Use Your Analogies Wisely

stuffed animal toy analogy metaphor preachingAnalogies are tricky. Used properly when preaching, they illuminate. But they can also mislead. That’s because every analogy has the ability to say more than we want. If my daughter says that I’m a bear, she may only mean that I’m big and cuddly. But someone could hear that analogy and conclude that I sleep a lot during the winter, mark my territory by leaving big claw marks on nearby trees, or eat hikers when I get bored. If she’s not careful about how she’s using the analogy, people could walk away with all kinds of weird ideas.

Every analogy is an opportunity for both insight and confusion.

This came to mind as I was listening to a sermon a while back. The pastor opened the sermon with a vivid description of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry (near Baltimore) during the War of 1812. And he then explained how it must have felt to Francis Scott Key watching the Americans surrounded on all sides by their enemies, cut off, and almost certain to lose.

Then he turned to the stirring closing words of Key’s The Star Spangled Banner:

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Key clearly had a powerful sense that God would take care of his nation even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances.

And then the pastor had us read Psalm 124 with its declaration of confidence that God alone protected Israel from its enemies.

if it had not been the LORD who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive
…..
Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
…..
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

The connection was clear. In both cases, some group of people were likely to be destroyed, they were unexpectedly preserved, and someone expressed confidence that they only survived because the Lord was on their side.

Now, to be fair, the pastor explained later in the sermon that we (Americans) should not really think that God is on our side. He made an important distinction between the idea that God is “for us” (i.e. always has our best interests in mind) and God being “on our side” (i.e. not on the side of our enemies). God is always for us, but he is not always on our side. Indeed, our real concern should be with making sure that we are on God’s side.

That was very helpful, but I’m afraid it came too late for many. The pastor set the tone with a powerful illustration at the beginning of the sermon. Francis Scott Key declared that God was on their side and they were preserved. Moving right from that into Psalm 124, how many people heard the words of the psalmist as a confirmation of Key’s conviction? God is on our side! How many people missed the later explanation that this isn’t really what the analogy was supposed to accomplish? How many minds drifted before the pastor got that far? How many never made it past the analogy?

Be careful with your analogies. We use analogies in preaching because they are powerful, thought-provoking, and memory-inducing. People will often remember the analogy long after they’ve forgotten everything else in your sermon. That means analogies, especially the ones you use to open your sermons, are both powerful and dangerous. No matter how great, creative, and entertaining you think your analogy is, if you see that it has the potential to lead people in unfortunate directions, drop it. It’s not worth the risk.

Use your analogies wisely.

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