Sermon illustrations


Certainty vs. Vulnerability

In this excerpt from his book Faith in the Shadows, pastor and author Austin Fischer shares a surprising truth about the need to be vulnerable with our own faith if we are likely to have a positive impact on unbelievers:

As a personal anecdote, I’ve always found that unbelievers are much less offended by the hypocrisy of our morality than they are the hypocrisy of our certainty. Every human, believer or unbeliever knows what it’s like to fail to live up to one’s beliefs, to fail to embody one’s moral ideals. Moral hypocrisy is a universal experience, so unbelievers can be remarkably understanding of our moral fragility because they know it too.

What unbelievers fail to understand is how we can pretend to be certain of things we obviously cannot be certain of…I once spoke with an atheist who told me he would love to hear me explain the coherence of Christian faith, but not until I admitted that, while a believer, I was also uncertain about my beliefs.

I asked why and he curtly responded, because I haven’t any time to waste talking about something this important with someone who lacks the decency to admit we are two uncertain human beings trying to make sense of mysteries. I know that I am an uncertain human. Do you?” Sadly, at the time I did not, so our conversation floundered on the shoals of my unacknowledged uncertain (or humanity).

Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is the presence of love.

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Feeling of Being Right

Studies show we actually get a dopamine hit when we think we’re proven right. We can literally become addicted to the sensation of our rightness. “Your body does not discriminate against pleasure,” writes clinical psychologist Renee Carr. “It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.”

This might explain why we spend time scrolling through and enjoying information and news links that prove—once again—how right we are. Wow, do we love that feeling. It also might explain why many have gone to their graves insisting they were right, even if it made them miserable in the process. Addictions work that way.

Brett Hansen, The Truth about Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are, Baker Publishing Group.

Goodness Stamped Into Us

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson provides a wonderful analogy of what happens when we cultivate the virtues in our lives:

When goodness becomes who we are, not just what we occasionally do, we become virtuous. When I was a kid, I ate sticks of rock candy that had the word Brighton stamped on the end. No matter how much I licked, the word didn’t disappear. The letters seeped all the way through. Virtue is like that. No matter how far down you go, goodness still shows up.

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

Our Moral Superiority

Researchers at the University of London concluded that “a substantial majority of individuals believe themselves to be morally superior to the average person” and that this illusion of ours is “uniquely strong and prevalent.” They write, “Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so.”

And among their study participants, “virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities, and the absolute and relative magnitude of this irrationality was greater than that in the other domains of positive self-evaluation.”1 And we have a lot of self-delusions. Perhaps you’ve heard that 93 percent of us genuinely believe we’re above-average drivers.

Perhaps you’ve seen studies that show we also think we’re smarter than average. And we’re friendlier too. Plus we’re more ambitious than average. You might think with all of this awesomeness, we might have an ego problem, but good news: we also rate ourselves as more modest than others!

So, yes, we’re better at everything than everybody, but at least we’re humble about it. That’s not surprising because we’re us, and, you know, we’re cool like that. But what about people we assume simply must be less moral than us? Murderers, thieves, and the like—surely they’d have a more reasonable assessment, right? Why, no, actually. The incarcerated population also thinks they’re more moral than everyone else. Prisoners find themselves to be kinder than the average person. And more generous. The professor who conducted the study of prisoners wrote, “The results showcase how potent the self-enhancement motive is. It is very important for people to consider themselves good, valued, and esteemed, no matter what objective circumstances might be.”

Brett Hansen, The Truth about Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are, Baker Publishing Group.

Our Problem

Dear Everybody,

We have a serious problem:

All of us think we’re good people.

But Jesus says we’re not.

Sincerely, Brant P. Hansen

…PS. IF YOU THINK I’M WRONG—about how we think we’re good people—I offer this challenge: Go ahead and ask someone. Seriously, if you’re reading this at a coffee shop, ask the stranger sitting at the next table, “So, are you a good person? Would you say you’re more moral than the average person?”

Given my studies in this area, I can predict their response with 98 percent confidence, and it’s “I’m calling the police.” But while the authorities are being dispatched, try to get a serious answer.

If they give you their honest take, you’ll hear something like, “Why, yes, I do think I’m more moral than the average person.” This is predictable because social scientists have asked these questions for decades, and the result is the same: We all think we’re more moral than average. It’s remarkable how good we are. Just ask us, and we’ll tell you about it.

Brett Hansen, The Truth about Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are, Baker Publishing Group.

The Problem with the Human Race

Imagine you have an invisible recorder around your neck that, for all your life, records every time you say to somebody else, “You ought.” It only turns on when you tell somebody else how to live. In other words, it only records your own moral standards as you seek to impose them on other people. It records nothing except what you believe is right or wrong.

And what if God, on judgment day, stands in front of people and says, “You never heard about Jesus Christ and you never read the Bible, but I’m a fair-minded God. Let me show you what I’m going to use to judge you.” Then he takes that invisible recorder from around your neck and says, “I’m going to judge you by your own moral standards.”

And God plays the recording. There’s not a person on the face of the earth who will be able to pass that test. I’ve used that illustration for years now and nobody ever wants to challenge it. Nobody ever says, “I live according to my standards!” This is the biggest problem of the human race. We don’t need more books telling people how to live; people need the power to do what they don’t have the power to do.

Taken from Timothy Keller in Coming Home edited by D.A. Carson, © 2017, p. 22. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

The Real Problem

I remember a young man coming to see me when he had just left school and begun work in London. He had given up going to church, he said, because he could not say the creed without feeling that he was a hypocrite. He no longer believed it. When he had finished telling me what he thought, I said to him, ‘If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to change the way you live?’ He smiled slightly and blushed. The answer was clearly ‘No’. His real problem was not intellectual but moral.

Taken from Basic Christianity The IVP Signature Collection by John Stott. Copyright (c) 2019 by John Stott, pp.26-27. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com 

The Real Scandal of Jesus’s Ministry

In these acts of love Jesus created a scandal for devout, religious Palestinian Jews. The absolutely unpardonable thing was not his concern for the sick, the cripples, the lepers, the possessed . . . nor even his partisanship for the poor, humble people. The real trouble was that he got involved with moral failures, with obviously irreligious and immoral people: people morally and politically suspect, so many dubious, obscure, abandoned, hopeless types existing as an eradicable evil on the fringe of every society.

This was the real scandal. Did he really have to go so far? . . . What kind of naive and dangerous love is this, which does not know its limits: the frontiers between fellow countrymen and foreigners, party members and non-members, between neighbors and distant people, between honorable and dishonorable callings, between moral and immoral, good and bad people? As if dissociation were not absolutely necessary here. As if we ought not to judge in these cases. As if we could always forgive in these circumstances.

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1976, 32.

Replacing Morality with Psychology

Christian morality has fallen on hard times these days. No one seems to believe in it, least of all Christians. Even the word “morality” is dropping out of our vocabulary—and I do mean the vocabulary of Christians. More importantly, the words the Bible uses to describe the moral life—obedience, virtue, good works, commandments, good and evil—are words you no longer hear very much when Christians talk about their lives. Instead you run into a different set of words and concepts, which sound more spiritual but are in reality more psychological, having the effect of getting us worried about what’s going on inside our hearts.

The problem is, healthy hearts are focused not on themselves but on what’s outside themselves, such as their neighbors and the people they love. Christian morality used to help us focus in that outward direction, but it’s being replaced by these new, more psychological concepts, which form the backbone of the new evangelical theology.

Perhaps the most important replacement for Christian morality in today’s churches is the idea that you’re supposed to “give God control” of your life. An older way of saying pretty much the same thing was that you’re supposed to “yield your heart to God.” And then there’s the motto, “Let go and let God,” …The crucial difference is in who’s doing the doing. Obedience means doing what God says.

“Giving God control” means letting God do it, not us. That’s a fundamentally different notion from obedience, and it undermines the very idea of moral responsibility. You’re not morally responsible for what’s done if you’re not the one doing it. So to the extent that it’s God doing it, not you, you’re not a responsible moral agent.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians, Baker Publishing Group.

The Symptoms of Moral Disease

Sin not only alienates; it enslaves. It separates us from God and it also brings us into captivity. We need now to consider the ‘inwardness’ of sin. It is more than the wrong things we do; it is a deep-seated inner sickness.

In fact, the sins we commit are merely the external and visible indications of this internal and invisible illness, the symptoms of a moral disease. The image Jesus used is that of a tree and its fruit. The kind of fruit a tree bears, he said (whether figs or grapes, for example), and their condition (whether good or bad), depend on the nature and health of the tree itself. ‘For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.’

Taken from Basic Christianity The IVP Signature Collection by John Stott. Copyright (c) 2019 by John Stott, p.100. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Virtues and Vices: Acquired Moral Qualities

How are vices and virtues distinguished? How is a vice different from sin?…Although most references to the lists of seven use “vice” and “sin” in a roughly synonymous way, distinguishing the two turns out to be important. A vice (or its counterpart, a virtue), first of all, is a habit or a character trait. Unlike something we are born with—such as—an outgoing personality or a predisposition to have high cholesterol levels—virtues and vices are acquired moral qualities. We can cultivate habits or break them down over time through our repeated actions. And thus we are ultimately responsible for our character.

By way of an analogy, think of a winter sledding party, in which a group of people head out to smooth a path through freshly fallen snow. The first sled goes down slowly, carving out a rut. Other sleds follow, over and over, down the same path, smoothing and packing down the snow. After many trips a well-worn groove develops, a path out of which it is hard to steer. The groove enables sleds to stay aligned and on course, gliding rapidly, smoothly, and easily on their way.

Character traits are like that: the first run down, which required some effort and tough going, gradually becomes a smooth track that one glides down without further intentional steering. Of course, a rider can always stick out a boot and throw the sled off course, usually damaging the track as well. So too we can act out of character, even after being “in the groove” for a long time. In general, however, habits incline us swiftly, smoothly, and reliably toward certain types of action.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, Brazos Press, 2009.

When Scandals Become Blasé

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson describes what has become a reality of modern-day life-scandals happen every day, and no-one seems to even notice:

After settling into my tech-savvy dining booth at JFK international airport, I heard “breaking news” in stereo. News blaring–flat screens scattered throughout the terminal announced CNN had obtained a tape of a conversation between Donald Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen discussing how they planned to buy the rights to a Playboy model’s story of an alleged affair. I looked around the terminal, scanning gates and bars filled with TVs. No one paid attention. Not a single person seemed to be concerned that evidence had surfaced indicting an American president of an extramarital affair, with a Playmate, which he tried to cover up by paying her off. Irrespective of political affiliations, this news should grab our attention.

Not a head turned. Why? Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so accustomed to public crises. Just this week I came across the vicious ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya, the massacre of six American women and three children in Mexico, an impudent religious leader hurling racial insults, impeachment hearings in DC, and a college admission scandal. If I’m honest, I’m kind of overloaded, even numb to these atrocities.

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



See also illustrations on CharacterEthicsIntegrity, Value, Virtue