Sermon illustrations


The #1 Disciple

Harold Kushner wrote about a very bright, driven pre-med student at a very competitive college.  While traveling in the East the summer before his junior year, he met a guru who said, “Don’t you see you’re poisoning your soul with this success-oriented way of life?  Your idea of happiness is to stay up all night studying for an exam so you can get a better grade than your best friend.  Your idea of a good marriage is not to find the woman who will match your soul, but to win the girl everybody else wants.  That is not how people are supposed to live.  Come join us in an atmosphere where we all share and love one another.”

He was ripe for this.  He called his parents and told them he was dropping out of school to live in an ashram.  Six months later, they received a letter from him:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know you weren’t happy about my decision, but I want to tell you how it has changed me.  For the first time in my life, I’m at peace.  Here there is no competing, no trying to get ahead of anyone.

This way of life is so in harmony with my inner soul that in only six months I’ve become the #2 disciple in the entire community, and I think I can be #1 by June.

John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box, Zondervan, 2007.

Camels Using P.E.D.’s

Performance-enhancing drugs are a major problem in the sporting world. Cycling, baseball, weightlifting, football—athletes at the highest levels need something to put them over the top or keep them in the game. Usually, Botox doesn’t make the list of PEDs. But that was the precise drug that prompted twelve disqualifications at an event in Saudi Arabia.

A dozen camels were disqualified from a camel beauty contest in January 2018. Their crime? Doping in the form of Botox injections. The purpose? So that they would appear more beautiful in the eyes of the judges. Of course, the camels didn’t inject themselves. A veterinarian obviously hired by the camels’ owners performed the plastic surgery.

The doctor was caught just days before the beauty contest.

In fact, the attempt to enhance the camels’ physical beauty wasn’t limited to the injections. Since smaller, delicate ears are also a standard of camel beauty, surgery was performed on their ears. You’re unlikely to ever come across a camel beauty pageant in America, but we know what it’s like to commodify beauty, to parade people across a stage and judge the value of their physical appearance.

Taken from The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best by Irwyn L. Ince Jr Copyright (c) 2021by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Faster, Higher, Stronger

All kinds of competition are comparisons of the abilities or performance of one person or team to that of another. From elementary school spelling bees to professional sports, contestants compare their skills to one another’s. The motto of the Olympics is actually three terms of comparison: Citius, Aldus, Fortius (Latin for faster, higher, stronger). Even these words themselves are called comparative adjectives.

Taken from Mythical Me by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, p.15 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

If Life is a Competition

If a man is forever concerned first and foremost with his own interests then he is bound to collide with others. If for any man life is a competition…then he will always think of other human beings as enemies, or at least as opponents who must be pushed out of the way…and the object of life becomes not to help others up but to push them down.

William Barclay, The Letter to Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, Westminster John Knox Press, p.40.

Keeping Score

All games involve score keeping. The rules of scoring in any game tell the players which achievements count; what to do in order to be a winner.  Monopoly players keep score with money; football players count touchdowns; poker players use chips…We are, by nature, scorekeepers. We crave feedback.  We want to know how we’re doing.  Is my life on track?  Am I doing what matters?  Our sense of the score exerts a powerful influence over our lives.  Our behavior is inevitably aimed at achieving a higher point total. To talk about how we keep score is really to talk about how we define success…Most commonly we tend to keep score with the three Cs: comparing, competing and climbing.

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002).

One Great Competition

Everything we do is about winning something or measuring one person against another or garnering goods in great quantity, not because we need them but in order that others can’t have them. We make life one great competition, a win-lose situation, a measuring stick by which we parade our value to others and, saddest of all, use those same things to convince ourselves of our own value. As if what we get . . . [is] any indicator at all of what is at the soul of us internally.

Joan Chittister, The Way of the Cross, Orbis Books.

Running His Race

In his book The Burden is the Light, Jon Tyson shares how, as a child, he had excelled as a runner, winning a number of races and even breaking state records. But everything changed when another athlete joined their club, who ultimately would supplant Jon as the fastest kid on the team. This was the first time Jon had lost a race, and it was ultimately devastating to his 10-year old psyche. After that point, Jon gave up running altogether, not wanting to compete in something he couldn’t be the best at. But Jon’s story with running were not over altogether. There was something God still wanted to teach Jon through the sport of running, and it had everything to do with the problem with comparison:

I quit running when I was a wounded child, but in my early thirties I took it up again. I was looking for a way to stay healthy, and my best friend talked me into running the Chicago Marathon to raise money for a charity that works with children. I was nervous at first. Running 26.2 miles seemed about as possible as swimming the Atlantic, but everyone has to start somewhere. So I bought some running shoes and began.

When I first began training, it was humbling to realize how out of shape I had become. I couldn’t finish a single mile without stopping. Yet I would faithfully get up early to run laps around Central Park.

…My innate desire to summon my body to faster speeds had been tempered by the passage of time, but I recognized in my soul the root of something that I didn’t like. One time, when a woman who appeared to be in her sixties overtook me, I tried to increase my pace—but I couldn’t keep up. The tank was empty.

Discouraged, I slowed to a walk, breathing heavily, outdone by a senior citizen. I contemplated abandoning my plan to compete in the marathon. But as I was walking, I was seized by a new thought. I had no one to compare myself to.

…I knew then that I had to run my race and that unhealthy comparison could lead to serious injury, burning out, and possibly even death. A sense of freedom washed over me. It was as if a heavy burden I had been carrying since childhood fell onto the loop around Sixty-Fourth Street and Central Park West. This revelation changed my training.

I began comparing myself against my own goals and pace, and I was making real progress.

…One humid Chicago morning, I lined up with thousands of other registrants, eager to test my training against the course…The gun went off, and rather than sprinting, I jogged along in a delirious shuffle. The temperature was ninety-nine degrees the year I ran the marathon, and at mile seventeen I hit the wall with tremendous force. But with determination and grace, I kept going. Any thoughts of comparison were pushed from my mind by the sweltering heat; I just had to finish my race. The next few miles were excruciating, and every step felt like the last I would take.

At mile twenty-five, the roar of the crowd kicked in. A man leaned toward the road, glanced at my name tag, and then looked me in the eye and said, “Go get your medal, Jon—you’ve earned it.” A lifetime of emotions rose in my heart, and I began to weep. It would be a medal not for winning but for running my own race. A medal not for finishing first but for finishing the race I was called to run.

The Burden Is Light: Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success, Multnomah, 2018.


The Scottish Discus Thrower

As a young boy, around the time my heart began to suspect that the world was a fearful place and I was on my own to find my way through it, I read the story of a Scottish discus thrower from the nineteenth century.  He lived in the days before professional trainers and developed his skills alone in the highlands of his native village.  He even made his own discus from the description he read in a book. What he didn’t know was the discus used in competition was made of wood with an outer rim of iron.

His was solid metal and weighed three or four times as much as those being used by his would-be challengers. This committed Scotsman marked out his field the distance of the current record throw and trained day and night to be able to match it. For nearly a year, he labored under the self-imposed burden of the extra weight, becoming very, very good. He reached the point at which he could throw his iron discus the record distance, maybe farther.

He was ready. The highlander traveled south to England for his first competition. When he arrived at the games, he was handed the wooden discus—which he promptly threw like a tea saucer. He set a record, a distance so far beyond those of his competitors one could touch him. For many years he remained the uncontested champion. Something in my heart connected with this story.

John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance, Nelson, 1997.

Triune Selfless, Self-Giving Love

In her excellent little book (Mythical Me), Richella Parham describes how her meditation on the Trinity helped her escape the comparison trap:

The relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a beautiful circle of selfless, giving love—has existed forever. By adopting us as children, God gives us all the privileges of being his children and the circle of fellowship extends to include us. “The only human sufficiency,” writes Dallas Willard, “comes from joining the Trinitarian community of sufficiency through faith in Jesus Christ.”

And as members of God’s family, we are all members of one another’s family. If Jesus is the brother of each of us, then we are sisters and brothers to one another…

When I remember that my life is part of the circle of trinitarian fellowship, I can stop using other people as yardsticks for judging myself. After all, their success doesn’t steal any success from me. Their happiness doesn’t diminish mine.

The fact that they’re highly gifted doesn’t mean that I’m not gifted. In fact, we’re all gifted. We were made to work together, each of us secure in Gods boundless love and equipped to share his limitless blessings. When I keep that in mind, I can delight in other people and in my need for them. I can rejoice in complementing them rather than competing with them.

Taken from Mythical Me by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, pp.70-71 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

When Competition Gets the Best of us

Even after tearing both Achilles tendons and blowing out both knees playing basketball over the years, I still can’t get enough of the sport. As I tell my kids, Jesus is Lord, but Ball is Life. As such, I do love a good game of pickup basketball. One particular game stands out in my mind. I’m thinking it was probably around 2006, and my 5’8″ self was ready to hoop. Okay, 5’8″ is being very generous, but with shoes and puffed-up hair, I can hit that height easy.

My team at the time was Quest Church, and my position was lead pastor and also self-appointed starting point guard. I entered the gym of Seattle Pacific University, a local Christian college near my home. It was an average night—just a game of pickup basketball with some Questers, their friends, and others—but I must have had a sense of pride on my mind.

I was pushing forty, the oldest player on the court, and I was not about to let these twenty-something guys get the best of me. It was supposed to be a casual pickup, Christian fellowship, get to know one another, outreach, kumbaya kind of basketball outing, but I sometimes let the competitive side of my personality take over.

And by sometimes, I mean always. I was trash-talking like Jordan—minus his game and the Air Jordan sneakers. It wasn’t just tit for tat; I was escalating things and particularly getting in the face of a random guy who had accompanied his friend from Quest. Now mind you, this was supposed to be a venue to welcome our friends who were interested in learning more about church and, most importantly, about Jesus.

Anyway, after this fateful basketball game, one of the other players, a man in his midtwenties, came up to me and said: I know who you are. I know you’re a pastor. In fact, I have been checking out your church. How you acted on the court today was absolutely embarrassing. Because of you, I don’t know if I’d ever come back to not just your church, but any church.

Eugene Cho, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics, David C Cook.

See also Achievement, Comparison, Endurance, Perseverance, Teamwork, Training


Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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