Sermon illustrations


Better Never than Late

Like most artists, the Scotsman George Bernard Shaw experienced a lot of rejection early in his career, before he eventually became a celebrated playwright. During this period of struggle, one of his plays was routinely turned down by a certain producer. This of course changed after Shaw experienced a measure of success. Unsurprisingly the producer changed his mind and sent off an urgent cable offering to put on the oft’ rejected play. Shaw cabled, with sarcastic wit, “Better never than late.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Beware the Dangers of Success

The following advice on success, written by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, is extremely different from what we are used to (at least in the West,) where success is often seen as an absolute good.

Merton on the other hand, provides a helpful corrective, using bombastic language to get the point across: beware the (spiritual) danger that often comes with success:

If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.

Thomas Merton, Love and Living, ed. Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, Mariner Books.

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 CEO & The Service Station Attendant

Not too long ago, there was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who pulled into a service station to get gas.  He went inside to pay, and when he came out, he noticed his wife engaged in a deep discussion with the service station attendant.  It turned out that she knew him. In fact, back in high school before she met her eventual husband, she used to date this man.

The CEO got in the car, and the two drove in silence.  He was feeling pretty good about himself when he finally spoke: “I bet I know what you were thinking.  I bet you were thinking you’re glad

you married me, a Fortune 500 CEO, and not him, a service station attendant.

“No, I was thinking if I’d married him, he’d be a Fortune 500 CEO and you’d be a service station attendant.”

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

Changing Portraits

Writer Philip Yancey notes that toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein removed the portraits of two scientists–Newton and Maxwell–from his wall. He replaced those with portraits of Gandhi and Schweitzer. Einstein explained that it was time to replace the image of success with the image of service.

Leadership, Vol. 16, no. 4

The Dart-Board

The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister recounts a story she once heard by a communications professor, which she said fundamentally changed the way she thought about success and failure:

A young boy was given a dartboard for Christmas one year and he instantaneously began playing with it. In a complete shock, his first dart hit the bull’s-eye. Surprised and excited, the father yanked the child’s mother from the other room in time to watch the young boy throw a second bull’s eye! At this point, the father gathered the entire family to watch him throw the third dart. Amazingly, he did it again. A third bull’s eye!

At that point, the boy stopped throwing the darts, and promptly shelved the dart board. Over and over again the family pleaded with him to throw another dart, but he refused to do so. As Chittister said in retelling the story, “The child with the dartboard knew what his father did not intuit: A record like his could only be shattered, not enhanced. From now on he could only be known for losing because he could never win so much again.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., source material from Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2015, p.61, The Crown Publishing Group.

Doing the Work Before the Work

In his highly insighful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:

Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.

His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.

I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.

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

Giving Advice to (Bob) Dylan

When Bob Dylan was recording Blood on the Tracks – possibly the single greatest album in popular music history – he had to deal with a junior recording engineer who “explained” to him that he was going about the process of recording all wrong. After tolerating a good deal of this, Dylan finally said, “You know, if I had done all the stuff that people told me I was supposed to do, I might be somewhere by now.

Taken from Alan Jacobs, Snakes & Ladders (Newsletter), August 23, 2021.

A Father’s Judgment

A young man won admission to college. Instead of writing a letter of congratulations, his father penned this note:

Now it is a good thing to put this business very plainly before you. Do not think I am going to take the trouble of writing to you long letters after every folly and failure you commit and undergo. I am certain that if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle, useless, unprofitable life you had during your school days, you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.

Lord Randolph to his son Winston Churchill

Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. 

The Good Life

One way of redefining success is to redefine “the good life.” We have to unlearn what we’ve been taught because we’ve been sold a lie. I believe you know that as well as I do. Or at least you feel it—and have perhaps felt it for a very long time.

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

Madonna Struggles with Insecurity and Regret

It’s rare when celebrities acknowledge anything but the carefully crafted image that’s on view to the public. But this excerpt by the singer Madonna reveals that all of us, even celebrities struggle with insecurities. Sadly for Madonna, what has made her successful is also what causes pain and suffering in her life: her fear that she will only be “mediocre,” which to her appears to be a death sentence.

I have so many [regrets] … and I have none. I wish I hadn’t done a lot of things, but, on the other hand, if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be here. But, then again, nobody works the way I work. I have an iron will. And all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I’m always struggling with that fear.

I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. And I find a way to get myself out of that. Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody. I still have to prove that Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.

Lynn Hirshberg, “The Misfit,” Vanity Fair, April 1991, 167.

I’m Great at What I Do

I’m a college professor — I have been for almost a decade. I work reasonably hard at my job, and I think I do it fairly well. In fact, in my honest and solitary moments, when there’s no occasion false humility, I’d say I’m a better-than-average teacher.

I’m in good company. A recent study revealed that 94 percent of the people who do what I do think they’re doing a better-than average job. And if s not just college professors. “A survey of one million high-school seniors found that 70 percent thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2 percent thought they were below average.”

In terms of ability to get along with others, all students thought they were above average, 60 percent thought they were in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent thought they were in the top 1 percent!”’ Clearly, a lot of people are wrong about how they stack up in comparison with their peers.

Fortunately, I’m not one of them. Am I?

Greg Ten Elsof, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life, Eerdmans, 2009.

Paul’s Achievements Today

Paul give us an excellent example of what looking at people from a worldly point of view looks like in Philippians chapter 3:

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So Paul has his version of worldly accomplishment, if he were an American he would probably say something like this: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in themselves, I have more: I was born a Roosevelt on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Baptized in the Episcopal Church, I attended Phillips Exeter Academy, before matriculating at Harvard, my IQ is 150, my G.P.A a 3.99.

My first job was a consultant and then I became a hedge fund manager in New York City, with an apartment Uptown and a summer home in the Hamptons, I’ve been an elder at St. Luke’s, ran a capital campaign, been on the board of various philanthropic organizations…

That’s how it would go today, but listen to what Paul says next:

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Playing for His Master

A story is told of a young violinist who lived in London many years ago. He was a superb musician. He loved his music and enjoyed playing before small groups of people in the homes of friends. But he was deathly afraid of large crowds, so he avoided giving concerts. The thought of giving a public performance in a concert hall absolutely terrified him.

The London music establishment was very critical of this young violinist. He was violating all the accepted protocols. According to the critics, excellent musicians were supposed to give public concerts in packed concert halls. In time, the criticism grew so intense that the young violinist relented; even though it scared him terribly, he agreed to give one major concert.

The largest concert hall in London was secured, and when the evening came, the hall was filled. People were excited to hear this prodigy. So were the critics, who filled the first three rows, pad and pen ready, eager to rake him over the coals.

The young violinist came onto the stage and sat alone on a stool. He put his violin under his chin and played for an hour and a half. No music in front of him, no orchestra behind him, no breaks-just an hour and a half of absolutely beautiful violin music. After ten minutes or so, many critics put down their pads and listened, like the rest. They too were enraptured  by the music of this young virtuoso. After the performance, the crowd rose to its feet and began applauding wildly-and they wouldn’t stop. But the young violinist didn’t acknowledge the applause. He just peered out into the audience as if he were looking for something­ or someone. Finally he found what he was looking for. Relief came over his face, and he began to acknowledge the cheers.

After the concert, the critics met the young violinist backstage. “It was just as everyone had anticipated,” they said. “You were wonderful. But one question: Why did it take you so long to acknowledge the applause of the audience?”

 The young violinist took a deep breath and answered, “You know I was really afraid of playing here. Yet this was something I knew I needed to do. Tonight, just before I came on stage, I received word that my master teacher was to be in the audience. Throughout the concert, I tried to look for him, but I could never find him. So after I finished playing, I started to look more intently.

I was so eager to find my teacher that I couldn’t even hear the applause. I just had to know what he thought of my playing. That was all that mattered. Finally, I found him high in the balcony. He was standing and applauding, with a big smile on his face. After seeing him, I was finally able to relax. I said to myself, ‘If the master is pleased with what I have done, then everything else is okay.'”

Steven C. Roy, What God Thinks When We Fail,  InterVarsity Press, 2011.

The Secret to Success Selling Girl Scout Cookies

There was a Girl Scout who had sold thousands of boxes of Girl Scout cookies and began to get publicity for all those boxes sold. Someone asked her, “How were you able to be so successful selling so many cookies?” 

“Oh it’s actually quite easy. You just have to look people right in the eye and make them feel guilty. Works every time.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Original Source Unknown

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

The Shining City

Success is a shining city, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We dream of it as children, we strive for it through our adult lives, and we suffer melancholy in old age if we have not reached it.

Success is the place of happiness. And the anxieties we suffer at the thought of not arriving there give us ulcers, heart attacks, and nervous disorders. If our reach exceeds our grasp, and we fail to achieve what we want, life seems meaningless and we feel emotionally dead.

Anthony Campolo, Jr., The Success Fantasy (Wheaton: Victor, 1980)

Success vs. Excellence, A Poem 

Success is the key they hand you when they like you.

It doesn’t matter why.

They just give you the key that unlocks an upscale condo,

triggers the powerful purr of your new Mercedes,

and accesses the executive washroom.

 It s what they give to you.

Excellence is another brand of brazil nut.

It’s what’s within you.

It’s what you do

that stretches mind and muscle.

They’ll hand you success when your ratings are up,

your sales soar, or when the eager masses

plunk down their grubby bucks to buy your stuff.

And they’ll snatch success away at daybreak.

Success loves its one-night stands at the Ritz.

But never expect it to say, I do.

Success is a day-tripper and a tease.

Success’ll forget you.

Excellence endures when the crowd moves on.

David Neff

Success vs. Excellence (Part II)

Success offers a hoped-for future goal.

Excellence provides a striven-for present standard.

Success bases our worth on a comparison with others.

Excellence gauges our value by measuring us against our own potential.

Success grants its rewards to the few, but is the dream of the multitudes.

Excellence is available to all living beings, but is accepted by the special few.

Success focuses its attention on the external—becoming the tastemaker for the insatiable appetites of the conspicuous consumer.

Excellence beams its spotlight on the internal spirit— becoming the quiet, but pervasive, conscience of the conscientious who yearn for integrity.

Success engenders fantasy and a compulsive groping for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Excellence brings us to reality, and a deep gratitude for the affirming promise of the rainbow.

Success encourages expedience and compromise, which prompts us to treat people as means to our ends.

Excellence cultivates principles and consistency, which ensure that we will treat all persons as intrinsically valuable ends—the apex of our heavenly Father’s creation.

Jon Johnston, Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success, Baker Publishing, 1985.

Two Strong Voices


Since I was very young my life has been dominated by two strong voices. The first said, “Make it in the world and be sure you can do it on your own.” And the other voice said, “Whatever you do for the rest of your life, even if it’s not very important, be sure you hold on to the love of Jesus.” My father was a little more inclined to say the first and my mother the second. But the voices were strong.

“Make your mark. Be able to show the world you can do it by yourself and that you are not afraid. Go as far as you want to go and be a man. Be a good older son and brother, and be sure you really do something relevant.” And the other said, “Don’t lose touch with Jesus, who chose a very humble and simple way. Jesus, by his life and death, will be your example for living.

I’ve struggled because one voice seemed to be asking me for upward mobility and the other for downward mobility and I was never sure how to do both at the same time.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday, 2009.

The Three Orientations Towards Work

In his landmark work, Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah describes thee distinct orientations people take with respect to their work. The first orientation is to see your work as a job, a paycheck that takes care of the bills. The second orientation is to see your work as a career. Here, climbing the proverbial ladder in search of status and wealth are central. In the second orientation, the way you feel towards your work is primarily based on how successful you are in it.

If your career is waning, it may feel as though your entire self-worth is on the chopping block. The third orientation is seeing work as a calling. This sense of calling is firmly established in the life of faith. If you have received a call-then someone must have made the call in the first place. That person is God, and because God is sovereign, our work isn’t simply what we want to do.

A call is made and we are there to answer it. The worth of your work therefore, is not dependent on your success, but rather your faithfulness to the call that God has made. Sometimes, that even means that a failure in the world’s eyes can be the greatest success in God’s.

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart

When Failure Launches our Greatest Success

Sometimes God takes our greatest failures and turns them into our greatest successes. Charles “Chuck” Colson had risen the ladder of national political success at breakneck speed. After a tour in the Marines, Colson served in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran a political campaign, and joined a law firm before becoming special counsel to the President (Richard Nixon) in 1969, at the ripe old age of 38. And then it all came crashing down, as Colson was sent to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. As one pastor put it, Colson’s (former) career was over, but his calling was just beginning.

While in prison, Colson converted to Christianity and began working alongside his fellow prisoners. His passion for his faith and his fellow prisoners birthed Prison Fellowship. Seeing firsthand the injustices in the American prison system, Colson fought for the rights of the incarcerated, including widespread penal justice reform. But that isn’t all. Prison Fellowship has created a number of programs to help inmates, including training to experience healing and wholeness, with the intention of lowering the rate of recidivism (returning to prison). Today, Prison Fellowship serves in all 50 states in the U.S., impacting more than 1,000 prisons and over 365,000 incarcerated men and women each year.

In his 1983 book Loving God, Colson shares the realization that his legacy came not from his successes, but from his failures:

“The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict.  My great humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.”

Stuart Strachan Jr. Quote from Charles Colson, Loving God, Zondervan, Reprint, 2018.

You’re Sicker Than You Think

My wife, Susan and I were sitting in the office of a fellow pastor, Jack Harrison, in the fall of 1992. The recommendation of friends had led us to Jack’s office. “He’s an amazing counselor,” they said. That was what we needed, and our first visit confirmed that he was. We had just spent the past hour pouring out our hearts about our lives and ministry at the church where I pastored. We had shared our doubts and questions, our discouragements and fears, the exhaustion and agony we were experiencing in our ministry.

While there was a kind of cathartic release in telling the details of our story, we still needed insight into what was truly going on. And Jack, not one to mince words, said, “You’re sicker than you think.”

Those were hard words to hear, but they were filled with hope. A clear and accurate diagnosis was a necessary first step toward resolving the issues we were facing. “You’re sicker than you think.” How so? What was going on with us? Many components made up our crisis, but at the heart of it all was the issue of success and our perceived lack of it.

…In retrospect several contributing factors that led to this crisis, some were cultural. As an American, I had been born and raised in a culture enamored with success. This was the air I breathed. At their most basic level, typical American views of success involve what bigger and better. Successful careers result in bigger salaries. Successful athletes are those whose statistics are better and whose teams win more games. Successful actors and actresses net bigger box office revenues than their rivals. Successful parents have children who get better grades in school and perform better than their peers in sports, music, and drama.

“Bigger and better.” That’s success, American-style. However, since the better category is often hard to measure, there can be a strong temptation to determine success solely on what is bigger, which is measurable. For me as a pastor, whose vocation was inherently impossible to measure according to the “better” categories, measuring the success of my church in terms of the “bigger” was an attractive option.

The American culture not only gave me a vision of what success looked like, it also showed me how important success is. Americans love success and those who are successful. They hate failure; they fear it. Success is seen as the sure route to significance. Being successful ensures a healthy self-esteem and the approval of the most significant people in one’s life. This is why the drive for success and the corresponding fear of failure are so strong. At the deep levels of my being, I had imbibed far more of these attitudes toward success and failure than I knew.

All these factors combined to lead us to what I now realize were unrealistically high expectations as we entered this new ministry. When we came to the new church, we hoped that God would do the same kind of things there that we had seen him do in our former church. But not only did we hope for that, deep down we expected it.

The growth we desired God to bring in and through our ministry was inherently a good thing. We longed for a ministry that would honor God, build the church and impact the community and the world. No, the problem was not with the desires. The problem was that, without realizing it, our desires had hardened into expectations.

I have since come to believe that the difference between desires and expectations is a crucial one. It does not necessarily involve what we hope for. Rather, it involves the level of expectation we have-when our desire becomes a demand that what we hope for will come to pass. The difference between a desire and an expectation can be seen most clearly when the thing we hope for does not materialize.

When a desire isn’t fulfilled, we are disappointed. But when an expectation isn’t met, we are crushed. We conclude that something is wrong. After all, we had not just wanted this to happen, we had not just hoped for it to happen; no, we had expected it to happen, it was supposed to be realized.

… Over the next year and a half, the ministry of the church ebbed and flowed, but it never came close to matching my expectations. And the criticism never went away altogether. This made me very introspective about myself and my ministry. Do I have what it takes to be a successful pastor? Should I stay here long-term?

Would the church be better off with another pastor? These were definitely not abstract questions. They were gut-wrenchingly personal. These questions about success and failure were not just about my ministry; they were about me. They filled me with doubts about my own gifts and abilities. They filled me with guilt. Had I worked hard enough; had I done enough? Were the problems at the church my fault?

Taken from What God Thinks When We Fail by Steven C. Roy Copyright (c) 2011 by Steven C. Roy. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also Illustrations on Achievement, Ambition, Excellence, Power, Pride, Productivity

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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