obstinacy; with an English. man, snobbishness; with a Yankee, prejudice. Conscience is not the thing that guides men, but the thing by which men justify themselves when they have made up their minds! They set their watches and then look at the time of day. It is difficult for some people to find their own pulse — that which marks the ebb and flow of that red tide of life which surges back and forth within them. So hard it often is for a man to put his finger on the real motive of his conduct. Men clip coin and then try to pass it for the genuine currency of the realm. The difference between men as good and bad is the difference in their treatment of conscience. A self-knowledge that is void of self-condemnation: this is the subject I shall discuss.
I. I remark THAT THERE IS NOTHING MORE WONDERFUL IN MAN THAN HIS POWER TO KNOW HIMSELF. It is the most fearful and wonderful thing in him. If he wants to get the temperature of his own body he must use a thermometer; if he wants to count his own pulse he must hold his watch in his hand. But the temperature of the man within, the pulse beat of the man within, he must find from a standard within. Conscience is the self-registering thermometer of the soul. Joseph's brethren never had lost their self-consciousness, their self-recognition — never, day or night, year in, year out. They knew themselves. It is a thing which cannot be lost, this conscience of self. But let them do the deed; let conscience make its registry respecting that deed, and they may wake and sleep; they may change their place of residence and traverse seas and deserts; years may pass over their heads, but they never can be rid of their own self-recognition. It is no longer like the mists of the morning. It is like the sin of Judah; it is written with a pen of iron and the point of a diamond upon the tables of the heart. It will carry its own deep self-knowledge throughout all eternity.
II. THERE IS NO HIGHER AIM FOR A MAN MADE IN GOD'S IMAGE THAN TO KEEP THIS SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS THE SOURCE OF COMFORT AND SUPPORT TO HIMSELF. It is like keeping the prow of the vessel pointed to the polar star. If a man maintains his self-respect it makes little difference what are his outward surroundings. They cannot affect his inward worth any more than the setting of a jewel affects its intrinsic value. Joseph was just as near to God and to the throne of God in Egypt as in the house of his father. His feet was hurt with fetters, but he could still run in the way of God's commandments.
III. THIS KEEPING OF SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS SERENE AND UNDISTURBED IS NEVER THE RESULT OF A HAPPY ACCIDENT, BUT OF A SETTLED PURPOSE AND MASTERLY AIM. The apostle's phraseology in the text is very strong: "And herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward man." If a man means to make his living by the use of his arms he trains the muscles of his arms; if he means to make his living by the use of his voice he exercises his lungs so that he can produce voice; and so of his ears and his eyes, as his calling may require. In other words, he takes gymnastics which are suited to his necessities. Peace of conscience is not an accident, but an acquisition; is not a matter of temperament, but of attainment. I suppose the popular conception of the life of such men as St. Paul is that being so eminent in spiritual endowments, the Christian life in a sense takes care of itself. But I do not get any such conception of the apostle's language. It is not a Sabbath day experience. Notice that one word — always! It was his habitual method, the habit of his life. The conscience is the vision of the spiritual man. It determines duty for him. And the Saviour says, "If thine eye be single thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil or divided thy whole body shall be full of darkness." There is no darkness like the darkness which springs from a benighted conscience. There are no blunders like the blunders committed in the name of conscience. This is what the apostle means by a conscience void of offence, a conscience which does not make him stumble, because it has a clear vision for the inward man.
IV. EVERY MAN'S CONSCIENCE HAS TO DO WITH HIS CARRIAGE TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD MAN. It is like the eye — two organs and one sight. Some people think conscience has mainly to do with the inward walk, with regularity in the exercise of the spirit in what would be called worship and service. It was just this kind of conscience that Saul of Tarsus had when, like a bloodthirsty beast of prey, he was putting to death the members of the little flock of the Good Shepherd at Jerusalem. Then he exercised himself to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and stopped there. I do not think there can be a more merciless condition of the soul than for a man to try and keep a conscience void of offence toward God without reference to his fellow men. It accounts for all the awful things done in the way of persecution, done in the name of God and for the glory of God. Piety and humanity are the two necessary poles in all Christianity. The truth is that the highest Christian development is not possible if we do not have a warm side in us — the side where the heart is — toward humanity. If you think of it a moment, the Son of God was also the Son of man. A man cannot keep his conscience void of offence toward his fellow man by adopting another man's conscience as his standard — sinning under cover of another man's shield. This is the temptation which comes from improper intimacies in business and in social life. Since the death of Christ every man living has a new valuation. He is one for whom Christ has died. If a man be dishonest, he is dishonest toward one for whom Christ died.
(J. E. Rankin.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.