An illustration uses something familiar to the audience as a means of explaining something unfamiliar. But an illustration is more than mere analogy or metaphor; an illustration has two, equally important objectives. The first is clarity. A good illustration clarifies what seems mysterious or obscure to the listener.

I recently received an e-mail from the mother of an eleven-year-old boy…via Facebook. (Yes, I’m on Facebook. I have no idea what that means or even how Facebook works. Fortunately, I have a great staff that sorts through the messages and puts them in a form I can deal with.) Anyway, he said, “I like listening to Pastor Church because he’s fun to listen to and I understand him.”

That preteen doesn’t know my name, but he gave me the greatest compliment I could have received from a kid his age. My message was clear to him, most likely because I used the right illustrations. When teenagers approach me after a service to talk about the message they just heard, I usually ask, “Did it make sense?” Almost without exception, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I liked the story about…” They remember the illustration and (thankfully) they see how it connects to a biblical truth. The illustrations brought clarity.

The second objective of illustration is motivation. A good illustration not only helps to clarify the mysterious or obscure, it also helps the listener appreciate the relevance of a particular point.

Warren Wiersbe wrote this about the Lord’s use of parables, a particularly effective kind of illustration: A parable starts off as a picture that is familiar to listeners. But as you carefully consider the picture, it becomes a mirror in which you see yourself, and many people do not like to see themselves. This explains why some of our Lord’s listeners became angry when they heard His parables, and even tried to kill Him. But if we see ourselves as needy sinners and ask for help, then the mirror becomes a window through which we see God and His grace.

Similarly, an illustration starts out like a picture, bringing clarity to a truth. It allows the listener to “see” what’s being said. Then an illustration turns into a mirror, allowing the listener to gain “insight” into how this new truth affects him or her. Finally, the illustration becomes a window, and therefore provides “vision,” transforming the new truth into mental images that prompt the listener to envision the world.

In a practical sense, an illustration paints a picture in the imagination using the listener’s own experiences. Never forget, however, you’re creating this work of art in the listener’s mind, so you’re not limited to colors and shapes. You can also paint with sound, flavor, aroma, texture, and even emotion. In fact, the more senses you can involve in creating an illustration, the more powerfully clear you can make your point and—most importantly—demonstrate the relevance of this new truth.

This Sunday, I’m preaching on Mark 9:38-50, which describes the reaction of Jesus’ disciples when they encounter someone outside their circle conducting ministry in Jesus’ name. The Lord’s warnings carry grave implications for all who call themselves followers. I want to apply one of those warnings to the specific problem of jealousy.

It’s an important message, but I have a problem. We’re approaching the end of March, so I’m going to have more than one person thinking about the upcoming deadline for income tax returns. As I step behind the pulpit, several will be thinking, April 15 is right around the corner and I don’t have enough to cover the amount owed, so I probably need to get a loan…

I need to snap them out of their distraction. I need to grab their attention with something that says, You can’t afford to miss what’s going to be said in the next forty minutes.

I plan to begin Sunday’s message with “Life is often like a jungle.” I’ll say it with a deep sense of foreboding and let it sink in before continuing. When I have used a line like that in the past, I’ve seen people lean to one side to look around the person in front of them, suddenly giving me their complete attention. I’ll then follow that opening line with this illustration:

For years, I have kept close at hand a newspaper clipping about a man who fought a snake. He was hunting for deer in a remote wildlife area of Northern California when he climbed onto a ledge and whoomp!, a snake lunged at him, barely missing his neck. He instinctively grabbed the serpent several inches behind the head to keep from being bitten as the snake wrapped itself around his neck and shook its rattle furiously. When he tried to pull the reptile off, he discovered the fangs were caught in his wool turtleneck sweater…and he began to feel the venom dripping down the skin of his neck.

He fell backward and slid headfirst down the steep slope through brush and lava rocks, his rifle and binoculars bouncing beside him. He ended up wedged between some rocks with his feet caught uphill from his head. Barely able to move, he got his right hand on his rifle and used it to disengage the fangs from his sweater, but the snake had enough leverage to strike again. The serpent lunged at him, over and over and over. He kept his face turned so the rattler couldn’t get a good angle with its fangs, but he could feel the snake bumping its nose just below his eye.

At this point, I’m fairly certain no one will be thinking about income tax forms! The majority of the congregation may have never seen a snake outside a cage, but at this moment, all of them are fighting for their lives against a venomous enemy wrapped around their necks. And that’s exactly how I want them to feel. I will make the point that jealousy is like that poisonous snake.

By using this illustration in the introduction, I will not only make the point that jealousy is hard to cast off, I hope to convince everyone that getting rid of jealousy is sometimes an urgent matter of life or death.

A Good Illustration Is Real
How would you respond if I told you I made up the whole story? How would you feel about me, the points I made, and the entire sermon if I admitted that the hunter doesn’t exist and his life-or-death struggle never took place?

As it happens, the story is true.

Are you relieved?

It’s amazing how the truth of an illustration carries such weight. Because a real man engaged in a real fight for his life, the audience feels his urgency. Their skin crawls. They experience the life-or-death struggle more keenly. Their stomachs churn. That’s because they can empathize with a real person unlike some hypothetical character in a made-up story. If I later admitted, “Actually, that never happened,” the illustration would shrivel to nothing. And any insights I might have connected to that illustration will have disintegrated along with it.

If you have to use a story or a situation that isn’t true, say so up front. Otherwise, the audience will feel they have been deceived…because, in fact, they were.

Do your research. The digital age has given each of us—even electric typewriter guys like me—unprecedented access to information, offering quick and easy access to the truth behind a story. I’ll give you a few examples of how good research impacted my use of some very popular stories I had used for years. Each example illustrates the power of truth and the value of going the extra mile to find it.

When in doubt, disclose.

One of my favorite illustrations helps to answer the question: “Why does God use people to accomplish His work when He can do everything without the help of anyone?” After each of the twentieth-century world wars, the great classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski held benefit concerts to raise money and awareness for the plight of his native Poland.

One evening, the virtuoso stood in the wings, deep in thought, as the music hall filled to capacity. The gathering crowd included a mother hoping to encourage her young son’s progress at the piano. As the audience milled about, talking about politics, the two great wars, and the evening of music they would enjoy, she failed to notice that her son had slipped from her side and made his way to the piano onstage.

Having mounted the bench, he began playing, note by single note “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The simple tune could be heard throughout the hall, prompting laughter from some and shouts of righteous indignation from others. “Get that kid away from the piano!” one man shouted.

The commotion drew Paderewski from his mental preparations to see the youngster still playing. He slipped quietly across the stage and bent down behind the boy and whispered in his ear, “Don’t stop; keep playing.” With his left hand the pianist filled in the bass, and he encircled the child with his right to play a running soprano obbligato. A sudden hush fell over the crowd as the little boy’s simple melody blended perfectly with the master’s glorious accompaniment, their impromptu duet holding the audience in rapt wonder.

What a perfect picture of the Lord graciously using our meager efforts, surrounded and uplifted by His power, to create something beautiful! Unfortunately, I can find no evidence the incident ever took place. No newspaper clippings from the period. No credible eyewitness accounts. Nothing. Yet, I can’t find any reason to suggest it didn’t happen, either. Consequently, I’m not excited about using it. If I do, I will probably preface the story with a qualification:

“There’s a great story about the classical pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, which may or may not be true. Regardless, it helps us appreciate the Lord’s desire to accomplish His work through us.”

While the illustration may lose some of its emotional impact, initially, I don’t worry that my audience will be disillusioned or discouraged later when they learn about the story’s loose connection with reality.

Get the details straight.

An illustration can be true, yet quickly dissolve into a work of fiction if the details of the story aren’t correct. Don’t be satisfied with the way it’s told in someone’s book or a compilation of illustrations and quotes, and—for goodness sake—be careful with the Internet. Each person telling the story adds a little detail or shifts the context ever so slightly to make a point, and before you know it, the true story is far beyond the realm of truth!

I have seen various incarnations of a story about a young man whose prominent port-wine stain birthmark covered the side of his face. When asked how he could be so confident with such a prominent feature many would consider “disfiguring,” he replied, “My dad taught me, as far back as I can remember, that this part of my face was where an angel must have kissed me before I was ever born. He said to me, ‘Son, this marking was for Dad, so that I might know that you are mine. You have been marked out by God just to remind me that you’re my son.’

“All through my young days, as I grew up, I was reminded by my dad, ‘You are the most important, special fellow on earth.’

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I got to where I felt sorry for people who didn’t have birthmarks across the sides of their faces!”

This story appears in various forms, involving a variety of people, some even telling it in the first person. It’s a birthmark in one, a birth defect in another, a scar from birth complications in yet another. They all get the basic story right, but the variants might lead one to believe it was one of those nice stories that never really happened. Fortunately, I know for certain that it is true. The man was a fellow student I knew at Dallas Seminary…I was the one who asked how he could be so confident.

Check your facts. It will take some extra time, but trace the story back to its source, and then weigh the source carefully. Try to find the original newspaper article, magazine story, interview, or even direct conversation with the people involved.

Discover the deeper truth.

The second illustration recalls the flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who climbed into a rocket and left the Earth’s atmosphere to become the first man in space. Upon his return to Earth, he was quoted as saying, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” One Sunday, W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, remarked, “If he had stepped out of that space suit, he would have seen God!”

That’s funny! It makes a great point. In fact, I wanted to use this story to underscore a critical point in my commentary, Insights on Luke. But as I dug into the research, I encountered a sobering interview with Gagarin’s longtime friend Colonel Valentin Petrov. According to this 2006 interview, the words were not actually spoken by the cosmonaut, but attributed to him after a statement by Nikita Khrushchev in a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow.

While promoting the state’s official atheist policy, the premier said (according to Petrov), “Why should you clutch at God? Here is Gagarin who flew to space but saw no God there.” At the time, the Central Committee wanted the quote attributed to Gagarin, and he was in no position to contradict them! So the quote stuck.

None of this changes the impact of Dr. Criswell’s quip. The pastor, like the rest of the world, took the quote at face value and his response exposes a host of flaws in atheistic thinking. But my digging led me to a deeper, richer story.

According to Gagarin’s friend, the first cosmonaut was a humble, soft-spoken, reluctant hero and a man he knew as a believer (at least in the Russian Orthodox understanding of belief). The government blamed Petrov for “drawing Gagarin into religion,” but both men shared the same perspective all along, actively encouraging Orthodoxy among their younger students in the Air Force Academy, even taking them to visit monasteries. While the world saw him as a pugnacious atheist, he was, in fact, continually in trouble with his Communist leaders for his personal and deeply held religious beliefs. I’m not sure how or when I may use this extensive story, but it holds a lot of promise.

A Great Illustration Is Personal
If a good illustration is true, then a great illustration is personal. I mean by “personal” something you experienced or witnessed firsthand. Believe it or not, your audience wants to know about you as a living, breathing individual, not just what you have to say. Your speaking from firsthand experience allows them to connect with you personally, almost as naturally as meeting you one-on-one. For example, if you were to begin your presentation with “Let me tell you about my week…” you will find them leaning toward you with interest. (Of course, you want to follow that with something both relevant and interesting…and true!)

Personal illustrations work for the same reasons true illustrations do. People empathize better with a real person than a fictional character, and they can empathize better with you than anyone. You’re there. They can see you. And if you tell the story from the heart, they will feel your emotions as you relate what you experienced. Here’s an example:

In the latter years of his life, Moses probably felt surprised, and even a little confused, when others called him great. When I addressed my Christian Embassy friends in Washington, I searched for some way to illustrate that kind of humility. Fortunately, the week before I left, I witnessed a perfect example.

On Sunday morning, Stonebriar Community Church highlighted our special needs ministry in both morning services. In the first service, a little boy with mental disabilities sang “Majesty,” a simple tune well known to almost everyone in our congregation. Most likely, his disabilities will keep him from leading a life most would call normal, but he reminded everyone that we all stand equally needy before our Savior. While the quality was nowhere near Pavarotti’s, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

As the last note left his lips and dissolved into the hush that had fallen over the sanctuary, our congregation stood to their feet in thunderous applause. The boy stared blankly at the standing ovation. When his teacher took his hand to lead him off the platform, he asked, “Why are they standing up?”
His unassuming, innocent response to applause is a poignant picture of humility. I am convinced that, by the end of his days, that’s how Moses must have responded to those who heaped honors upon him. He, too, must have wondered, “Why are they applauding?”

I give you permission to use that illustration, but I’ll warn you ahead of time that it won’t be nearly as effective for you as it was for me. Not because I can do something you can’t, but because I witnessed it with my own eyes. I heard the applause. Tears filled my eyes. I can describe my own internal response when I saw the boy’s confusion. I felt the impact of that remarkable moment and my audience will absorb my emotions as I tell it. The same will be true when you share an illustration from your personal experience.

By the way, transparency is generally a very good quality in a speaker, as long as you use some discretion. You don’t have to tell them everything. (In fact, please don’t!) It’s unwise to use the pulpit or the lectern as a psychologist’s couch. And you want to avoid any illustration from your own experience that might distract the audience from understanding your point more clearly and feeling its relevance more deeply. You don’t want to erode your audience’s confidence in your ability to speak to an issue. I once expressed how upset a situation had made me and I described my reaction with such fervency, it appeared I hadn’t gotten over it. Instead of connecting with my congregation, I worried them. I had hoped to let my audience know that the circumstance hurt me just like it would anyone. But, after the service, instead of hearing affirmation, I had people wanting to give me advice!
If you have blown it in some way and the matter hasn’t been resolved, it’s best not to tell the world. Unresolved problems and ongoing conflicts don’t make good illustrations because they take the audience out of learning mode and put them in problem- solving mode.

I repeat, the goal is to bring clarity to the topic, not introduce issues that might become a distraction. If, on the other hand, you didn’t do something right and you made an effort to correct your error, then you might feel free to share it. Let them see failure followed by a determination to do what is right. Who can’t relate to that?

It’s also helpful to let your audiences know about past failure when sufficient time has passed. If I were to tell you, “There was a time ten years into our marriage I wasn’t sure we were going to make it,” I doubt you’d lose sleep tonight. That was forty-plus years ago! An audience of struggling married couples would probably find comfort in my admission. It lets them know that all marriages experience crises, and having shared my own struggle with marital conflicts, they’re ready to hear what I have to say about making marriage last.

On the other hand, imagine the effect of revealing serious marital difficulty too soon. Imagine your reaction if I were your pastor and I said, “This time last year, I had serious doubts that our marriage was going to make it.” See the difference? I’ve just thrown an anchor in your mind. You’d probably want to start a collection for marriage counseling for the Swindolls instead of listening to my advice on building harmony in your marriage.

Be transparent, but keep the focus on clarity and relevance.

This is an excerpt from Saying It Well by Charles R. Swindoll. Copyright © 2012 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords. All rights reserved.

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