You don’t know how much good you’re doing

‘You don’t know me,’ she began, ‘but my name’s Sandra and you changed my life!’

That’s not how most conversations began after I’d preached. I’d spoken to nearly 3000 at Spring Harvest, a very large Christian gathering, and afterwards several had taken their turn to thank me. I’d noticed a young lady standing off to one side, waiting until I was clear of the queue.

Sandra had stunned me with her opening sentence. ‘I need to hear how I could possibly have changed your life!’ I told her.

I listened to her story. In her late teens she’d sunk into a deep depression. Neither counselling nor medication had lifted her from a very dark place, and she’d become suicidal. Fearing for her life, doctors had committed her to a psychiatric hospital. Family and friends had visited, and her care was excellent, but nothing improved her mental health over the next two years.

Then a friend brought her a tape to listen to. ‘It was a tape of you preaching at a large gathering,’ she told me.

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘What was I talking about?’

‘You spoke about us being engraved on the palms of God’s hands, and you said that to God we are unforgettable.’

I remembered that address. I’d been asked to preach at the communion service of a national assembly, and had based my talk on verses from Isaiah chapter 49 which include these words from God: ‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ (v. 16). I’d described running my hand over an engraved bowl, feeling how the words were cut right into the glass. Engraving was deep and permanent – it was unforgettable. And the image of us being engraved on God’s hands carried the message: we are unforgettable to him.

Sandra continued: ‘I believed my life was meaningless and insignificant. I didn’t matter – I was completely forgettable. I listened to what you said, played the tape again, and then again and again. And I began to believe what you said. God had not forgotten me.’

That was the turning point in her life. She took positive steps to improve her health and, with support from family, she was released from hospital. She found work, and she found faith. And that faith had brought her to Spring Harvest where I happened to be one of the main speakers.

Until then I hadn’t known there was anything special about that ‘engraved on the palms of God’s hands’ message. It had been appreciated by those present, but that was all. Except, it wasn’t all. Someone locked in a psychiatric ward got to hear it, and her life began to change.

It happened that I met Sandra and heard her story, but I might never have done.

I suspect that often we never get to know how much good our words and actions have done. It’s hard to know exactly how often that happens, because we can’t count what we don’t know!

I’ll describe some instances of significant things I might easily never have known about. I apologise that they’re all my stories, but, of course, how could others tell me stories of things they probably know nothing about?

Here are six instances when someone didn’t realise the significance of what they said or did.

One  As a young journalist I shared a room with two others at a residential conference. As we settled down to sleep, there was a short conversation about whether we believed in God. I said I did, to which John, one of my companions, responded: ‘I respect you believing in God, but what I can’t respect is that you don’t then do anything about it.’ (Described more fully in my earlier blog ‘Serious business’ 20.2.21) Those words hit me hard. He was right. It was nonsense that I believed God was real but didn’t do anything about it. John’s statement pushed me into a much deeper search for faith. John never knew his words had that effect.

Two  A few weeks after John’s tough words, I sat with other young adults asking questions about Christianity. All sorts of issues got raised. Should Christians be pacifists? Must a Christian marry only another Christian? Aren’t churches out of touch with society? Then Irene asked: ‘What do Christians mean when they say Christ died for them?’ It was Irene’s question, but also mine, except until that moment I hadn’t known it. What Christians meant when they said Christ died for them was exactly what I needed to understand. Just over 24 hours later, late into the night, I found the answer and gave my life to Christ. From that moment everything about my future changed. Later, Irene and I often talked about faith but she never knew how significant her question had been for me.

Three  In the run-up to Christmas, BMS World Mission sent hundreds of cards to supporters. I signed all of them personally because I wanted people to know how much we valued them. I never expected I’d get a reply. But I did. Every year a few would write: ‘I live alone, hardly see anyone, and yours is the only Christmas card I’ve received. I’m so grateful you thought of me.’ I’d never imagined our Christmas card would mean so much and nearly never knew it did.

Four  Probably all preachers know that some of their sermons die in mid air. The words never reach the congregation. The people show no signs of response. Twice – in two different churches – it was on the tip of my tongue to say: ‘I’m stopping now – this sermon is not helping – let’s just move to the closing hymn’. But I slogged on. The outcome was not what I expected. On both occasions, far more than usual thanked me for the sermon, and made it clear their words weren’t just politeness; they really were grateful. I could not escape the conclusion that message had done good. It had felt dreadful but only for the preacher, not for the congregation.

Five  Every sermon can’t be a ‘fireworks’ show, and my sermon didn’t feel bad, just ordinary. It was just a straightforward message about the Holy Spirit. I reached the end. Stopped. Normally people stir, but this time they were oddly quiet. Then Don stood. He’d been a Christian for only a year and was a quiet kind of man. He looked around at the others who were present, and said, ‘Alistair, on behalf of all of us, thank you for that message. It was so clear, so encouraging and so helpful’. People around him nodded their agreement. I wanted to say ‘Really?’ Instead I had the grace and good sense to thank him for his kind words. And when the service was over I went away once again amazed at how ignorant I’d been about the effect of my sermon.

These are all positive stories, but I must include one which is unfortunately negative.

Six  It was another major conference address, this one unhelpful for one person. (Included also in blog ‘Why quit while you’re ahead? 10.7.21) During my talk I described how one of my daughters nearly drowned when caught in a fast current. If someone hadn’t spotted her, she’d have been lost. Afterwards a lady came to me. She was angry and distraught. Why? Because her son had been murdered by drowning, and what I had described about my daughter had stirred her grief enormously. Part of me thought ‘I couldn’t have known that’ but I apologised profusely for upsetting her and promised to think more carefully about stories I included in my talks. She accepted my words, but was still distressed when she left.

Truly, we don’t know the effect of our words, or, if we do, only later.

I’ve reached these conclusions.

We are not the best judges of ourselves.    We may think we’re acting rightly, or speaking profoundly, but the real judge is the person on the receiving end. And their reaction may be very different to what we expect. Our words may be ordinary but hugely significant in the life of a person facing special circumstances. Or the finest oratory, or most generous of actions, may mean nothing to them because of problems they’re facing. Our skills and abilities are not what determine the responses of those around us. Often their responses are far better than our efforts deserve. We just don’t know what effect our words or actions will have.

We’re not in control of what’s significant for someone.    As I’ve greeted those leaving church after the service, I’ve been told, ‘Thank you, Alistair. That was such a special service for me.’ So I’ve asked what part of the sermon meant so much to them. ‘No, not the sermon,’ they’ve replied. ‘It was the phrase you used near the beginning that it’s good for us all to be together. That’s such an important thing and I’m glad you reminded me.’ I nod positively, but inside I’m thinking ‘I slaved for hours preparing my sermon, but what meant so much was an unscripted, unrehearsed phrase. Frustrating!’ It is frustrating, but actually rather wonderful. Someone was helped and encouraged; that’s the only thing that matters.

If you want to know how much you’re appreciated, leave.    That’s been my not-too-serious advice to pastors and other leaders. Farewell gatherings are full of speeches expressing gratitude for the many wonderful things done by the departing colleague, and how much they meant as a friend and fellow-worker. Mostly those statements are true, but they’d never have known if they hadn’t been leaving.

We need reasonable caution about what we say.    I learned that from the lady I upset with one story in my address. It was an innocent mistake, but in the future I did my best to imagine how listeners might react to illustrations used in my talks. We can’t shy away from recounting real life experiences, but can take sensible steps to minimise any upset.

If someone doesn’t know what they should know, tell them.    At some funerals, an opportunity is given to share a good memory about the deceased person. I’ve listened as story after story was told of the good effect that person had on people’s lives, and wondered, ‘Did they ever know this?’ Probably they didn’t. When my dad was in his mid-70s I wrote him a letter thanking him for being a great father to me. From my youngest I’d known he loved me, supported me, believed in me, and taken delight in my achievements. I was privileged. So I wrote down what all that had meant for me, and thanked him from the bottom of my heart, then sealed the letter and posted it. Several days later I saw Dad. He wasn’t a man who talked about feelings, but he thanked me for the letter and then said it was the best letter he’d ever received in his whole life. He died just a few years later. I was glad I’d been able to tell him before then how much he’d meant in my life.

The overall message of this blog is simply its title: you don’t know how much good you’re doing. You really are doing good. Shyness or circumstances may have stopped people telling you. But, I promise, if you act kindly and speak wisely people are being helped. Sometimes you’ve simply encouraged them along life’s way. And sometimes what you’ve said or done was life-changing for them. Take that to heart. It’s true. It’s remarkable. It’s something worth knowing. You should feel good about it.


Perhaps the next thing you should do is tell someone what they’ve meant in your life. But another thing – if this blog has been helpful – is to share it with others. Use the ‘Share’ button, or point them to That might be life-changing for them!