Sermon illustrations


Charles Darwin’s Loss of Happiness

Charles Darwin, known for his theory of natural selection, noticed that his later life included a “loss of happiness.” While he never acknowledged that it might have been related to his changing worldview, which eventually rejected the idea of a higher power in favor of philosophical naturalism, it is hard not to wonder about the connection.

Darwin observed, “Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. . . .

I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Introduction by Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Rockville, MD: Serenity, 2008), 80–81.

Choosing Gratitude Makes You Happier and Healthier

While it might seem obvious in retrospect, one of the latest discoveries in the psychology of happiness has to do with gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between gratitude and happiness. One study, performed by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami asked participants to jot down a few sentences each week.

One group was asked to write down things for which they were grateful. The second group was asked to do just the opposite. They wrote down the regular annoyances and frustrations that occur in daily life. The third group were asked to simply write things down that occurred throughout their week, with no specific focus on either positive or negative experiences.

After 10 weeks, those who wrote who wrote about things for which they were grateful were markedly more optimistic and exhibited higher levels of enjoyment of their lives than before the study. An unexpected byproduct of the study found that those participants who practiced writing down things for which they were grateful also exercised more and visiting the doctor less

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Christopher Parkening’s Search For Happiness and Purpose

Considered perhaps the greatest guitarist alive, Christopher Parkening appeared to have it all. Signed to an international recording deal as a teenager, Parkening traveled across the world playing beautiful music. But by the age of 30, having achieved all the musical success he could ever imagine, Parkening felt empty. He was tired of touring and wanted to take a break from the rigors associated. Parkening ultimately decided to move to Montana and took up fly-fishing as a hobby.

Soon Parkening was not only one of the greatest guitarists in the world, but also a world-class fly fisherman, with all the money and time he could ever want. And yet, despite all his success, his life was empty.

He wrote: “If you arrive at a point in your life where you have everything that you’ve ever wanted and thought would make you happy and it still doesn’t, then you start questioning things. It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

At this point, Parkening began to wonder if anything could fulfill the deep longings of his heart. Around this time, while visiting friends, Parkening attended church. During the service, Parkening was struck by 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

He explains, “I realized there were only two things I knew how to do: fly fish for trout and play the guitar. Well, I am playing the guitar today absolutely by the grace of God. . . . I have a joy, a peace, and a deep-down fulfillment in my life I never had before. My life has purpose. . . . I’ve learned first-hand the true secret of genuine happiness.” Now Parkening teaches classical guitar to students at Pepperdine University, albeit with a different perspective and lease on life.

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Janet Bartholomew, Does God Care? (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2000), 153–54.

The Connection Between Trust and Happiness

Ruut Veenhoven, the Dutch sociologist known as the “godfather of happiness research,” maintains the World Database of Happiness. And when he looked at all the countries of the world in terms of happiness, Moldova came up dead last. What garnered this little-known former Soviet republic such a dubious distinction? The Moldovans simply don’t trust one another.

It has reached epic proportions, so much so that it stifles cooperation in almost every area of Moldovan life. Writer Eric Weiner notes that so many students bribe teachers for passing grades that Moldovans won’t go to doctors who are younger than age thirty-five, assuming they purchased their medical degrees. Weiner sums up the Moldovan attitude with a single sentence: “Not my problem.” Getting people to act collectively for the benefit of the group seems impossible. Nobody wants to do anything that benefits others.

Lack of trust has turned Moldova into a black hole of selfishness. The usual response to Mom saying “What if everyone did that?” is to say, quite simply, “Well, everyone doesn’t.” But that’s not really true, is it? We all know a company or a department that slid downhill due to selfishness. Research agrees: bad behavior is infectious. It spreads. Soon you won’t be the only one scheming.

Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, HarperOne.

Does God Want Us to Be Happy? C.S. Lewis Ponders…

I’m not sure God wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to love, and be loved. But we are like children, thinking our toys will make us happy and the whole world is our nursery. Something must drive us out of that nursery and into the lives of others, and that something is suffering.

 C. S. Lewis

Doing What You are Good At

Research by Gallup shows that the more hours per day you spend doing what you’re good at, the less stressed you feel and the more you laugh, smile, and feel you’re being treated with respect.

Eric Barker. Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

Finding Happiness

Have you ever heard the story of the mother who wanted to teach her daughter a moral lesson? She gave the little girl a quarter and a dollar for church “Put whichever one you want in the collection plate and keep the other for yourself,” she told the girl.

When they were coming out of church, the mother asked her daughter which amount she had given. “Well,” said the little girl, “I was going to give the dollar, but just before the collection the man in the pulpit said that we should all be cheerful givers. I knew I’d be a lot more cheerful if I gave the quarter, so I did.”


George McDonald’s Great Fear

George MacDonald, The Scottish author who had a profound effect on C.S. Lewis among others, once wrote a letter to his father about what he believed would be a great obstacle to his faith; that once he became a Christian he would no longer be able to appreciate beauty and the natural world.

Ultimately, his experience was quite the opposite:

One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts & my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion.

God is the God of the Beautiful, Religion the Love of the Beautiful, & Heaven the House of the Beautiful—nature is tenfold brighter in the sun of righteousness, and my love of nature is more intense since I became a Christian. . . . God has not given me such thoughts, & forbidden me to enjoy them. Will he not in them enable me to raise the voice of praise?

Taken from George Macdonald, An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p.18.

Happiness: Acquire, Retire, and Aspire

The oft-used front door to happiness is the one described by the advertising companies: acquire, retire, and aspire to drive faster, dress trendier, and drink more. Happiness depends on what you hang in your closet, park in your garage, mount on your trophy wall, deposit in your bank account, experience in your bedroom, wear on your wedding finger, or serve at your dining table. Happiness happens when you lose the weight, get the date, find the mate, or discover your fate. It’s wide, this front door to happiness.

Yet for all its promise it fails to deliver. In a classic study psychologists determined that recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery were no happier than recent accident victims who were consequently disabled. The two groups were asked to “rate the amount of pleasure they got from everyday activities: small but enjoyable things like chatting with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast, laughing at a joke, or receiving a compliment.

When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners.” Even the thrill of winning the lottery wears off. More money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life—getting enough to eat, having a place to live, affording medical care. But once people reach the middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increase in happiness. Americans who earn more than $10 million annually report a happiness level only slightly higher than the blue-collar workers they employ. As one Harvard professor said, “We think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, and actually it brings a little happiness for a short time.”

Max Lucado, How Happiness Happens, Thomas Nelson, 2019, pp. 6-7.

The Happiness Effect

After surveying an incredibly diverse cross section of college students across America, Donna Freitas found “the most pressing social media issues students face: the importance of appearing happy”—and not just happy, students told her, but “blissful, enraptured, even inspiring.” Almost 75 percent of students surveyed agreed that “I try always to appear positive/happy with anything attached to my real name.”

Freitas calls this vexing dilemma “the happiness effect.” Breanna has lost her father, tours a death camp, and yet, due to social expectations, has almost no option other than to smile (and include a happy face emoji).

In grief, teens put on a brave face. In disappointment, adolescents act inspired. In crisis, the next generation appears blissful. Freitas summarizes the dangers of such dissonance: “In our attempts to appear happy, to distract ourselves from our deeper, sometimes darker thoughts, we experience the opposite effect. In trying to always appear happy, we rob ourselves of joy.”

Craig Detweiler, Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, p.19.

Happiness Levels in Children and Adults

There’s a cartoon that makes a profound statement about happiness. The first panel shows happy schoolchildren entering a street-level subway station—laughing, playing, tossing their hats in the air. The next panel shows middle-aged adults emerging from the station looking like zombies—dull, joyless, unenthusiastic. A study indicates that children laugh an average of four hundred times daily, adults only fifteen. So what happens between childhood and maturity that damages our capacity for happiness?

I have some fond memories of my childhood and the idealistic dreams of my early life. But by the time I was a teenager, I was disillusioned and empty—though most who knew me wouldn’t have guessed. I grew up knowing almost nothing of Jesus, God, the gospel, the Bible, and the church.

My father owned taverns and operated Alcorn Amusements, which supplied and serviced game machines for taverns. Before computers and video games, I grew up in a home filled with foosball and pool tables, pinball and bowling machines. I even had two jukeboxes in my bedroom. (My house was a popular place for my friends to hang out!) These amusement machines were designed to make people happy . . . yet nobody in my family was happy.

Randy Alcorn, Happiness, Tyndale House, 2015.

How Do Screens Impact Happiness? A Scientific Study

In an article for The Atlantic, social scientist Jean Twenge shares the results of a study on the activities of American teenagers and their impact on happiness. Some of these activities included screens and some did not. Her conclusion was stark and unsettling, “there’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”

Source Material from Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017.

Rising GNP and Lowering GNH

There has been a paradigm shift going on in neighborhoods in the United States since the end of WWII. For decades before the 1940s, neighborhoods were places where people were known and were active. Whether a rural community, a suburban street, an urban block, or an apartment complex, neighbors commonly saw themselves as having a shared life in their neighborhood that naturally involved celebrating together, helping each other, and looking after the neighborhood.

But that’s been changing. The evidence suggests that “America’s dramatic economic growth during the post-WWII era has been accompanied by substantial increases in individualism and materialism.” We may be experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity, but our social fabric is falling apart.

While our GNP (Gross National Product) has been doing quite well, our GNH (Gross National Happiness) has not. The GNH is an index of seventy-two indicators that seek to measure well-being and flourishing, and our country’s GNH has been dropping steadily.

Research shows we have lower self-reported happiness, poorer interpersonal relationships, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and greater antisocial behavior. As we focus more on material things and less on relationship, chronic loneliness has become more common in our neighborhoods. And because we are more isolated from our neighbors, we have turned to purchasing the care we once received from neighbors. The net result: neighborhoods are no longer places where we are known and active.

Taken from The Hopeful Neighborhood: What Happens When Christians Pursue the Common Good by Don Everts Copyright (c) 2020 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


The Roots of Happiness

The word happiness has a fascinating etymology. Its root, hap-, appears in such words as perhaps and haply, but principally in happen. In some peculiar way, therefore, happiness has been seen as having something to do with the way things happen—or to give the matter its more usual name, with luck.

The English language seems to me to be on to something here. Specifically, it is on to the home truth that we cannot, in any ordinary sense, arrange for happiness; rather, happiness must somehow befall us. This truth is evidenced in many ways, but perhaps most accessible is the old wisecrack, “The Constitution may guarantee your right to the pursuit of happiness but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll catch up with it.”

Robert Farrar Capon, Health Money and Love, Eerdmans, 1990.

The Science of Happiness

What makes people happy? People have sought the answer to this question for thousands of years, but in the past two decades there has been an explosion of scientific research on this topic. In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman launched the field of positive psychology, also called the science of happiness, a rapidly expanding body of empirical research that seeks to uncover what contributes to a meaningful and happy life.

The science of happiness is rapidly gaining a foothold in American higher education. Yale University offered its first undergraduate course in the field in 2018, attracting nearly twelve hundred students, thereby making it the most popular course in the school’s 316-year history.28 Moreover, the leading scholars in the field are faculty at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities: Duke, Harvard, New York University, Princeton, Stanford, University of California Berkeley, University of Illinois, University of North Carolina, and University of Pennsylvania. A voluminous amount of research has emerged, which is summarized in The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.

The field lends considerable support to biblical understandings of human flourishing. For example, in his bestselling book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at New York University, examines the teachings from a variety of religious and philosophical perspectives in light of recent scientific evidence and concludes: “It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

Although Haidt is not a Christian, his conclusions are remarkably similar to the biblical teaching that human flourishing entails right relationships with God (“something larger than yourself”), self, others, and the rest of creation (“work”). And Haidt is not alone: scientific research provides overwhelming support that human beings are mind-affections-will-body-relational creatures, and that human flourishing consists of being those types of creatures—of being what we were created to be.

Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, Moody Publishers, 2019.

Searching for Happiness in all the Wrong Places

In 1997, thirty-nine members of the cult Heaven’s Gate, led by Marshall Applewhite, participated in a mass suicide. They’d been taught that once they exited their earthly bodies, they would land on a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet. At the time of their death, each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters. Why? To pay an interplanetary toll.

Most of us shake our heads in amazement at this kind of gullibility. Yet we fail to see the futility of our own attempts to find happiness. Many people try the age-old practices of turning to money, sex, power, beauty, sports, nature, music, art, education, work, or celebrity for happiness. In the end, each of these proves as big a lie as a spaceship on a comet’s tail. The problem for the Heaven’s Gate followers wasn’t that they trusted too much; it was that they trusted the wrong person. Only Jesus was worthy of their trust. Only he could have granted them, in this life and for eternity, the deep and lasting happiness they sought.

Randy Alcorn, Happiness, Tyndale House, 2015.

What Suffering Does

People shoot for happiness, but they often feel empty, alone, and without meaning…People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering…Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering send you on a different course…the right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness…placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it it into something sacred. In the process, we may not come out healed; we come out different.

David Brooks, What Suffering Does, New York Times, April 7, 2014

What We Get Wrong About Happiness

If you observe the people around you, you’ll find most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. This pattern of belief explains what most often motivates us in life. We think: If I just get that raise, or hit that next sales target, I’ll be happy. If I can just get that next good grade, I’ll be happy. If I lose that five pounds, I’ll be happy. And so on. Success first, happiness second.

The only problem is that this formula is broken. If success causes happiness, then every employee who gets a promotion, every student who receives an acceptance letter, everyone who has ever accomplished a goal of any kind should be happy. But with each victory, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the horizon. Even more important, the formula is broken because it is backward.

More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.

Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage Crown, 2010, pp. 3-4.

See also Illustrations on Desire, Joy, Pleasure

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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