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Sermon illustrations

Pain

Attacking Others, Hurting Jesus

A young lady named Sally took a seminary class taught by Professor Smith, who was known for his elaborate object lessons. One day Sally walked into class to find a large target placed on the wall, with several darts resting on a nearby table. Professor Smith told the students to draw a picture of someone they disliked or someone who had made them angry—and he would allow them to throw darts at the person’s picture.

Sally’s friend (on her right), drew a picture of another woman who had stolen her boyfriend. Another friend (on her left), drew a picture of his younger brother. Sally drew a picture of Professor Smith, putting a great deal of detail into her drawing, even drawing pimples on his face! She was quite pleased at the overall effect she’d achieved.

The class lined up and began throwing darts amidst much laughter. Some of the students threw with such force that they ripped apart their targets. But Sally, looking forward to her turn, was filled with disappointment when Professor Smith asked the students to return to their seats so he could begin his lecture. As Sally fumed about missing her chance to throw the darts, the professor began removing the target from the wall.

Underneath the target was a picture of Jesus. A hush fell over the room as each student viewed the mangled image of their Savior—holes and jagged marks covered his face. His eyes were virtually pierced out.

Professor Smith said only these words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Lee Rhodes, Wheeler, Michigan

Be of Good Comfort

Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were two men burned at the stake for their faith in Oxford in 1555.  According to sources, as the flames leapt up, Latimer was heard to say calmly, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”

Adapted by Stuart R Strachan Jr.

The Body at Work in the World

Bear one another’s burdens, the Bible says. It is a lesson about pain that we all can agree on. Some of us will not see pain as a gift; some will always accuse God of being unfair for allowing it. But, the fact is, pain and suffering are here among us, and we need to respond in some way.

The response Jesus gave was to bear the burdens of those he touched. To live in the world as his body, his emotional incarnation, we must follow his example. The image of the body accurately portrays how God is working in the world. Sometimes he does enter in, occasionally by performing miracles, and often by giving supernatural strength to those in need. But mainly he relies on us, his agents, to do his work in the world.We are asked to live out the life of Christ in the world, not just to refer back to it or describe it.We announce his message, work for justice, pray for mercy . . . and suffer with the sufferers.

Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts?

Catching up to the Pain

I learned a long time ago that if I hustle fast enough, the emptiness will never catch up with me. First I outran it by traveling and dancing and drinking two-for-one whiskey sours at Calypso on State Street in Santa Barbara. Then I outran it by lining up writing deadlines like train tracks and clicking over them one by one. Then I outran it by running laps around my living room, picking up toys and folding blankets, as recently as yesterday.

You can make a drug—a way to anesthetize yourself—out of anything: working out, binge-watching TV, working, having sex, shopping, volunteering, cleaning, dieting. Any of those things can keep you from feeling pain for a while—that’s what drugs do. And, used like a drug, over time, shopping or TV or work or whatever will make you less and less able to connect to the things that matter, like your own heart and the people you love. That’s another thing drugs do: they isolate you. Most of us have a handful of these drugs, and it’s terrifying to think of living without them. It is terrifying: wildly unprotected, vulnerable, staring our wounds right in the face. But this is where we grow, where we learn, where our lives actually begin to change.

Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, Zondervan.

The Darkness of Mother Theresa

Most of us know Mother Theresa for her stalwart ministry to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. But as with each of us, there is a public side of our lives and a private side. Mother Theresa struggled for long periods of her life where she dealt with an acute spiritual darkness and depression. This personal letter to a friend shows just how much she suffered:

Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this?

Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.” From my childhood I have had a most tender love for Jesus..but this too has gone.—I feel nothing before Jesus…You see, Father, the contradiction in my life. I long for God—I want to love Him—to love Him much…and yet there is but pain—longing and love.

Darkness is such that I really do not see: Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Image Books.

God’s [Perceived] Absence

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to Him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Faber & Faber.

The Impact of a Heart Attack

In Bob Benson’s book “See You at the House” he recounts the story of a friend who had a heart attack. At first it didn’t seem like the man would live, but eventually he would recover, Months later, Bob asked him:

“Well, how did you like your heart attack?”

“It scared me to death, almost.”

“Would you do it again?”

“No!”

“Would you recommend it?”

“Definitely Not.”

“Does your life mean more to you now than it did before.”

“Well, yes.”

“You and Nell have always had a beautiful marriage, but are you closer now than ever?”

“Yes.”

“How about that new granddaughter?”

“Yes. Did I show you her picture?”

“Do you have a new compassion for people-a deeper understanding and sympathy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know the Lord in a deeper, richer fellowship than you had ever realized could be possible?”

“Yes.” 

“…how’d you like your heart attack?

Bob Benson, See You at the House, Thomas Nelson.

It Could Have Been Worse

There is an old story] about a man reciting a litany of woes to his friend—he has lost his job, his house, his money, his fiancée—and his friend keeps saying, “It could have been worse.”  Finally the man screams, “How could it be worse?” and his friend mutters, “It could have happened to me.”

Taken from John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).

My Best Medicine

It is often said that people die as they lived. This was certainly true of the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. As Luther came close to the end of his life, he suffered from severe headaches which left him stuck in bed. At one point, he was offered some medication to ease his pain. He declined and said, “My best prescription for head and heart is that God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Prosperity Gospel a Theodicy

The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren? The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way.

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House Publishing Group.

“She Knows Now”

A mother ran into the bedroom when she heard her seven-year-old son scream. She found his two-year-old sister pulling his hair. She gently released the little girl’s grip and said comfortingly to the boy, “There, there. She didn’t mean it. She doesn’t know that hurts.” He nodded his acknowledgement, and she left the room.

As she started down the hall the little girl screamed. Rushing back in, she asked, “What happened?”

The little boy replied, “She knows now.”

Joke a Day Ministries Group

Remember it Ends

I saw a live podcast a few weeks ago, and the host, actor Dax Shepherd, gave the audience a couple minutes to ask questions. One young woman in the front row asked him, “How do you get through the hard times in life?” Dax didn’t even pause. He looked her right in the eyes and said, “Just remember it always ends.

You never get on a roller coaster and think, This is so fun, I will be here forever. The best things end, and so do the worst things. This will end.”1 I thought that was a profound and very tangible example for when we forget that the bad days don’t last forever and that the good days don’t last forever either.

Annie F. Downs, That Sounds Fun: The Joys of Being an Amateur, the Power of Falling in Love, and Why You Need a Hobby, Revell, 2021.

Sticks & Stones in Your Bed

Years ago, I read an old fairy tale about a wicked witch who lived in a remote cottage in the deep forest. When travelers came through looking for lodging, she offered them a meal and a bed. It was the most wonderfully comfortable bed any of them had ever felt. But it was a bed full of dark magic, and if you were asleep in it when the sun came up, you would turn to stone. Then you became a figure in the witch’s statuary, trapped until the end of time. This witch forced a young girl to serve her, and though she had no power to resist the witch, the girl had become more and more filled with pity for her victims.

One day a young man came looking for bed and board and was taken in. The servant girl could not bear to see him turned to stone. So she threw sticks, stones, and thistles into his bed. It made the bed horribly uncomfortable. Every time he turned he felt a new painful object under him.

Though he cast each one out, there was always a new one to dig into his flesh. He slept only fitfully and finally rose, feeling weary and worn, long before dawn. As he walked out the front door, the servant girl met him, and he berated her cruelly. “How could you give a traveler such a terrible bed full of sticks and stones?” he cried and went on his way. “Ah,” she said under her breath, “the misery you know now is nothing like the infinitely greater misery a comfortable sleep would have brought upon you! Those were my sticks and stones of love.”

God puts sticks and stones of love in our beds to wake us up, to bring us to rely on him, lest the end of history or of life overtake us without the Lord in our hearts, and we be turned to stone.

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (New York: Viking, 2018, p.143).

True Healing Occurs When…

Paradoxically…healing means moving from your pain to the pain…When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, and even vindictive. You are inclined to do something about the externals of your pain in order to relieve it; this explains why you often seek revenge.

But real healing comes from realizing that your own particular pain is a share of humanity’s pain. That realization allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life. Every time you can shift your attention away from the external situation that caused your pain and focus on the pain of humanity in which you participate, your suffering becomes easier to bear. It becomes a “light burden” and an “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30).

The Essential Henri Nouwen, Shambhala, 2009, 54.

Two Kind of Books on Pain

Books on the problem of pain divide neatly into two groupings. The older ones, by people like Aquinas, Bunyan, Donne, Luther, Calvin, and Augustine, ungrudgingly accept pain and suffering as God’s useful agents. These authors do not question God’s actions. They merely try to “justify the ways of God to man.”

The authors wrote with confidence, as if the sheer force of their reasoning could calm emotional responses to suffering. Modern books on pain make a sharp contrast. Their authors assume that the amount of evil and suffering in the world cannot be matched with the traditional view of a good and loving God. God is thus bumped from a “friend of the court” position to the box reserved for the defendant.

“How can you possibly justify yourself, God?” these angry moderns seem to say. Many of them adjust their notion of God, either by redefining his love or by questioning his power to control evil. When you read the two categories of books side by side, the change in tone is quite striking. It’s as if we in modern times think we have a corner on the suffering market.

Do we forget that Luther and Calvin lived in a world without ether and penicillin, when life expectancy averaged thirty years, and that Bunyan and Donne wrote their greatest works, respectively, in a jail and a plague quarantine room? Ironically, the modern authors—who live in princely comfort, toil in climate-controlled offices, and hoard elixirs in their medicine cabinets—are the ones smoldering with rage.

Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? 1990, pp.9-10, Zondervan.

An Unexpected Friendship

Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.

Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.

Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:

“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”

When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.

Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”

Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.

Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.

See also Illustrations on Grief, Healing, IllnessLossMedicineSuffering

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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