The Heart & the Conscience, or Conviction & Convenience

by Glenn Conjurske

Twenty-five years ago I wore a full beard, but shaved the area around my mouth. At that time I visited some Mennonites in Indiana, who wore beards exactly like my own. One of the young men there asked me if I had my beard for conviction or convenience. “Convenience,” I replied, for I wore a beard solely to save the time and trouble of shaving. He said no more, and I inquired no further. A little later in the day one of the older men asked me the same question, in the same words. This obvious preoccupation about something so insignificant as a beard aroused my curiosity, and I replied, “Convenience: how about yourself?” “Oh,” said he, “Conviction, conviction.” I asked him what the conviction was. He said, “To be like Christ.” I asked him why then he didn’t have a moustache. He replied very forcefully, “I’ve wondered about that!” I left him to wonder at his leisure, but I suspect there was no conviction at all in his beard. He merely followed the traditions of the elders, who evidently found it convenient to shave the moustache, and therefore found no application there of the conviction to be like Christ.

For my own part, I have long since ceased wearing a beard, for I found the beard more troublesome and uncomfortable than shaving. If there had been anything of conviction in it, however, I would be wearing it still, for conviction cannot be abandoned for convenience’ sake.

Yet I have been appalled to see so many Christians who hold their doctrines obviously for convenience’ sake, and yet preach them as though they were solid convictions. They believe, or profess to believe, what they like, or what suits the occasion. They use the Bible as Joseph Smith and his successors used their prophetic powers. Smith always had a “revelation” ready when he needed one. When he was up to his ears in “spiritual wifery”—-and physical adultery—-the Lord very conveniently gave him a revelation, sanctioning polygamy—-and requiring his Emma to forgive him his past wrongs, and receive all the wives which were given to him. Years later, when the Mormon territory sought statehood, the federal government peremptorily denied the privilege, unless the Mormons would abandon polygamy. This was a hard thing, since polygamy had been the staple of their religion for two generations. Yet Joseph F. Smith, then successor of the original Joseph Smith, diligently sought the Lord, and gave forth the assurance that the Lord was about to give him something. Sure enough, “the Lord” gave him a “revelation,” revoking polygamy.

All this is shameful imposture, and yet I have known Christians enough who use the Bible as the Mormon prophets use their supposed revelations. Years ago a number of us were discussing the difficulties of divorced persons, who it may be are unable to contain, and are yet evidently forbidden to marry. I asked, “What would you do if you were single, and yet believed it wrong for you to marry?” One man replied with some forcefulness, “I would never believe that!” I thought at the time, It must be very convenient to be able to believe what you please, but I have no such ability. My beliefs are convictions, dictated by truth and righteousness and Scripture, and I hope I am unable to believe whatever happens to suit my present situation. Yet I have observed that same man change his doctrines and standards a number of times since then, and apparently usually on the basis of convenience. If he wants to do a thing, he manages to find the sanction of God for it, as Balaam did, and usually finds it quickly enough at that. We of course know that it is possible for a man to gain further light, but we know also that it is a rare thing for the truth of God to mark out an easy, pleasing path for us.

We know right well, however, that in some matters the Bible does mark out a pleasing path for us. The Bible condones, for example, all the delights of love and courtship and marriage, and none are so quick as I, nor so determined either, in opposing those hyperspiritual notions which browbeat the spiritual, condemn the innocent, bind heavy burdens upon men, and make them sad whom God would make glad. Against all this we stand, decided and resolute, and yet contend that in general the path which the Bible marks out for us is one of self-denial, not self-indulgence.

When a man always manages to find just the doctrine which suits his desires, and just as the occasion calls for it, we have grave reason to suspect his sincerity. The man who stands for years against inter-racial marriage, but changes his view when a pleasing woman of another color comes along—-the man who stands for years against debt, but changes his doctrine when he wants to buy a house—-the man who stands for years against a “one-man ministry,” but changes his views when he has a prospect of becoming the “one man”—-such men give us good reason to question their sincerity.

We grant that it is possible to receive new light at just the moment when we need it, but this is not very safe when the new light corresponds with the desires of the heart. We have a “conflict of interest,” and will easily deceive ourselves. We have ulterior motives, and these are more than likely to blind our eyes. Even if we could suppose this sincere, it must yet be far from safe. It reduces the learning of truth to a mere intellectual process—-or a mere pretense. There is no conscience in it. “I studied the matter out. I searched the Scriptures, the lexicons, the concordances, the commentaries, and I found”—-—-—-—-—-—-just what I wanted to find. Can this be safe? It is certain that conscience has nothing to do with the process. When our interpretation follows our conscience, it is pre-eminently safe, whereas when it follows the heart it is always to be suspected. The conscience is the vehicle by which the truth is ordinarily conveyed to our minds, where the heart will only deceive us. I borrow money to buy a car, or contemplate doing so, but “Owe no man anything” stares me in the face. My debt becomes a great burden on my conscience. To be right I must get out of debt. This is safe and sincere, but how safe can it be to say, “I am tired of living in this old house. I want a better one. I have searched the Scriptures, and have learned that it is not wrong to go into debt”? Whatever may be said for its sincerity, the obvious ulterior motive makes the process unsafe.

But we are convinced that it is usually no more sincere than it is safe. Consistency is always the test of sincerity, and inconsistency always the proof of hypocrisy. Those who hold their doctrines or standards for convenience’ sake are usually consistent in nothing but their inconsistency. They hold their standard only because it is convenient, and so hold it only while it is convenient. Such folks will always be as unstable as their circumstances. I know a man who used to preach to me, as though it were the first fundamental of the faith, that it is always wrong to leave a true church. He preached this so forcefully to me because some in his own church were inclined to leave it, and to come to the greener pastures which they saw under my preaching. But I pointed out to the preacher of this doctrine that to my own knowledge he himself had left a true church on two different occasions in the not very distant past. Ah! that was different. He had left those churches “with their blessing.” I was not at all sure of that, but this I know, that very shortly afterwards he left the church to which he then belonged, and certainly not with their blessing, but under threat of excommunication. The fact that he himself did not live by the doctrine which he preached to others was the full proof that he held it hypocritically. He held it for convenience, to suit the circumstances then present. It was no conviction at all.

Seven or eight years ago a faction in the church set themselves against myself. They accused me of many things. Their charges were trivial at first, but became more and more grave as time went on, and along with their charges they always had a doctrine with which to condemn me. One of their favorites was that it was wrong to defend yourself when accused. Nothing would do but an “unqualified apology”—-that is, an unqualified admission of guilt. By this means they had me both coming and going. If I admitted their charges, I was guilty. If I defended myself, I was something worse than guilty. Now I never for a minute believed their doctrine, nor did I ever believe that they believed it. They held it hypocritically, for convenience only. It suited their present purpose, which was to condemn me. The proof that they held it hypocritically lay in the fact that they held it inconsistently. It applied to me, but not to themselves. They all defended themselves, and quite vigorously too, when they were accused. Nay, they defended themselves when they were guilty, and condemned me for defending myself when I was innocent. One or two of them tried a time or two to act on their doctrine, and when they were accused of something, they immediately acknowledged the truth of it, and made no defence. But this was really too much for their carnal natures, and they did not stick with it long. I even heard of an “unqualified apology,” which had been given to me, being taken back ten minutes after I left the room.

Such examples may serve to illustrate the hypocrisy which usually accompanies the profession of doctrines and interpretations which suit our desires and purposes. The knowledge of the truth is another matter. The truth generally requires self-denial of us, not self-indulgence. It does not usually flow in the direction of our selfish and worldly desires, but cuts across them. It does not sustain sinister emotions and purposes, but condemns them. The Bible generally requires hard things of us, not easy, and those who profess the sanction of Scripture to do just what they wish to do are either insincere or deceived.

The Bible says, “If any man be willing to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine,” (John 7:17), but since when does being willing to do our own will qualify us to understand the truth? This text implies the overcoming of some latent unwillingness to do his will. It is the conscience which chides us concerning that unwillingness, till we have surrendered the point, and become willing to do the will of God rather than our own. Such a process gives us the ability to understand the truth. It gives us a single eye—-puts away our conflict of interest and our ulterior motives. But those who desire to do a thing, and sit down to study the Bible to see what the will of the Lord is, are most likely to deceive themselves. The heart looms large, and the conscience is suppressed, in such a process.

Balaam tried for a time to follow his heart and his conscience both, but his heart prevailed, and led him astray, though somehow he managed to find the sanction of God for his wayward course. This is the way of all who follow the heart instead of the conscience in the interpreting of the Bible. Now it goes without saying that the heart must always yield to the conscience—-that it can never be right for the conscience to yield to the heart, and yet we have observed the long course of some—-always a downward course—-in which the heart prevails at every point, and conscience is apparently an idle spectator, while yet the sanction of Scripture is claimed for every step. But we do not believe the conscience is an idle spectator. Though there are times when the conscience may receive its due, and the heart its desire also, yet there will be conflict between the conscience and the heart, and where the heart is always followed, the conscience must necessarily be violated, and the Scriptures wrested also. Our only safety lies in always giving the conscience its due, though it must often be at the expense of the heart. In no other way can we be right. Where the desires of the heart are given precedence over the claims of the conscience, the course must necessarily be downward. Those who take such a downward course, and yet claim that their conscience is clear, are no doubt as hypocritical in their claims as they are in their course.

Glenn Conjurske

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