The Trouble with Illustrations

Perhaps you can relate to an illustration gone awry.

Let me illustrate. Two conservatives are in a discussion, and one compares the other to a liberal. The friend who has been illustrated sees this as an unfitting epithet whereas the illustrator was merely trying to make a simple point.

Or a husband and wife are discussing some family matter, when one compares the other to another family friend whose name in that particular context may be a synonym for undue harshness and irrationality.

Much of my life’s calling is somehow bound up with communication, so I am constantly searching for the right illustration that can drive the point home more poignantly. But here’s the difficulty: Nearly every illustration can be interpreted such that the speaker would deny the conclusion derived from the illustration he personally chose.

One source of this potential confusion comes from the nature of language as an analogy. Illustrations are lengthened forms of language’s many analogies that good communicators often use. God is a fortress, a rock, and a mother hen. (Psalm 18:2; 91:4) He rides on the clouds. (Psalm 104:3) He holds the oceans in His hand. (Psalm 95:4) The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer with seeds; a man finding a treasure; and a fisherman. (Matt. 13)

These uses of language are brief illustrations drawing pictures and making connections in our minds between two or more ideas. But no one expects these figures of speech to match on every point. When Luther wrote a “Mighty Fortress” he wasn’t trying to say that God is composed of bricks and mortar, or worse yet, that He had a beginning and an inevitable end like every fortress we’ve ever known has.

Rather, the illustration has a key similarity—at least one if it’s a good illustration—between the picture and the reality. Pictures don’t need to be the same at all points to communicate well. God’s “rockness” paints a picture of unshakeable durability, the ultimate standard for that which is classic. But it would be a great sin to apply the rock’s lack of personality to Jehovah.

To properly fit, illustrations do not need to match at every point. Indeed, if they did, they would be too close to the object to be dissimilar from what they were illustrating. It would be like saying, “I can best illustrate that chair with another similar chair.” Their needs to be some lack of sameness for an illustration to work.

But there must be at least one obvious similarity for an illustration to be effective. The problem comes with that word “obvious” because discussions employing illustrations often involve parties who disagree. Therefore, one party can take the most flattering similarities in the illustration and the other party will see the most irrelevant dissimilarities as the most obvious meaning.

So, who gets to decide which meaning goes with any given illustration? In may be a bit of oversimplification (but just a bit) to say that God does. Metaphors that have been inscripturated are right because God chose them as pictures of His meaning in any given statement. Of course, most of our communication and tension does not come from debates over what is the right interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and Tares. Scripture still speaks even to illustrative use in day-to-day life.

  1. I must always choose illustrations that consider my hearers’ real needs before my own. (Phil. 2:3-4)
  2. I must always choose illustrations that are not sneaky ways to insult or get in a “dig” on my opponent. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
  3. I must always choose illustrations that follow the normal use of language following the patterns in Scriptural literature.

There are other principles that can be drawn out of the Bible, but at the most basic level it should be remembered that illustrations in general do not need to match the reality at every point. Usually, one main similarity will do. Usually. Like the way a wrench doesn’t have to loosen every bolt for it still to be a valid addition to the toolbox.

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2 Responses to The Trouble with Illustrations

  1. Ben Nelson says:

    Very good Seth – I have a friend who loves to say communication is a miracle.

    Our hearing and more importantly our understanding is so strongly impacted by our current circumstances, our history, our geography, etc, that it is a work of grace when we can “get it.” I am sometimes amazed at repsonses I get when i teach, or write, because I spoke from my limited perspective, and someone from across the globe, or across some age barrier, or some social barrier, heard exactly the opposite of what i was trying to express.

    This is very helpful – thank you.


  2. Pingback: Who’s on the Offensive? A Preliminary Discussion in the Worship Wars |

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