Sermon illustrations


The Big and Little Choices

The pioneering work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has been popularized in recent years by the gamut of notable thinkers, including Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and, in this case, Michael Lewis. Their life’s work focused on the nature of human decision-making. In this short excerpt, Amos Tversky describes the difference between how the mind makes big and little decisions, and how those decisions shape an entire life:

It’s hard to know how people select a course in life…the big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are.

Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.

Quoted in Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, W.W. Norton & Co, 2016.

The Biggest Question

My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man…a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession.

Changing Direction

There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line.

They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.

Fred (Mr.) Rogers

Compartmentalizing our Lives

Ever since I became a Christian, I’ve met countless believers who treated their lives like the US government treats its various departments. In the US government, there is the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, etc.

In the same way, I know many Christians who compartmentalize their lives into the department of family, the department of career, the department of hobbies, the department of entertainment, the department of religion, etc. For them, Jesus is the head of the department of religion. And that department is separated from the other departments of their lives.

Frank Viola, God’s Favorite Place on Earth, David C. Cook.

Defining What it Means to be Human

On August 20 and September 5, 1977, two spacecraft named Voyager were launched. Eventually leaving the solar system and heading into deep space, they represented a revolutionary and promising breakthrough in scientific discovery about our universe.

…Sagan was given the task of overseeing a committee that determined the content of this record. Can you imagine that responsibility? Their job was to comb through all recorded human history and identify what best defines our collective life. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live—not just surviving but also thriving? How would we communicate to the universe that this is what life on earth is all about?

Sagan and his team eventually settled on 115 photographs of our planet, including a woman in a supermarket; page 6 from Isaac Newton’s System of the World; a father and daughter; gymnast Cathy Rigby on a balance beam; and a series of photos of nature, geography, and science. The golden record also included almost ninety minutes of recordings of the world’s greatest music, including Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in C” from book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

Other sounds included an infant’s cries and its mother’s soothing words, nearly sixty human languages, whale song, and greetings from the secretary general of the United Nations and the president of the United States. If you were given the task, along with Sagan, to illustrate human civilization in a limited collection, the definitive account of what life is, what would you have included in the golden record? From your perspective, what is this thing called life, and what does it look like when it flourishes?

Jon Tyson, The Burden Is Light: Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success, Multnomah, 2018.

The Empty Bench

The character Quentin from Henry Miller’s Play, After the Fall explains a life without God:

For many years I looked at life like a case at law. It was a series of proofs. When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful or [whatever.] But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption.

That one moved…on an upward path toward some elevation, where…God knows what…I would be justified, or even condemned. A verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day…and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench…. Which, of course, is another way of saying—despair.

Arthur Miller, After the Fall: A Play In Two Acts, Penguin Plays.

Jesus & the Common Ventures of Life

All of us share in what D. Elton Trueblood calls “the common ventures of life”—birth, marriage, work, death.  Jesus, in his life and in his teaching, gave sacramental significance to these ordinary experiences of daily life.  In his own birth the common and the sacred have been forever united.  He rejoiced in the wedding of a couple in Galilee and added wine to the sacred festivities.

He rubbed shoulders with fishermen and tax collectors and other entrepreneurial types.  And he stared down death without flinching so that we can face our own death with hope. Because of this rock-solid foundation, we know that all work is holy work and all places are sacred places.

Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperCollins, 1992, p.177).

Lacking a Theme

Winston Churchill once sent a dessert pudding back to the kitchen because “it lacked a theme.” I don’t want my life to be like Winston’s pudding.

John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Life in Acts

Shakespeare was right—a person’s life is made up of many acts. As a book writer, though, I prefer to see these acts as chapters. If you look back on your life, you’ll likely see them too. There is the chapter when you grew up poor and the chapter when you began to understand the importance of relationships.

There is the chapter when you realized you were good at math or sports, and there was the chapter when you left home to start out on your own. No two lives are the same, and yet we share common chapters. Every human being is on a transformational journey. 

Donald Miller. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen.

Life in the Gaps

Most of life is lived in the gaps between great moments. The peaks seem to protrude only after miles and miles of death valleys. While the Bible reveals its characters in terms of their high points, we, on the other hand, tend to evaluate our lives by the lousy week we just slogged through.

We read and assess the Bible intellectually, but we evaluate our own lives emotionally. Sometimes that disconnect seems huge. And often, discouraging. But gaps are normal. And expecting gaps is essential if we hope to maintain a life of faith as well as discern God’s hand in our lives.

Even Jesus’s life had gaps—huge ones. We need to accept the gaps between great moments as God’s will, but we also must learn how to live in these dull spaces. Because most of life is gaps, we never know which days will prove significant.

We have the obvious exceptions, of course, like births, graduations, weddings, and occasionally even deaths. But the list drops off after these few predictables. Only hindsight reveals the significant days of God’s sovereign design. God sees them in advance.

Wayne Stiles, Waiting on God, Baker Publishing Group, 2015, pp. 23-24.

Life with the Dull Bits

Alfred Hitchcock said movies are “life with the dull bits cut out.” Car chases and first kisses, interesting plot lines and good conversations. We don’t want to watch our lead character going on a walk, stuck in traffic, or brushing his teeth—at least not for long, and not without a good soundtrack. We tend to want a Christian life with the dull bits cut out. Yet God made us to spend our days in rest, work, and play, taking care of our bodies, our families, our neighborhoods, our homes. What if all these boring parts matter to God?

What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us?…I have a friend who was a missionary in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. He told me that what struck him was how mundane life was even in such a foreign and challenging place. His decision to go overseas felt daring and bold, but he was surprised to find that wherever he was on earth, much of his day was spent sitting with people, taking care of business and chores, taking care of his own body, knowing his neighbors, seeking to love people—sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

Whether you’re Mother Teresa or a stay-at-home mom, whether you’re a revolutionary, a student, or a tax attorney, life is lived in twenty-four-hour days. We have bodies; we lag in energy; we learn slowly; we wake daily and don’t know what lies ahead.

Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, p.16. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Living From the Center

In my home country, the Netherlands, you still see many large wagon wheels, not on wagons, but as decorations at the entrances of farms or on the walls of restaurants. I have always been fascinated by these wagon wheels: with their wide rims, strong wooden spokes, and big hubs. These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the center. When I move along the rim, I can reach one spoke after the other, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, The Crossroad Publishing Company.

No Right To Exist (for contrast)

It was true, I had always realized it—I hadn’t any “right” to exist at all. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe. I could feel nothing to myself but an inconsequential buzzing. I was thinking…that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there’s nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Taking Inventory

Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak arrested my heart a few years back. It begins with a poem by William Stafford, “Ask Me”, that begs this question: “Some time when the river is ice ask me mistakes I have made. Ask me whether what I have done is my life. It was the first book that challenged me to take inventory of my days, to consider my thoughts, actions, and daily routine. I began to ask myself, Is the life I lead the life that longs to live in me?

When I first asked myself this question, my life was consumed with Target returns and Chick-fil-A playdates. It had been a decade swallowed by Pull-Ups and pacifiers and poop. Though these motherhood moments weren’t the whole of my life’s longing, they were largely the makeup of my days. I’d never considered the life that longed to live in me.

Fast-forward eighteen years. I’m not only organizing playdates; I’m navigating first dates. We’ve moved from Pull-Ups to outfitting our kids in sports jerseys and athletic gear for summer camp. Raising four children, three of whom are now teenagers, comes with a boatload of bustle. But no matter the season—whether new motherhood or raising teens—pausing to take inventory has saved my life. When I find myself too busy for it, I’m lost. When I make time for it, I gain critical perspective.

Rebekah Lyons, Rhythms of Renewal, Zondervan, 2019, pp.26-27.

Your “Spiritual” Life or Just “Life”

Too often people think about their “spiritual lives” as just one more aspect of their existence, alongside and largely separate from their “financial lives” or their “vocational lives.”  Periodically they may try to “get their spiritual lives together” by praying more regularly or trying to master another spiritual discipline.  It is the religious equivalent of going on a diet or trying to stick to a budget.

The truth is that the term spiritual life is simply a way of referring to one’s life – every moment and facet of it – from God’s perspective.  Another way of saying it is this: God is not interested in your “spiritual life.”  God is just interested in your life.  He intends to redeem it.

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002, 15).

Three Big Questions

Steve Sample has been described as the greatest university president of his generation. For nineteen years, by his capable leadership, Sample led the University of Southern California to new heights of growth and to a worldwide educational influence never imagined. At his last commencement address, he spoke to forty thousand members and friends of the Trojan family who had gathered to celebrate the academic achievement of America’s most gifted leaders of tomorrow.

Looking out of over the crowd, Steve Sample urged the graduates to think about life’s biggest issues and not just their future careers. His commencement address raised three questions, which would in large measure set the trajectory of the graduates’ lives. First how did they feel about money? Second, how did they feel about children? Third, how did they feel about God? As Steve Sample raised his third question, there was pin-drop silence. Respectfully but courageously, USC’s outstanding president challenged all who gathered to carefully consider the spiritual reality and the profound implications it had for their lives and our world.

Tom Nelson, Work Matters.

Summarize Your Life in Six Words

If you had to summarize your life in six words, what would they be? Several years ago an online magazine asked that question. It was inspired by a possibly legendary challenge posed to Ernest Hemingway to write a six-word story that resulted in the classic “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The magazine was flooded with so many responses that the site almost crashed, and the responses were eventually turned into a book.

Not Quite What I Was Planning is filled with six-word memoirs by writers “famous and obscure.” The memoirs range from funny to ironic to inspiring to heartbreaking: “One tooth, one cavity; life’s cruel.” “Savior complex makes for many disappointments.” “Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends.” (This one was written not by a wise, old grandmother but by a nine-year-old boy with thyroid cancer.) “The psychic said I’d be richer.” (Actually, this author might be richer if she stopped blowing money on psychics.) “Tombstone won’t say: ‘Had health insurance.’” “Not a good Christian, but trying.” “Thought I would have more impact.”

John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

Two Words for Life

The Greek language, in which the New Testament was written, has two words for life. One (bios) means “mere biological existence”; the other (zoe) means “lie in all it’s fullness.” What we are being offered is fullness of life, which not even death itself can destroy. We are not being offered an endless extension of our biological existence but rather a transformation of that existence.

Stuart Briscoe, I Believe, p 104.

What is the Meaning of Life?

Recently I was watching a children’s television show on YouTube with my kids, when the host asked, “What is the meaning of Life?” His response was typical: “I don’t know,” but what he said next made me laugh: “I don’t know, but I could really go for a smoothie right now!” It’s funny to think about, but isn’t hat how many of us respond to the big questions of life? I don’t have the answer but a smoothie sure sounds good right about now! We end up numbing ourselves with immediate pleasures when we really need to do is search for the truth.

We mask our deep longings for meaning in different ways, sometimes with the classic drugs of our society, alcohol, opiates, food, prescription pain killers, or we do it with “good things” that become ends in themselves: our careers, our families, our busyness. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth Living”…So when the deep, foundational questions of our existence bubble up to the surface, may we look first to Christ, not a smoothie.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The World Is Not Right (Despite our Great Desire Otherwise) 

The world, in fact, is not as it had been represented to us. Things are not all right as they are, and they are not getting any better. We have been told the lie ever since we can remember: human beings are basically nice and good. Everyone is born equal and innocent and self-sufficient.

The world is a pleasant, harmless place. We are born free. If we are in chains now, it is someone’s fault, and we can correct it with just a little more intelligence or effort or time. How we can keep on believing this after so many centuries of evidence to the contrary is difficult to comprehend, but nothing we do and nothing anyone else does to us seems to disenchant us from the spell of the lie. We keep expecting things to get better somehow. And when they don’t, we whine like spoiled children who don’t get their way.

We accumulate resentment that stores up in anger and erupts in violence. Convinced by the lie that what we are experiencing is unnatural, an exception, we devise ways to escape the influence of what other people do to us by getting away on a vacation as often as we can. When the vacation is over, we get back into the flow of things again, our naiveté renewed that everything is going to work out all right—only to once more be surprised, hurt, bewildered when it doesn’t. The lie (“everything is OK”) covers up and perpetuates the deep wrong, disguises the violence, the war, the rapacity.

Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, InterVarsity Press.

You Can Do Better

In his excellent book, The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith shares this short little anecdote from the world of bumper stickers. While funny, it also brings up the commonplace idolatry that exists in modern life.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Fishing is my life.” My first thought was, That guy can do better. But my second thought was, Sounds like idolatry. A better bumper sticker would read: “Fishing: Thanks, God.”

Taken from The Magnificent Story  by James Bryan Smith. Copyright (c) 2018 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also illustrations on Direction, Existence, Humanity, Life After Death

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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