The Exercise of Conscience and the Exercise of Heart: Or, the Whale and the Gourd

 •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 10
The first great question between a man's soul and God is the question of sin. Man's natural conscience (without revelation) tells him that there is a distance between him and God on account of sin; nay, Adam spontaneously took the place of distance, his conscience having demanded it and coerced him to it. Until this sense of distance be removed, and the conscience be satisfied that the cause of it no longer exists, man cannot recognize any happy relationship between himself and God, whatever he may apprehend of the perfection and excellence of a Divine Being. Nay, the more he does apprehend of these attributes, the more consciously distant is he as to relationship, because the more does he feel the moral disparity. Hence the relieving of the conscience is the ground-work of all blessing; and whenever there is imperfection in it, the value of the relationship which God has established between Himself and us is depreciated; so that in fact knowledge of God (even true spiritual knowledge) is prejudicial to the soul, if the conscience be weakly or imperfectly relieved.
Few are perhaps aware how their failure and feebleness are attributable to an unsettled conscience. We cannot stand at a distance and really learn God in love. If God meets me in love, He must meet me where I feel I am-estranged from Him; i.e., in my sin. My conscience tells me this, and the first action of His love must be to assure me that the question of sin is settled, and that the sense of distance need not, should not, any longer exist; nay more, that I now glorify God by being happy in the relief and assurance which He offers me, as to the removal of my sin through atonement.
This is God's first great lesson to the soul; and the more truly I learn it, the better do I understand the love that reaches me as I am; and as I learn the virtues of that love in my necessity and distance, so am I the better able to analyze its fine and perfect lines of interest for me now no longer in distance but in nearness.
Again, the will is never broken till conscience is tranquillized in God's presence. Man has done with his own judgment, and with the will which seeks it, when he has found relief in the judgment of God, to which his own will would never have led him. The soul must pass through a great exercise sooner or later, ere it finds out that, condemned by all human judgment, with God alone there is no condemnation. It must be brought into acquaintance with the depth and horror of sin, either in practice or in the more secret but not less harrowing conviction of it within; for not until the conscience is sensible of impending ruin, and at the same moment feels that in God alone there is succor, can man render himself heartily to God.
The soul must be brought to a sense of danger and despair ere it so appreciate the succor as to be wholly cast on Him. But this is what God so entirely desires; for this is what evinces the completeness of our dependence and total reversion of that independence which estranged man from God. It was the one uniform expression of the life and ways of Christ on earth, and, as a crowning evidence of His success over all the adverse powers acting on humanity, the one justly condemned of man and of himself, the malefactor, on the cross, looked to Him for remembrance and provision in the kingdom. What could anything in creation do for him? Within, without, on every side, in the present and the future, danger and anguish were before him. In such a juncture he finds God absolutely for him, and so much so, that to be absolutely for himself, he must be absolutely for God. That the conscience should learn this rest in God is the alone ground-work of peace and service; consequently, the more a soul advances in the repose of the one and the activities of the other, the more deeply must it be educated in the need and value of God's relief.
Jonah, though a servant of God had, not yet passed through this great exercise of conscience: he had not learned to relinquish self and its judgment and to depend alone on God. He was pursuing the leadings of his own will; but God arrests him in his course, and his dormant conscience is awakened when apparently about to perish. The trembling jailer draws his sword to kill himself; Peter beseeches the Lord to depart from him, for he was a "sinful man," and so Jonah is consigned to the fate his conscience now approves, in the midst of the foaming waves. Then God provides the whale to rescue and to exercise him, the substance of which exercise we have in the second chapter of the book of Jonah. The sum of it is simply this, he learns in this last extreme of human exigence, that Gad alone is his resource. He cries, "I will look again to thy holy temple."
Doubtless, he had looked before, but now brought to a deeper sense of the fearful consequences of pursuing his own will, he looks again with an appreciation proportionate to the need to which that will had reduced him; this was requisite to make him attentive and interested in the counsels of God. The more he abandons himself and clings to God, the more really he serves himself; and as God is his blessing, so the service of God is now necessarily his interest. I repeat necessarily, because if my soul finds that all my blessing is from God, all my interests must be connected with God; and to serve Him and be occupied with His interests must follow when all my interests are bound up in Him.
The same truth is taught in Psa. 51 where David regards his sin only in the light of God; and finding relief from his burdened conscience, he passes from the exercise into renewed occupation with the interests of God. His prayer, "Build thou the walls of Jerusalem," indicates that being relieved of personal trouble and self, he finds his thoughts and interests flowing in the channel of the counsels of God. God at one and the same time relieves the conscience, and forms a servant with a ready and obedient ear. Nor otherwise can such an one be produced; ' for thus alone can the will of man, which the conscience witnesses against, be set aside; and if not set aside, there is very little obedient service; and if not obedient, not according to God. "Fear not," from the lips of Christ, relieved Peter's conscience, and enabled him to forsake all, and follow the one who had pronounced it. Jonah's time in the whale is just this. When the burdened conscience can find relief in nothing but Christ, (the holy temple); and in so doing, dwells more on His exceeding excellence and grace than even on the condition that required it, (for the greater always occupies the mind, to the exclusion of the less,) and when the soul is full of magnifying the Lord, the frailty and weakness of the earthen vessel is lost sight of. Thus He can do all His will, and we are only clay in His hand.
To Jonah, now in the ease of a relieved conscience, can the Lord say, "Preach the preaching that I bid thee." The ear is opened, and Jonah arises in the strength and purpose of service, as did Paul, who, arrested in the recklessness of his course, cries out in the presence of Jesus and of glory, " What wilt thou have me to do?" How could I serve happily, or with interest, if' I did not know the value of God's blessing to myself? The Lord Jesus enunciated this truth on the eve of His departure from this world, by His self-imposed service to His own whom He loved. Having washed their feet, and pronounced them clean, He says, " Ye should do as I have done to you." The verity and vigor of this service of Christ to ourselves prepares us for the service of others, so that deficiency in power to serve, or in guidance in serving, is traceable to a deficiency in our apprehension of this first and foremost act of Christ's love, and every advance in power or intelligence must rest on this ground-work, That this process of exercise often occurs, and always with renewed blessing, is very well known; but I believe that in addition to these constant and necessary remindings of how dependent we are on the grace of God; we are, according to the service required of us, made, at some time or other, to pass a season in " the whale," to learn that subjection to the Lord, with which the wisdom of His counsels had not hitherto impressed us. This is properly the exercise of conscience as known in the whale's belly.
But this is not all. After the conscience is relieved, and obedience is learned by dependence on God, another trial is necessary, which is the exercise of the heart. The very fact of a relieved conscience affords a scope for the affections to enjoy the mercies given us by God. And again, the very sovereignty of God under which our wills have been subdued may warp our judgment and lead us to expect an unsparing rule from God, as if power in grace only characterized Him, and not love in its tenderest and most long-suffering emotions. Thus was it with Jonah. He is angry at the long-suffering love of God which spared the city and belied his prophetic preaching; he cannot understand it; and thus he has to' learn the lesson of "the gourd;" and, by the blighting and disappointment of—his own heart, to comprehend what are the tender sympathies of God's heart. Abraham learned a very different lesson in the surrender of Isaac, from what all the commotions about Ishmael and the consequences of his sojourn in Egypt entailed. In one sense, the latter had a sting in them which the former had not; his conscience, no doubt, whispered how deserved was the sorrow in the one case, but in the other it was the test whether his heart rested more in God or in the gift of God; and whether he could at the demand of God surrender every claim on his affections and find in God his entire resource. Jacob, in like manner, suffered very differently from the vexations in Laban's house (which his conscience must have regarded as retributive) from what he did in the bereavement and trial to his affections in the disappearance of Joseph. Conscience was not concerned with the latter, but his heart was most deeply. Thus also with David. The loss of Ziklag was essentially different from the loss of Jerusalem. In the former there was, no doubt, much to exercise his conscience. Ziklag, in the Philistine country, was his retreat in the hour of his unbelief, which God consequently broke up, in order (by making him feel on the brink of ruin as he was, then deserted by his oldest followers, and the purpose of stoning debated among them) in order, I say, to cast him more entirely on God, and the trial of his conscience effects this end. He encourages himself in the Lord his God, which is a prelude to bolder, fuller, and more intelligent service, as we see in his subsequent history. But the surrender of Jerusalem was very different; there his heart was more immediately touched. Jerusalem was God's greatest gift to him, his most valued reward for all his difficulties and achievements, the pinnacle of his desire-godly desire: but he must surrender it before the fierce and deadly rebellion of his own son. The dearest ties of his heart are severed, and his only door of hope is the thought of God's delight in him. Doubtless, as Jerusalem and all its attractions sank behind this temporary cloud, God and His everlasting sympathies thronged the horizon of his soul. God will exercise both the heart and conscience; and we may find souls who have had their consciences very truly exercised, who from want of exercise of heart, know very little of the sympathies of Christ. The exercise of the conscience is the groundwork of service, but that of the heart is the great preparation for suitable service. A good soldier will implicitly obey orders, but the servant of the Lord must be something more. He is an ambassador for Christ, and must serve in the spirit and tenderness in which Christ served. But this is only learned when it is needed. If I have no bereavement or loss, I cannot understand properly what bereavement or loss is. Hence, the j Lord, when He has us in His hand, ' when He is using us, brings the heart low by many an exercise; one object after another has to be relinquished; God thereby molding us for Himself and for service, and teaching us to find in Him that real engagement for our hearts, which the fleeting objects here, without Him cannot accord. There was no sorrow which did not wrench the tender chords of Christ's heart, when on earth, and by exercising our hearts He leads us into fellowship with Him, and feels that we can now be, as it were, on the same note with Him. If to the broken spirit, the exercised and relieved conscience He declares His will, to the broken and contrite heart does He reveal Himself, making known His own feelings, and mingling with our cup the sympathies of His own heart.
All this is taught in the gourd! Jonah cannot understand or sympathize with the tenderness of God, and therefore he must learn, through suffering, his own need of that tenderness. A gourd is granted him, so suited to his need that his hasty nature subsides into contentment and enjoyment, and this being so, the gourd, the object that yielded him this satisfaction and enjoyment, is removed! Doubtless no agony in the whale's belly exceeded this. The gourd was God's own gift, prepared by Him, and therefore allowable to be enjoyed. The trial of its removal, how- ever' was not, in one sense, accompanied with the sense of justice, with which the former exercise must have been. That was in order to break his will, by condemning him of wrong and exercising him about it; this was to reach his heart in order to teach him God's heart and prepare him for the revelations of God's feelings and sympathies. Jonah is now brought to silence-he has not a word to reply. There is no opening the mouth under the overwhelming sense of, "Thou didst it," as the Psalmist expresses it. But however bitter these exercises may be, when God's object and purpose is wrought by them, they are blessed, for they leave us alone with God. The conscience has found in Him its full and true relief, and the heart having learned His sympathies, is afraid to look abroad on earth for satisfaction. It may be brought to silence, but if nigh unto God, it will be listening unto Him.