Sermon illustrations

Spiritual Growth

6-Inch Sharks

I met a young man not long ago who dives for exotic fish for aquariums. He told me that one of the most popular aquarium fish is the shark. He explained that if you catch a small shark and confine it, it will stay a size proportionate to the aquarium you put it in. Sharks can be six inches long yet fully matured. But if you turn them loose in the ocean, they grow to their normal length of eight feet.

That is like what happens to some Christians. I have seen some of the cutest little six-inch Christians who swim around in a little puddle. You can look at them and comment on how fine they are. But if you were to put them out into a larger arena, into the broad view of a whole creation, they might become great. 

Pastoral Renewal, February 1985, p. 111.

Accelerated Growth

The inordinate desire in the west to increase productivity, to go faster and faster, especially in business, can actually become counterproductive. In this short story from the Chinese philosopher Mencius we find a helpful reminder that our attempts to speed things up doesn’t always work:

You don’t want to be like the man from Sung. There was a man from Sung who was worried about the slow growth of his crops and so he went and yanked on them to accelerate their growth. Empty-headed, he returned home and announced to his people: “I am so tired today. I have been out stretching the crops.” His son ran out to look, but the crops had already withered. 

Quoted in Michael Steinberg in The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005), 129.

Acknowledging our Shadows

Almost every parent experiences that lovely moment when small child says, “Mommy, Daddy, my shadow is following me. I remember my daughter Maggie, maybe two or three years old. Dancing around our driveway in the bright Florida sunshine watching her shadow dancing alongside her. But the shadow dance is not just the stuff of childhood.

Almost everyone (and every church or organization) that seeks to grow up faces that terrifying moment when we realize that our shadow never leaves us. We can ignore it, deny it, or repress it, but only for so long. To grow up, we must not turn from it but to it, to learn from it, grieve through it, and even claim its many treasures.

Taken from When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat Copyright (c) 2020 by Chuck DeGroat. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Being Formed in Christ’s Image

In their excellent book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton describe the Biblical understanding of the process of spiritual formation over and against the “self-help” philosophies abundant in our day:

Scripture is also clear in its witness to the fact that only God can liberate us from our bondage, heal our brokenness, cleanse us from our uncleanness and bring life out of our deadness. We cannot do it by ourselves. Thus spiritual formation is the experience of being shaped by God toward wholeness.

But spiritual formation as “being formed” will also be seen to move against the grain of our do-it-yourself culture and our powerful need to be in control of our existence. Generally, we like to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Self-reliance is deeply ingrained in us.

To allow someone else to control our life is seen as weakness, to be avoided at all costs. The English poet William Henley captured the spirit of our culture well when he wrote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” But spiritual formation as “being formed” will reveal that God is the initiator of our growth toward wholeness and we are to be pliable clay in God’s hand.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Get the Knowledge

Muhammed Ali served as a role model to many young people during his boxing career. When one student had the opportunity to question Ali, he asked him whether he should continue his studies in college or try and make his fortune in the world. Ali’s response was nothing if not unique: “Stay in college, get the knowledge,” Ali said. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can make something out of you!”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

God’s Spiritual Growth Plan

Imagine a doctor’s office where every patient is told, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  If I have a headache, that is great advice, but if my appendix has just burst, I will be dead before morning.  Imagine a store that sells only one kind of shirt—one color, style, fabric, and size—and makes the same deal on pants.

There are no “one-size-fits-all” stores, because God made people in different sizes.  Imagine a parent who thinks, No matter how many kids I have, I will treat them each exactly the same way.  Each kid will be a blank slate for me to write on, pliable clay for me to mold.  They will all be motivated by the same rewards, impacted by punishment the same way, and attracted by the same activities.

What obliterates these ideas?

Reality, such as actually having children and becoming quickly aware that every human being is different.  If we really want to help someone grow, we will have to help them in a way that fits their wiring. Our great model for this is God himself, for he always knows just what each person needs.

He had Abraham take a walk, Elijah take a nap, Joshua take a lap, and Adam take the rap.

He gave Moses a forty-year time out, he gave David a harp and a dance, and he gave Paul a pen and a scroll.

He wrestled with Jacob, argued with Job, whispered to Elijah, warned Cain, and comforted Hagar.

He gave Aaron an altar, Miriam a song, Gideon a fleece, Peter a name, and Elisha a mantle.

Jesus was stern with the rich young ruler, tender with the woman caught in adultery, patient with the disciples, blistering with the scribes, gentle with the children, and gracious with the thief on the cross.

God never grows two people the same way.  God is a hand-crafter, not a mass-producer.

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

Imitating the Master

My father was an artist. He had a black leather sketchbook filled with cartoons and doodles. As a boy I was enthralled by his drawings and wondered how I could learn to draw like him. I began by tracing over his originals line for line. Once I got a feel for the shape of the image, I drew my own copy next to his. At first my images looked like the childish imitations they were. But in time it was hard to tell which drawings were mine and which were my father’s.

We often view the Christian life this way. It is the imitation of Christ. But when we live the Christian life, we are not merely tracing over the lines of Christ’s example in an attempt to reproduce the contours of his life in our experience. It is God who is at work in us through the Holy Spirit. Imitation is part of the process. We expend effort. But ultimately God is the artist who not only guides the pen but provides the strength and skill.

John Koessler, The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap, InterVarsity Press.

An Invitation

He invites us to leave our burdensome ways of heavy labor—especially the “religious” ones—and step into the yoke of training with him. This is a way of gentleness and lowliness, a way of soul rest. It is a way of inner transformation that proves pulling his load and carrying his burden with him to be a life that is easy and light (Matthew 11:28-30). The perceived distance and difficulty of entering fully into the divine world and its life is due entirely to our failure to understand that “the way in” is the way of pervasive inner transformation and to our failure to take the small steps that quietly and certainly lead to it.

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ, NavPress.

The Lion in the Marble

There was once a sculptor who worked hard with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble. A little child who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right. He had no idea what was happening. But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later, he saw, to his surprise, a large, powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood. With great excitement, the boy ran to the sculptor and said, “Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble?”

The little boy’s question to the sculptor is a very real one, perhaps the most important question of all. The answer is, “I knew there was a lion in the marble because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my own heart. The secret is that it was the lion in my heart that recognized the lion in the marble.” The art of sculpture is, first of all, the are of seeing; and discipline is the way to make visible what has been seen.

Spiritual disciplines are the skills and techniques by which we begin to see the image of God in our heart. Spiritual formation is the careful attentiveness to the work of God, our master sculptor, as we submit to the gradual chipping away of all that is not God, until the inner lion is revealed.

Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen & Rebecca Laird, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Walk of Faith, HarperOne.

Our Faith

Our faith is not a matter of our hearing what Christ said long ago and “trying to carry it out. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe [life], into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan Publishing.

The Power of Silence in a Prayerful Life

The Desert Saint John Climacus focused heavily on the role of silence in the life of prayer. In his guidebook to the spiritual life, he had this to say:

Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.

John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence”, Paulist Press, 1982), p.158.

A Quiet, Regular Step

Experienced mountaineers have a quiet, regular, short step—on the level it looks petty; but then this step they keep up, on and on as they ascend, whilst the inexperienced townsman hurries along, and soon has to stop, dead beat with the climb. . . . Such an expert mountaineer, when the thick mists come, halts and camps out under some slight cover brought with him, quietly smoking his pipe, and moving on only when the mist has cleared away. . . .

You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light, for ever the best—the best to your own feeling, all attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling.

Baron Friedrich Von Hugel, Selected Letters.

Sad Will Be The Day

Sad will be the day for every man when he becomes absolutely contented with the life he is living, with the thoughts that he is thinking, with the deeds that he is doing, when there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger, which he knows that he was meant and made to do.

Phillips Brooks, Addresses by the Right Reverend Phillips Brooks (1893, Los Angeles: Hard Press, 2006), 25.

Spiritual Formation: Essential to Human Existence

We fail to realize that the process of spiritual shaping is a primal reality of human existence. Everyone is in a process of spiritual formation! Every thought we hold, every decision we make, every action we take, every emotion we allow to shape our behavior, every response we make to the world around us, every relationship we enter into, every reaction we have toward the things that surround us and impinge upon our lives—all of these things, little by little, are shaping us into some kind of being. We are being shaped into either the wholeness of the image of Christ or a horribly destructive caricature of that image, destructive not only to ourselves but also to others, for we inflict our brokenness upon them.

This wholeness or destructiveness radically conditions our relationship with God, ourselves and others, as well as our involvement in the dehumanizing structures and dynamics of the broken world around us. We become either agents of God’s healing and liberating grace, or carriers of the sickness of the world. The direction of our spiritual growth infuses all we do with intimations of either life or death.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Spiritual Growth & Physical Growth

Spiritual growth is, in large measure, patterned on the nature of physical growth. We do not expect to put an infant into its crib at night and in the morning find a child, an adolescent or yet an adult. We expect that infant to grow into maturity according to the processes that God has ordained for physical growth to wholeness. The same thing is true of our spiritual life. Yes, there are spurts of growth in our spiritual development. A few years ago I had a little boy. Then, within a year, he became a man.

He went through one of those adolescent growth spurts. He grew almost a foot in height, his voice dropped into a deep bass, he began to shave, his body filled out—he was a different person. The same thing happens in our spiritual life. For a while we may live on a plateau of life and relationship with God. Then one of those moments comes in which we experience a growth spurt and find ourselves on a new level of life and relationship with God. We experience God in a new and different way.

We see ourselves and life in a new perspective. Old things pass away, and new things take their place. But if we mistake such a growth spurt for all there is in spirituality, then we are not prepared for the long haul toward spiritual wholeness. We will tend to languish as we wait for another spurt to come along. Or we will try to reproduce the setting in which the previous spurt took place, hoping to create another such experience.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

St. John of the Cross on Spiritual Growth

The famous medieval reformer and mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote about some of the differences between the early days of a new convert and the long road of obedience that makes up the spiritual life. When someone first begins to follow God, God fills them with a strong desire to follow Him. As one person put it, this initial desire is like a “spiritual starter kit.” This initial desire nevertheless eventually fades.

The strong emotional pull towards Christ lessens, providing the disciple with the opportunity to seek Christ in deeper, more authentic ways. God, John argues, eventually removes the props in order that we might begin to develop a stronger, more mature devotion to God. A faith that is not dependent on emotions but on the solid ground of a deep, consistent prayer life with the triune God. The props are removed not to punish, but to draw us ever closer to the God of the universe.

Stuart Strachan Jr., source material from John Ortberg: Who is This Man?, Zondervan.

Unstoppable Growth

A friend of mine relates how, after buying a house, he decided to get rid of an old bamboo plant in his driveway. He cut the plant down, took an ax to its roots, and, after destroying as much of it as he could, he poured bluestone, a plant poison, on what remained.

Finally, he filled the hole where the plant had been with several feet of gravel that he tamped tightly and paved over with cement. Two years later, the cement heaved as the bamboo plant began to slowly break through the pavement. Its life principle, that blind pressure to grow, was not thwarted by axes, poison, and cement.

Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality, The Crown Publishing Group.

What Is Spiritual Formation?

What is spiritual formation?  There is an outer you—your body—that is being shaped all the time by the way you eat, drink, sleep, exercise, and live.  You may do this well or poorly, intentionally or not, but it will happen.  Then there is an inner you—your thoughts, desires, will, and character.  This is being shaped all the time by what you see, read, hear, think, and do.  We can call this inner you the spirit.  Spiritual formation is the process by which your inner self and character are shaped.Everyone has a spirit.  Everyone’s inner life is being formed—for better or worse.

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

Writing Like Shakespeare, Living Like Jesus

In describing whether it is possible for us to live like Jesus, pastor John Stott shares an illustration from William Temple:

It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that.  Shakespeare could do it; I can’t. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that.  Jesus could do it; I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like his. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like his.

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

See also Illustrations on Church Growth, Discipleship, Growth, Maturity, Progress, Spiritual Disciplines