Whether it is a parable, a simile, an analogy, a metaphor, or any of a number of other figures of speech, illustrations and comparisons are some of the most effective means of communication: especially when considering the instruction of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, the greatest illustrations can be made utterly useless when misused or abused. Consider some common methods of ruining good illustrations.
Apply the illustration to something to which it was never attached. Whether in dealing with the parables of Jesus or the illustrations of a preacher in a sermon today, one of the worst things a listener or reader can do is take an illustration from the intended direction and apply it in another. Context is the key to any good illustration. If the context is removed, so is the value of the statement or story. Many of Jesus’ parables have been abused because men have removed them from the stated context, purpose, and even interpretation, to apply them to their own ideas and circumstances. We need to be considerate enough to use the illustrations we see and hear in the same manner they were given, lest we damage their intended purpose and render them useless.
Take the illustration farther than it was intended to go. It seems to be a hobby of some brethren to take any illustration to the absurd. Any illustration given will only be fitting to a point. Every possible direction and end point is not intended, nor should it be inferred; and just because an illustration does not fit when taken to its furthest possible end does not mean it was a bad or ill-fitting illustration. Yet, how many brethren would have tried (and do try) to tear Jesus’ illustrations and parables apart by taking them far beyond the point he has emphasized into a realm never intended? A good illustration is fitting for the specific point being emphasized at that moment, no more, no less.
Take only the parts you want and leave the rest. It is not uncommon to find people who like an illustration, but not the point to which it was applied. Therefore, they will latch onto the illustration, or parts of it they found particularly appealing (and generally humorous) and leave the rest behind. Unfortunately, this does nothing more than taint both the message and the illustration in the mind of the hearer; leaving the “story” in one’s mind with no remembrance of the application. It is exactly this type of response that Jesus speaks to as one of the reasons he utilized parables in Matthew 13:11-16. For he says they have heard but refused to understand, seen but refused to perceive. They have taken what they want and left the rest behind because of their lack of desire to know the truth.
While a good illustration will illuminate truth and engender understanding in the mind of the diligent hearer, it will also separate the diligent hearer from the disinterested, troublesome, or arrogant hearer. For the diligent hearer will listen and make the intended application for desired understanding; the other will twist, turn, and abuse the illustration, often to keep from having to apply the principles being delivered.
Let us work to see the value in the wonderful illustrations of our Lord, the apostles, and the preachers and teachers who work so diligently to present the Word to us today. However, let us also ensure that we are “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (Jam. 1:22).