So far, we have looked briefly at the three aspects of the internal life (the will, the conscience, and the Divine Life), and how they work together in the Big Picture. We also focused in on the will and looked at what Charlotte had to say about it. Today, we’re going to spend some time discussing the conscience.
The Ubiquitous Conscience
Before I begin, I feel the need to explain that every man has a bit of conscience in him, even if he be born in the flesh. The book of Romans tells us clearly:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools… (Romans 1:18-22)
The idea here is that there are certain things which are evident, which all of us know to be true. It is in ignoring our consciences that we become fools.
Charlotte, likewise, approaches the conscience as being a part of humanity not Christianity. (Our first parents ate of the Tree of Conscience, remember.) At the same time, as we discussed when we looked at the Big Picture of the internal life, the Christian conscience will function differently because of the Divine life which has influence over it.
What is the Conscience?
Charlotte defined the conscience as:
Conscience is the lawgiver, and utters the ‘Thou shalt’ and the ‘Thou shalt not’ whereon the will takes action; the judge, too, before whom the offending soul is summoned…
[C]onscience is that spiritual sense whereby we have knowledge of good and evil.
Charlotte is quite famous for her saying, “I am, I ought, I can, I will,” which she tells us in this chapter
are the steps of that ladder of St. Augustine, whereby we“rise on stepping stones
Of our dead selves to higher things.”
And she defines these steps for us:
- I am: we can know ourselves
- I ought: we have a conscience which convicts us of right which should be done, and wrong which should be omitted
- I can: we are aware that we have the power to take action and do what is right
- I will: we choose what is right and we do it
Understanding this human capacity has great potential, Charlotte is convinced:
[Y]ou will see that it is because of the possibilities of ruin and loss which lie about every human life that I am pressing upon parents the duty of saving their children by the means put into their hands. Perhaps it is not too much to say, that ninety-nine out of a hundred lost lives lie at the door of parents who took no pains to deliver their children from sloth, from sensual appetites, from wilfulness, no pains to fortify them with the habits of a good life.
Conscience and the Child
Charlotte says we are not born into this world with fully developed, infallible consciences:
[T]his is to suppose, either that a fully-informed conscience is born into an infant body, or that it grows, like the hair and the limbs, with the growth of the body, and is not subject to conditions of spiritual progress proper to itself.
On the contrary, she points out the “vagaries” of the uninstructed conscience — men who intend good things, but whose consciences have not been fine-tuned enough to effect them.
Charlotte tells us conscience is a faculty, and “undeveloped capability.” Of the ideal conscience she says, we look for
conscience with not only the capacity to discern good and evil, but trained to perceive the qualities of the two.
A well-trained conscience is an asset to our children, with wise counsel always on the spot inside themselves when they are grown:
The instructed conscience may claim to be, if not infallible, at any rate nearly always right. It is not generally mature until the man is mature; young people, however right-minded and earnest, are apt to err, chiefly because they fix their attention too much upon some one duty, some one theory of life, at the expense of much besides.
Must we Train?
Charlotte addresses the parents that are tempted to “trust God” with their children (as an excuse for not raising them deliberately). Charlotte quickly snuffs out this idea, informing us that the grace is not going to “supplement the inertness of parents:
We live in a redeemed world, and infinite grace and help from above attend every rightly directed effort in the training of the children; but I do not see much ground for hoping that divine grace will step in as a substitute for any and every power we choose to leave unused or misdirected. In the physical world, we do not expect miracles to make up for our neglect of the use of means; the rickety body, the misshapen limb, for which the child has to thank his parents, remain with him through life, however much else he may have to thank God for; and a feeble will, bad habits, an uninstructed conscience, stick by many a Christian man through his life, because his parents failed in their duty to him, and he has not had force enough in himself to supply their omission.
We parents have an awesome responsibility:
He is born to love the good, and to hate the evil, but he has no real knowledge of what is good and what is evil; what intuitions he has, he puts no faith in, but yields himself in simplicity to the steering of others. The wonder that Almighty God can endure so far to leave the very making of an immortal being in the hands of human parents is only matched by the wonder that human parents can accept this divine trust with hardly a thought of its significance.
Growing and Informing a Conscience
We know that the conscience comes to us, like the whole child, immature, but packed with potential. How, then, might parents develop the conscience? What ought we to do? What ought we not to do? Thankfully, Charlotte has a list for us:
- “The children should not be encouraged to give their opinions on questions of right and wrong, and little books should not be put into their hands which pronounce authoritatively upon conduct.” Children, she tells us, are apt to “play” with moral questions. I remember the first time one of my own children shocked me in this way when, subsequent to a reading of the parable of The Good Samaritan, he proceeded to discuss all the folks in the world who were not his neighbors. There is a time for ethical debate, surely, but under the age of nine is generally not that time. Why? Charlotte tells us that
the mature conscience demands to be backed up by the mature intellect, and the children have neither the one nor the other.
- Read the Bible. Read the Bible. Read the Bible. Charlotte said that the Bible was “the chief source of moral ideas.” (Granted, it is not only this, and there is great danger in reading it as merely a book of moral tales — something Victorians were prone to do. However, comma, there is no morality if there be not the authoritative Word.) Charlotte suggests that, at this age, we read them, one “episode” at a time, from the Old Testament, that we do little talking (exceptions made for answering questions, I assume), but rather
let the story sink in, and bring its own teaching, a little now, and more every year…
- Read other fitting books. As we are reading good, living books, they “bring aliment to the growing conscience,” Charlotte tells us. Because of his age, he will naturally fix his attention upon conduct. How many of us have already experienced the pleasure of powerful tales which draw out the right affections of the child, leading him to love the noble hero, to despise and despair of the deeds of the wicked, and so on? Again, Charlotte assures us that we do not need to chatter away for the children to learn these lessons — if anything, she believes the chatter distracts the child. Instead, we can respect “the silent growth of the moral faculty” much as we respect the seed growing secretly in the soil.
- Do not allow the child to condemn the conduct of the people around him. Charlotte tells us that this will
blunt [the child’s] conscience, deaden his sensibility to the injunction, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’
- Do not induce introspection. The child is immature. Do not set him to ponder his motives.
- Give instruction. This part reminded me a lot of our “manners training” in which we often focus on one virtue per week, and discuss how we could live them out in our lives. Charlotte held up “kindness” as an example:
There is one of the talks with their mother that the children love — a short talk is best — about kindness. Kindness is love, showing itself in act and word, look and manner. A well of love, shut up and hidden in a little boy’s heart, does not do anybody much good; the love must bubble up as a spring, flow out in a stream, and then it is kindness. Then will follow short daily talks about kind ways, to brothers and sisters, to playmates, to parents, to grown-up friends, to servants, to people in pain and trouble, to dumb creatures, to people we do not see but yet can think about — all in distress, the heathen. Give the children one thought at a time, and every time some lovely example of loving-kindness that will fire their hearts with the desire to do likewise.Take our Lord’s parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ for a model of instruction in morals. [(Unless you are at my house.)] Let tale and talk make the children emulous of virtue, and then give them the “Go and do likewise,” the law. Having presented to them the idea of kindness in many aspects, end with the law: Be kind, or, “Be kindly affectioned one to another.” Let them know that this is the law of God for children and for grown-up people. Now, conscience is instructed, the feelings are enlisted on the side of duty, and if the child is brought up, it is for breaking the law of kindness, a law that he knows of, that his conscience convicts him in the breaking. Do not give children deterrent examples of error, because of the sad proclivities of human nature, but always tell them of beautiful ‘Golden Deeds,’ small and great, that shall stir them as trumpet-calls to the battle of life.
- Make conscience effective by discipline. Once the duty is “made lovely in his eyes,” the mother must expect the child to do his duty:
[I]t is only as we do that we learn to do, and become strong in the doing.
Tomorrow: The Divine Life, or, Where our Loyalties Lie.
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