Sermon illustrations


A Change of Nuisance

While serving as British Prime Minister, Lloyd George had to deal with World War I, an economic depression, and the Sinn Fein movement attempting to effect Irish liberation, as well as many other smaller problems. Amidst all the chaos and troubles, George was asked how he kept up good spirits. He responded by saying, “Well, I find that a change of nuisance is as good as a vacation.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material provided by Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.

Doing the Work Before the Work

In his highly insighful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:

Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.

His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.

I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.

Taken from Inside Job by Stephen W. Smith (c) 2009 by Stephen W. Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Gipp’s Ghost Helps Notre Dame to Classic Win

George Gipp was the first All-American football player to play for Notre Dame. He played multiple positions including halfback, quarterback, and punter. His career was tragically cut short in 1920 when a throat infection turned to a deadly case of pneumonia. While on his deathbed, he said to his coach, the renowned Knute Rockne, “Someday, when things look real tough for Notre Dame, ask the boys to go out there and win one for the Gipper.”

Almost ten years later, in 1928, the Fighting Irish were recovering from a horrible previous season in which they lost 18-0 to Army. Before the game Rockne called the team into a huddle and repeated Gipp’s deathbed request.  

“I’ve never used Gipp’s request until now,” he said. “This is that game. It’s up to you.” The Fighting Irish went out and played some of the best football of their lives. At the end of the game, the score was Army 6, Notre Dame 12.

The next day the New York Daily News headline read: “Gipp’s Ghost Beats Army.” After that, legend of George Ghipp was forever immortalized  as “the Gipp Game” and “Win one for the Gipper” had become a household name (phrase).

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Hardships Force our Roots to Go Deep So When Struggles Come, We Are Prepared

A. Parnell Bailey visited an orange grove where an irrigation pump had broken down. The season was unusually dry and some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water. The man giving the tour then took Bailey to his own orchard where irrigation was used sparingly.

“These trees could go without rain for another 2 weeks,” he said. “You see, when they were young, I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. Now mine are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are being scorched by the sun, these are finding moisture at a greater depth.”

Our Daily Bread.

Keeping a Good [Hu]man Down

Martin Luther King, Jr. was right: We can overcome, despite adversity, the trend toward mediocrity, and the temptation to rationalize our weaknesses. You simply cannot keep a good person down.

Cripple him, and you have a Sir Walter Scott. Lock him in a prison cell, and you have a John Bunyan.

Bury him in the snows of Valley Forge, and you have a George Washington.

Raise him in abject poverty, and you have an Abraham Lincoln.

Strike him down with infantile paralysis, and he becomes a Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Burn him so severely that the doctors say he’ll never walk again, and you have a Glenn Cunningham—who set the world’s one-mile record in 1934.

Deafen him and you have a Ludwig van Beethoven.

Have him or her bom black in a society filled with racial Have him or her born black in a society filled with racial discrimination, and you have a Booker T. Washington, a Marian Anderson, a George Washington Carver, or a Martin Luther King, Jr.

Call him a slow learner, “retarded,” and write him off as uneducable, and you have an Albert Einstein.

Quoted in Ted W. Engstrom, The Pursuit of Excellence (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1982)

A Sign that Something is Wrong

Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress are all ways of describing natural human responses to adversity and the experiences of life. And we all face adversity in many different ways: challenging events and circumstances are as much a part of modern existence as they were a part of human history.

Calling these mental and emotional responses diseases misses the point entirely. Anxiety, depression, burnout, frustration, angst, anger, grief, and so on are emotional and physical warning signals telling us we need to face and deal with something that’s happened or is happening in our life. This pain, which is very real, is a sign that there’s something wrong: you are in a state of disequilibrium.

It’s not a sign of a defective brain. Your experience doesn’t need to be validated by a medical label. Mental health struggles are not your identity. They’re normal and need to be addressed, not suppressed, or things will get worse.

Dr. Caroline Leaf, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking, Baker Publishing Group, 2021.

The Newspaper Ad

Early in the 20th century a London newspaper carried an advertisement that read: “Men wanted for hazardous darkness, and constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” The ad, signed by famous Arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, brought Inquiries from thousands of men. Commenting on this in his book Be Faithful, Warren W. Wiersbe said, “If Jesus Christ had advertised for workers, the announcement might have read something like this:

Men and women wanted for difficult task of helping to build My church. You will often be misunderstood, even by those working with you. You will face constant attack from an invisible enemy. You may not see the results of your labor, and your full reward will not come till after all your work is completed. It may cost you your home, your ambitions, even your life.

Our Daily Bread

One Mark of Resilience

Many of life’s annoyances just have to be ignored. That doesn’t mean that we suppress, ignore, or deny every pain. Serious pain has to be confronted. But one mark of resilience is learning to tell which pain deserves our attention. Paying attention to every pain, all the time, doesn’t lead to resilience. It usually just leads to whining.

Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 168. 

Only The Dead Go with the Flow

By illustration, I have been told that when a cow is born, she innately senses that her departure from her mother’s warm womb to a cold, scary, unknown world outside is upon her. In response, she will resist birth and try to stay in the womb. On the other hand, the absence of such resistance is often a sign of a stillborn calf. Relating to our world of death, “going along” is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream.

Only the dead go with the flow.

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Location 156.

Rolling the Stone Away

The renowned scholar and musician Albert Schweitzer’s life was turned upside down one summer morning in 1896 while reading his Bible. He came upon Matthew 16:25: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (KJV).

At that moment Schweitzer knew that he was about to give up his extremely successful career as a musical scholar and organist and become a doctor, to ultimately work in the jungles of Africa. This meant not merely leaving a successful career, but going back to school to study medicine, an area of study that by no means came naturally to him. Struggles mounted, including his ability to affiliate with a medical missions organization out of France, who disagreed with Schweitzer’s Lutheran theology.

His ultimate goal, as one source has noted, was “to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching.” Schweitzer would reflect on his calling, saying “Anybody who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll any stones out of his way, and must calmly accept his lot even if they roll a few more onto it. Only force that in the face of obstacles becomes stronger can win.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

What Would you Erase?

Recently I read about an experiment done by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He came up with a fascinating hypothetical exercise, which went something like this:

Participants were handed a summary of a person’s life and asked to read it over. Participants were then asked to imagine that the person was their daughter. This is her unavoidable life story. She hasn’t been born yet, but she will be soon, and this is where her life is headed. Participants then had five minutes to edit her story. Eraser in hand, they could eliminate whatever they wanted out of her life. The question for participants was: What do you erase first?

Most of us would instinctively and frantically begin to erase the learning disability and the car accident and the financial challenges. We love our children and would want them to live a life without those hardships, pains, and setbacks. We would all prefer our children’s lives be free from pain and anguish.

But ask yourself: Is that really what’s best?

Do we really think a privileged life of smooth sailing is going to make our kids happy? What if you erase a difficult circumstance that will wake them up to prayer? What if you erase a hardship that’s going to show them how to be joyful in spite of any circumstance? What if you erase some pain and suffering that ends up being the catalyst God uses in their life to cause them to cry out to Him? What if you erase a difficult circumstance that wakes them up to God’s purpose for their lives?

It may sound harsh to say, but the number one contributor to spiritual growth is not sermons, books, or small groups; the number one contributor to spiritual growth is difficult circumstances. I can tell you this because of personal experience, reading spiritual-growth surveys, and my own anecdotal evidence after talking to thousand of people over the years. AHA comes out of the suffering, setbacks, and challenges of life. Many people could point to those moments as their greatest moments of spiritual awakening.

Kyle Idleman

Who Didn’t Make it Out?

Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, interviewed Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking officer in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Regarding the prisoner of war camp, Collins asked Stockdale,

“Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” answered Stockdale. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” responded Collins.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Jim Collins, Good to Great (Harper Collins, 2001), p. 85.


See also Challenges, Conflict, Desperation, Discouragement, Endurance, Perseverance, Problems, Quitting, Resilience

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Adversity. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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