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Sermon illustrations

Success

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

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.

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

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.

See also Illustrations on Achievement

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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