Imaginary Audience and the Cloud of Witnesses

My friend Sarah was sharing with me about her experience in ministry. She has noticed that many of us move through our lives with what she called “invisible condemners.” As I understood what she was saying she was describing how many times we apologize for and even rationalize to these invisible voices who are constantly condemning our actions and being. It is the hyper critical voice that can crush our souls.


In adolescence humans develop something called the imaginary audience. This is the sense that there is a crowd of people who watching over our every action. Recall when you are a young person and you get water on your pants. The imaginary audience gives you the impression that everyone will notice you, that you wet your pants and that you are a fool. For the most part, the conception of the imaginary audience is heard as a critical voice (not unlike invisible condemners).

The imaginary audience may be recent terminology, but it is mentioned in the Bible. Hebrews 12:1-2 speaks in the following way:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

There is an imaginary audience that surrounds us. In Christianity we call it a great cloud of witnesses. However, notice that the great cloud of witnesses is actually a protest to the typical understanding of the imaginary audience. While the typical person has an imaginary audience who critiques and condemns them, the great cloud of witness that surrounds us encourages and supports us.

You may roll your eyes at the idea that there is a great cloud of witnesses, a collection of saints who have gone on before us who surrounds us. I mean who believes in angles and ghosts? Who believes in that which you cannot see or touch?

Tell that to your imaginary audience.

How to Avoid Drowning in the Living Waters

As religion develops the role of the priest was born as the person who was the mediator between the people and the divine. We see this from the High Priest in ancient Jewish tradition to the priest in the Catholic Church. Protestantism argued that the control the Church had over people was not what God intended and that one way the Church exerted control was to elevate the role of the priest and the saints as mediators between the people and God. Since Protestantism protested the economic monopoly of the Church of the time, the protest toward mediated access to God became a rallying cry. Protestants are proud to say that "we no longer need a mediator and we all have direct access to God." Which is true, but direct access makes me recall the story of Moses and the people on the mountain.

Moses asks to see God and God says that it would not be a good thing to do, since to do so would be death. God then gives permission to Moses to view the God's cloak and backside. While Moses is viewing the backside of God, the people at the base of the mountain are told to not even touch the mountain or they too will die. 

If Moses cannot handle direct access to God, can we?

The role of mediator is not to be the one who limits access to God. Rather the role of the mediator is the one who makes it so that we can take in a portion of God that will not kill us.

Imagine that God is like a mighty waterfall. This water is powerful and yet the source of all life. It is life giving and yet if you try to drink directly from the waterfall you will be hurt or even killed by drowning. However, if we were able to lay a series of pipes so that the water can flow through them in a less powerful way we can drink from the waterfall. These pipes are the mediators and Saints of the Church. They are the ones who channel the water of life to us so that we can drink. 

For all the boasting of my Protestant tradition about not needing a mediator we forget that we have a mediator in Jesus Christ. Jesus as the mediator to all creation which is why Jesus is able to offer living water in the Gospel of John. If it is Jesus or St. Mary or St. Patrick or St. Teresa then, Catholic or not, I celebrate the mediators that help us all drink from the waterfall of God because they help us from drowning.