Sermon illustrations


The Cost of Success

J.B. Phillips was a successful pastor and prolific author in the mid-twentieth century. He was a colleague and friend of C. S. Lewis’s, and it was Lewis who personally endorsed Phillips’s translation of the Bible into everyday language for modern readers. His books sold into the millions and are still popular today. Phillips’s legendary success established him as a leading voice in the work of the church all around the world.

But in Phillips’s autobiography, The Price of Success, he personally laments the great cost of his worldly success. He writes:

I was in a state of some excitement throughout 1955. My work was intrinsically exciting. My health was excellent; my future prospects were rosier than my wildest dreams could suggest; applause, honor and appreciation met me everywhere I went.

I was well aware of the dangers of sudden wealth and took some severe measures to make sure that, although comfortable, I should never be rich. I was not nearly so aware of the dangers of success. The subtle corrosion of character, the unconscious changing of values and the secret monstrous growth of a vastly inflated idea of myself seeped slowly into me.

Vaguely I was aware of this and, like some frightful parody of St. Augustine, I prayed, “Lord, make me humble, but not yet.” I can still savor the sweet and gorgeous taste of it all: the warm admiration, the sense of power, of overwhelming ability, of boundless energy and never-failing enthusiasm. It is very plain to me now why my one-man kingdom of power and glory had to stop.

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

The Cure for Pride

I am convinced that C. S. Lewis is correct in the point he makes in his remarkable speech “The Weight of Glory” that the cure for pride is not the humiliation of a person so that pride is broken.

Rather, the cure for pride is to honor people so that they do not need the false support of a proud spirit. “I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not a conceited child, but a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.”

Earl Palmer, Old Law, New Life:  The Ten Commandments and New Testament Faith, Abingdon, 1984. Source Material from C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, MacMillan, p.9.

Crowd Control

In a sermon delivered at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, Tennessee, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas turns his attention to the dangerous seduction of crowds:

It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of an admiring public. Anyone so admired cannot help-but be tempted, and even seduced by the terms of admiration. They may even begin to believe, in spite of the appropriate public expression of humility, that they deserve the admiration. Unable to distinguish who they are from the crowds admiration, they soon discover they have become dependent on the expectations of their admirers.

They also discover, however that those expectations continue to increase: demands that must be met if they are to continue receiving the attention they now cannot live without.  Fearing the loss of the crowds regard, the ones so admired – find themselves in a no-win game with no end in sight.

Stanley Hauerwas, Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church, Seabury Books, 2013, p.56.

Mark Twain & The Ruthless Businessman

A businessman known for his ruthlessness, arrogance, and religiosity told Mark Twain that before he died he intended to visit the Holy Land, climb Mount Sinai, and read the Ten Commandments aloud. ‘I have a better idea,’ Twain replied. ‘Just stay here in Boston and keep them!’  We’d rather cogitate on what we don’t know, than act on what we know we need to do.

Source Unknown

The Obstinate Lighthouse

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995.

Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95. (This is an apocryphyal story, but still useful for illustration.)

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

Source Unknown

One Vice

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards.

I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Harper One.

Only God Is Great

In 1717 when France’s Louis XIV died, his body lay in a golden coffin. He had called himself the “Sun King,” and his court was the most magnificent in Europe. To dramatize his greatness, he had given orders that during his funeral the cathedral would be only dimly lighted with only a sperial candle set: above the coffin. As thousands waited in hushed silence, Bishop Massilon began to speak. Then slowly reaching down, he snuffed out the candle, saying’ “Only God is great!

Taken from the Preacher’s Sourcebook for Creative Sermons, Ed. Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson.

The Origins of Narcissism

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who caught sight of his reflection in a pond, fell in love with his own image, toppled into the water and drowned.  So “narcissism” is an excessive love for oneself, an unbounded admiration of “self.

Taken from The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John R. W. Stott Copyright (c) 2010 by John R. W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Playing Second Fiddle

An Admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated orchestra conductor, what was the hardest instrument to play. He replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.” (Source: James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, Tyndale, 1988, p. 450, Brett Blair, Sermon Illustrations, 1999.)

Andy Cook

The Pride of the Titanic

I know most of us have probably heard enough stories about the Titanic, but it does stand as an amazing monument to the famous saying, slightly altered, “pride goes before the fall/destruction.” (Proverbs 16:18)

Did you know that the Titanic took 12,000 men two years to build? When it set sail from Belfast, North Ireland, it was the largest sailing vessel ever made. It was also, of course, considered unsinkable. The Captain of the ship even went on record as saying, “Even God himself cannot sink this ship.” 

Famous last words, wouldn’t you say? And that is of course because the Titanic did sink, because that very same captain would not change course as they crashed into icebergs in the Atlantic. So many lives lost simply because of pride. Think of all the other ways lives are lost, or damaged, because we are too proud to change our minds or our behaviors.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Proud Lieutenant

A freshly minted lieutenant wanted to impress the first private to enter his new office, and he pretended to be on the phone with a general so that the private would know he was somebody.  “Yes sir, General, you can count on me,” he said as he banged the receiver down.  Then he asked the private what he wanted.  “I’m just here to connect your phone, sir.”

John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

Reducing People to the Madness of a Single Moment

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson points out our blind-spots with respect to pride:

We rarely think of ourselves as proud. Instead we think of others—“the arrogant guy,” “the stuck-up girl”—who seem to excel in pride as if they work at it. People from the entertainment industry may come to mind: Rosie O’Donnell, Christian Bale, or Beyoncé. Or from sports: Floyd Mayweather, Draymond Green, Nick Kyrgios.

Pride is easy to spot in those who are in the limelight but difficult to see in ourselves. When a video of Bale losing his temper and cussing out a camera crew went viral, people spewed judgments at him online. We often judge a high-profile person for an instance of arrogance, one explosion of anger, or a tirade rife with profanities, as if we’ve never done the same thing. We reduce people to the madness of a single moment.

Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Seeing God in the Heavens

Many of us westerners are familiar with the stories of the first Apollo missions and the “space race” with Russia. What we are less familiar with is the experience from the other side, from the Russian “cosmonauts” who also were committed to reaching the moon and the outer limits of the universe. Gherman Titov, who was one of those cosmonauts and an avowed atheist, became famous as the second person in history to orbit the earth.

During a lecture he described to the crowd his experience, “I have been up to heaven. I’ve been up to the skies. And I looked around and I didn’t see God. And people say, God created and God did this. Well, I circled the earth and was in outer space, and I never saw God.” Someone in the audience whispered to his friend, “if he’d gotten out of his spacesuit he would have!

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Self-Destruction of Executives

In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith shares the sobering truth of what happens to many leaders when they climb the “ladder of success”:

The ground at the foot of the ladder of success is littered with the names, faces and stories of leaders who self-destructed on the way up. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know their names and faces. You’ve seen them interviewed by nightly news anchors, you’ve read the scandalous articles online, and you’ve possibly thought,

But that could never happen to me. According to the Harvard Business Review, two out of five new CEOs fail in their first eighteen months on the job. It appears that the major reason for the failure has nothing to do with competence or knowledge or experience, but rather with hubris and ego. In other words, they thought, But that could never happen to me.

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

Solving the Narcissism Epidemic

Recently a group of researchers conducted a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs. The researchers reported a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. In line with their hypothesis, they found a decrease in usages such as we and us and an increase in I and me. The researchers also reported a decline in words related to social connection and positive emotions, and an increase in words related to anger and antisocial behavior, such as hate or kill…

Our first inclination is to cure “the narcissists” by cutting them down to size. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to teachers, parents, CEOs, or my neighbors, the response is the same: These egomaniacs need to know that they’re not special, they’re not that great, they’re not entitled to jack, and they need to get over themselves. No one cares…

The topic of narcissism has penetrated the social consciousness enough that most people correctly associate it with a pattern of behaviors that include grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame. Which means we don’t “fix it” by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure…

We need to understand these trends and influences, but I find it far more helpful, and even transformative in many instances, to look at the patterns of behaviors through the lens of vulnerability. For example, when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose. Sometimes the simple act of humanizing problems sheds an important light on them, a light that often goes out the minute a stigmatizing label is applied.

Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, Penguin Publishing Group, 2015, p. 20-22. 

Stick With What You’re Good At

Pablo Picasso lived among a group of artists in Paris in the early 20th century. One evening, the celebrated American writer Gertrude Stein was hosting a group of artists at her home, which doubled as a salon. Picasso, who was in attendance, and who was not known for his humility, remarked that if he had focused his energies on poetry, as he had with his painting, he could have been a great poet.

Picasso then decided to read a poem to the group assembled. At the end of his reading a long pause took place, as it was unclear as to how to respond to someone so accomplished as Picasso.  Finally Stein, who was already considered a great poet, spoke up, “Pablo…go home and paint.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Where Does My Validation Come From?

As Christians, we do not need to justify who we are; Jesus took care of that. We are loved and forgiven. When I’m tempted to advertise my accomplishments, qualifications, or résumés when talking with my neighbors, I try to remember that my need for validation has already been met. This means I do not need to look to my neighbors for approval. I can love free of an agenda to win anyone to my side. My job is to love God and love others.

Alexandra Kuykendall, Loving My Actual Neighbor, Baker Publishing Group, 2019, p. 34.

Your Puny Little Fiddle

The composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was a devout man (some considered at times puritanical) who considered himself to be inspired by God while writing his compositions. He also worked extremely hard to perfect his music.

One of his musicians, a violinist, once complained to Beethoven that a piece of music was so awkwardly written that it was virtually impossible to play. Beethoven’s responded by saying, “When I composed that, I was conscious of being inspired by God Almighty. Do you think I can consider your puny little fiddle when He speaks to me?”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

See also Illustrations on Humility, Self-Centered, Self-Image

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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