I will never forget a story I heard years ago. A young prodigy – a pianist – gave his first concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. His reputation preceded him; the concert was sold out on the first day tickets were available. When he finished his final piece, the crowd went wild. They spontaneously stood to their feet as they shouted and cheered.

The young pianist bowed quickly and hurried off stage, but the audience was begging for him to come back. The stage manager whispered to him: “Go quickly – they are yelling for you.”

The young man didn’t move. Instead he peered through a crack in the curtain, anxiously scanning the gathering. “No, I can’t go out there,” he said.

The stage manager’s response was bordering on annoyance: “Look, son, they are on their feet – trust me, they don’t do this for everybody – go out and enjoy it.”

The boy continued to scan the audience. Finally the stage manager cracked and shouted: “Get out there! They are all standing for you.”

The young man looked back at him and whispered: “They are not all standing. Do you see that old man in the last row from the back? He’s not standing, he is still seated.”

“Who cares abut one old man?” said the stage manager.

The boy answered with a steely determination: “I care. That’s my teacher. When he stands I can take that bow.”

The onlookers were still cheering. Two thousand people were applauding the sheer magic of his skill. But the young musician knew in his heart that none of that mattered unless his teacher – his mentor –approved. He wasn’t playing for an audience of thousands. In truth, he was playing for an audience of one.

The Lord is watching

Billy Graham (1918-2018) preached to millions but it was really for an audience of one – the God of the Bible. I once asked his daughter Gigi Graham if she knew the secret of her famous father’s success. “Oh yes,” she said quickly; he lived his life according to a chorus he learned as a child in Sunday school: “With eternity’s values in view, Lord / With eternity’s values in view / May I do each day’s work for Jesus / With eternity’s values in view.”

One can only imagine what it would be like to speak before Her Majesty the Queen; but it would certainly be hard to worry about anyone else who might be present. The Apostle Paul said that he always preached “before God” (2 Corinthians 2:17), as if God alone listened. But it is certainly not limited to speaking publicly or preaching. It should be about living our lives generally and privately before the Lord, knowing he is watching and listening. Malachi speaks of a book of remembrance: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name” (Malachi 3:16,ESV). An old spiritual that came out of the cotton fields of Alabama many years ago put it like this: “He sees all you do, he hears all you say; my Lord’s a-writing’ all the time.”

My ‘life verse’ has largely been John 5:44, gripping me as a teenager when I read only the Authorised (King James) Version, although I would never say I have lived up to it: “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” I’m afraid I have been too concerned about what people think of me rather than what God thinks of me. According to Jesus, this was why the Jews missed their Messiah: because they cared more about the opinions of their fellow Pharisees than they did the glory of God. It made it impossible to grasp who Jesus was (John 12:42-43). This means that when we choose the favour of people over the honour of God, our ability to discern God’s will is jeopardised.

The 18th Century revivalist Jonathan Edwards said the task of every generation is to discover in which direction the sovereign redeemer is moving, then move in that direction. We will not likely miss what God is up to in our day if we make every effort to eschew the praise of people and sincerely aspire to the praise of God.

Seek first the Kingdom

Ancient Israel forgot that God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5) and consequently placed more value in the opinions of others than they did seeking the praise of the “only God” (as many translations put it). They of all people should have been the first to know that God wanted them primarily to seek his opinion. Not only his opinion but his promise, to look after them materially if they put him first. This is why Jesus said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [such as food, shelter, clothing] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, ESV).

Doxa, which is the Greek root word for glory or praise, can be translated ‘common belief’ or ‘opinion’. God wants us to value his opinion above that of people. God has an opinion on everything! The trouble is, we often don’t want his opinion. We fear it will lead us contrary to our wishes. True wisdom is to get God’s opinion on the matter. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10,ESV). If we seek, receive and follow his opinion it will keep us from a lot of trouble! Hence we are told: “Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding. Cherish her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honour you. She will give you a garland to grace your head and present you with a glorious crown” (Proverbs 4:7-9).

Living before an audience of one could cost us friends, invitations, getting good connections – and, yes, money, but we are called to sometimes forfeit things that are precious to us in order to please God. As the British missionary CT Studd put it: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”


Before he became famous, Billy Graham and his three friends (pictured, above) felt a need to make a covenant with each other. They were aware of so many in the ministry who had gone off the rails in various ways and they had the presence of mind to see that this could happen to them. In a room in a hotel in Modesto, California, they covenanted together to maintain certain principles. They called it the Modesto Manifesto. These principles came in four areas:

  1. Money. They were aware that some ministers spent a lot of time taking up offerings. They vowed never to emphasise money. They would also let someone else handle the money. As a young preacher I was impacted by a section in The Didache (2nd Century Christian document) that described how partly to know a true prophet from a false one: “If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.”
  2. Sexual purity. A number of religious leaders, especially those who travel, had fallen into sexual sin. Graham and his friends vowed never to be alone with a woman. Graham never stayed in a hotel alone because he felt one could not be too careful. The book of Proverbs is filled with specific warnings about adultery. In a word: wisdom and adultery don’t mix.
  3. Exaggeration. They vowed never to exaggerate the size of audiences or the number of people who came forward to confess Christ publicly.
  4. Criticism. They vowed never to criticise those who criticised them.

“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them”, says Proverbs 11:3. People with a big hole in their integrity eventually will be found out. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23, ESV), whether in this life or at the judgement seat of Christ.

It is often said: “Every person has their price.” You hear of some of those in MI6 or the KGB who crossover to the other side. Why? They can be bought off. Can you be bought off? CS Lewis (1898-1963) is credited with the statement: “Integrity is doing the right thing even if no one is watching.” Integrity is not for sale.

Judgement Day

The late Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) was a Harvard psychiatrist who became a journalist. He won the Pulitzer Prize when working for The Washington Post. Strange as it may seem, he gave up psychiatry because of political convictions he held. He said: “You betray your whole life if you don’t say what you think.” He lost friends and disappointed many people because he refused to take a party line or be governed by popular opinion. It was as if he was motivated by Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene III).

How much more, then, should you and I show disdain towards popularity and be motivated to please him who sent his Son to die on a cross for our sins?

The day will come when you and I will personally see our audience of one. It will be the scariest day of our lives. And yet it is what kept Job going: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26, ESV). Paul describes that day of days: “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV).

Jackie Pullinger became a legend because of her amazing work with drug addicts in Hong Kong. I was intrigued by her statement in this magazine, last year: “This is a very short life. And eternal life is forever. We’re going to feel stupid for eternity if we wasted this one.” I know what she means by that. Granted, God will wipe away all tears from our eyes and we will have no pain in heaven (Revelation 21:4). But if we have lived our lives addicted to approval, we will feel dreadful when we stand before Jesus Christ at his judgement seat.

The best remedy I can think of– difficult though this can be – is to live as if God alone is watching and listening. That is what Jesus did.

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