When I was in my early 20s, one of my friends had a sudden experience of spiritual growth and enthusiasm. Suddenly, he had a new fervor for the Lord and a fresh desire to serve him. He began using new words and imaginative phrases to describe his relationship with God and his longing to live for his glory. One of these was “audience of One.” “I don’t care what other people think of me,” he said. “I’m just going to live before an audience of One.”
I quickly learned what he meant. He was determined not to be concerned with what people thought of him but to instead seek out and live the will of God, no matter the cost. In these days of enthusiasm, only God’s opinion mattered to him. I lost touch with my friend soon after his big commitment, so I never learned how well he succeeded. I knew his intentions were sincere, but as I considered his catchphrase, I came to wonder whether he had actually mastered the Bible’s emphasis on life in this world.
Are we to live before an audience of One? Yes and no. Nothing is more important than knowing God’s will, living it out, and enjoying his approval. The Bible has much to say about living lives that are pleasing to God. Yet the Bible also has much to say about living lives that receive the approval of man. Often, these two go hand-in-hand, and we see this connection in the life of Jesus. Luke tells us that in his teens and 20s, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
In our series “Advance!” we have already seen how the young Jesus advanced in submission, in wisdom, and in stature. As he advanced in those noble character traits and the actions they motivated, he enjoyed the favor of both God and man. We cannot end this series until we have taken a close look at this advance in favor and applied it to the life of all young Christians.
Advance in Favor
As a society, we give a lot of attention to approval. We love to analyze and quantify it, especially in the political realm. Endless polls and surveys ask us to rank and rate our politicians. We then display and discuss these approval ratings through numbers, graphs, and charts. For politicians to rule by the assent of the people, they must enjoy the approval of the people, so they rely on such polls to evaluate their accomplishments and to plot their future plans. Political careers are created and broken on the backs of the pollsters. Approval can be a reasonable desire or an insatiable idol.
As Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, he enjoyed approval the approval of both God and man. In the opening days of his ministry, God the Father cracked open the skies to assure him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Meanwhile, Jesus’ first sermons at the synagogues met the approval of the townsfolk so that, “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). Though some scoffed at him, all of them recognized that he was “teaching them as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:29). The Son of God and man was in the favor of God and man.
It should not surprise us that he was regarded so favorably. Centuries earlier, King Solomon had called young people to pursue wisdom and attempted to motivate them with the result: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments … So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:1, 4). Jesus walked on that path of wisdom and gained the promised result—the favor of God and of people. Had he been a foolish, immature rebel, he would have deserved only pity and condemnation. But he committed his teens and 20s to obedience, wisdom and godly living, and gained the fitting reward.
God offers that same reward to you. Just as Jesus advanced in the favor of God and man, so can you. So should you. But the order must be right. Where men’s approval is flawed and fading, God’s is perfect and unchanging. Therefore, we must live first for him. “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). There may be times you can have the approval of only one, because gaining the favor of God will cost the favor of man. For this reason we will look first at how and why you must pursue the favor of God above all else.
Pursue the Favor of God
You have the favor of God. God not only loves you, but the gospel also assures you that he approves of you. You have been saved by the grace of God, which means you have the full acceptance of God. There is nothing you can accomplish to make God approve of you more and no sin you can commit to make God approve of you less. This complete and unchanging approval is yours by virtue of what Christ accomplished on your behalf.
All of this is true in an ultimate sense. Yet there is also a sense in which it is possible for God to be more or less pleased with you. Perhaps we can best explain this by the familiar analogy of a child and his parents. A child has the favor of his parents. There is nothing he can do to change the fundamental nature of their love for him. Yet day by day, he can behave in ways that earn their approval or their disapproval. While his naughtiness or rebellion will not cause his parents to stop loving him, it may cause them to be disappointed in him or even to punish him. Meanwhile, his acts of love and his heartfelt obedience will not cause his parents to love him any more, but it may cause them to approve of him to a greater degree and to feel greater pride in him. Their hearts will be glad when they see him living well and sorrowful when they see him living foolishly.
Because we relate to God as his children, we have the ability to please or displease him. While his love for us remains unchangeable, still we can behave in ways that are favorable or unfavorable. Favorable living seems to have been one of the concerns of the church in Thessalonica, which is why Paul explained to them how they could live lives that are pleasing to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12). They would meet God’s approval as they practiced sexual purity, Christian community, and hard work. They would meet God’s disapproval if they fell into sexual sin, if they disrupted Christian community, or if they surrendered to lazy living. Part of Paul’s ministry to every church was to instruct Christians in how they “ought to walk and to please God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1).
Jesus told his disciples they would prove their love through their obedience. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). God commands that we put sin to death and come alive to righteousness, that over the course of our lives we become increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). As our character comes to resemble Jesus’ character, our actions begin to imitate Jesus’ actions so that we begin to live not first for our own good but for the good of others. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This is the life that is pleasing to God, a life lived in conformity to the commands of God and to the glory of God. It is a life lived for the good of others.
Young Christian, is this the life you are growing into? Jesus Christ satisfied the wrath of God against your sin and drew you into a loving relationship with the Father. God loves you. He approves of you. And now he calls you to live a life that is pleasing to him, to live in such a way that you submit to him, that you bring glory to him. Join Paul in praying “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9-10).
Pursue the Favor of Man
While the first priority of every Christian must be securing the favor of God, we also do well to pursue the favor of man. The two are often connected, as Solomon declared, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7). In general, the kind of life that is pleasing to God is also pleasing to man. Paul aimed at this two-tier approval as well, telling the church in Corinth, “we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2 Corinthians 8:21).
Thus, it is no sin to want others to think well of us and to gain their approval. Of course, it is sin when others’ approval becomes our ultimate desire, or when it leads us away from obedience to God. But when we seek God’s approval first and then others’, such a desire can actually be virtuous. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold,” says Solomon (Proverbs 22:1). Paul goes so far as to explain that having a good reputation before unbelievers is a necessary qualification for a pastor: “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). We are to deliberately “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). Though unbelievers may not approve of your faith, they at least should not be able to doubt your sincerity or mock your hypocrisy.
While there is benefit in having the favor of all men, there is special benefit in having the favor of other Christians, and especially those of spiritual maturity. It is only believers who “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), who are equipped to evaluate us in light of God’s word and to commend or reprove us according to its unfailing standard. For this reason, we need to participate in Christian community, where other Christians accept the responsibility to watch over us in Christian love, to teach us, encourage us, and even lovingly rebuke us. Their favor is our commendation.
Do you have friends, parents, pastors, or mentors who will encourage you and tell you how they see God’s grace in your life? Will they also frankly call out any concerns they see? Find trusted people, invite them to speak into your life, listen patiently and without offense, prayerfully consider what they’ve said, then accept their assessment. Count their rebuke as God’s grace in your life and count their favor as God’s own approval.
As Jesus passed from childhood to adulthood, he advanced in submission, in wisdom, and in stature. As he advanced in all these ways in his teens and 20s, he gained the due reward: divine favor and human favor. Both God and man observed his maturation and approved of his character and actions, for they were undeniable evidences of God’s presence and God’s blessing. He was living a perfect life, modeling the life God means for all of us to live.
Today, we hear of the importance of following our hearts, of being true to ourselves, of living according to our own standards. The Bible calls us to the exact opposite, to follow God’s heart, to be true to him, and to live according to his standards. Self-approval is meaningless and deadly if it comes at the expense of God’s approval. As you pass through your teens and 20s, you will have to choose again and again to pursue the favor of God and trust that as you pursue his favor, you will also gain the favor of people. As you advance in submission, wisdom, and stature, you can look forward to enjoying the favor of God and man.