I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the imagination in Christianity recently. I believe the topic needs to be explored more, particularly as it relates to spiritual formation, namely discipleship and counseling. The imagination has been talked about somewhat, particularly with regards to preaching and the arts (see The Rabbit Room collective and David O. Taylor). Outside of those realms, however, the topic has rarely been discussed (though, if you’re interested, I really recommend G. K. Chesterton’s chapter called
The Ethics of Elfland, from his book Orthodoxy, and Jamie Smith’s new book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works is sure to be a standard.). This is unfortunate as I believe that the Bible places a lot of emphasis on the human imagination, though perhaps not explicitly. In this post, I want to briefly touch on the subject of the Bible and the imagination, and then on how it relates to Christian counseling.
Imagination and the Bible
The Prophet Isaiah writes,
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you (Isaiah 26:3). The translators of the King James Version place an interesting footnote at this verse for the word mind:
You will keep in perfect peace those whose imaginations are steadfast. Ok, but steadfast on what? The context shows us:
2Open the gates
that the righteous nation may enter,
the nation that keeps faith.
3You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.
4Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
We find in these verses a call to faith. In verse 2, the righteous nation is that which keeps faith. In verse three, the steadfast mind (or imagination) is one that trusts in God. In verse 3, the command is to trust in the Lord. The call to faith is clear, but why does Isaiah mention the mind in these verses? The nation of Israel (v. 2) has been linked to faith throughout the entire Old Testament. Biblically, the connection between faith and trusting (v.3-4) is also clear. But why the connection to the mind? And what does it mean for the mind to be “steadfast?” This isn’t a trick question, it means that the mind is fixated on something, a mind particularly engaged. In other words, a steadfast mind is the imagination at work.
Merriam-Webster defines imagination as
the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality, and
a creation of the mind. In a sense, every act of the mind involves a degree of the imagination. No wonder it plays such an important, though hidden, role throughout the Scriptures. Consider (an imaginative word!) the following:
- Creation was an act of the God’s divine imagination, who conceived the universe to such a degree that the plan of salvation could be established before one atom of it actually existed.
- God gave Adam a vision of making chaos into a place of flourishing.
- God made the stars speak to Abraham to show him the future of his lineage.
- God called artists and construction workers to produce a beautiful temple.
- God told tales of a land of milk and honey to help the Israelites get through a desert.
- God brought David to a moment of spontaneous dance and gave him an imagination for crafting song.
- God spoke through Isaiah to give Israel a picture of a world where their children could play with vipers, lions would lay beside lambs, and swords would be turned into plowshares.
- God taught first century Jews to think differently about bread, soil, seeds, yeast, and other ordinary things, thus expanding their imagination.
- God reminded the apostles that the greatest defeat and loss can actually be utter victory.
- God told a bunch of Corinthians that their jobs might be hard and draining, but whatever they do—no matter what it is—the resurrection makes it important.
- God revealed through John to a bunch of people being slaughtered by their government that he will one day make a world where there is no more crying, pain, sickness, tears, sin, or death.
- God revealed himself and his plan of redemption through story-telling, one of the most fundamental aspects of the imagination.
Through story-telling and metaphor, prophecy, parable, and poetry, God speaks to us through imagery. Through imagery, God speaks to the imagination.
Imagination and Faith
If faith is
being…certain of what we do not see, the imagination is the home of that certainty. Perhaps you expected me to say that the heart or mind is the home. I wouldn’t disagree. What connects the mind to the heart, however, is the imagination. Which brings me to the issue of counseling.
Imagination and Counseling
Though I’m thinking in terms of counseling, what is said here can also be said of discipleship. Understood rightly, the two are really two aspects of the same thing: spiritual formation. A lot of both discipleship and biblical counseling deals with the disconnect we often have between the head and the heart.
Imagination and Anxiety
For example, I know that God is sovereign over all things, and yet I can’t help but be anxious about finances. What does Jesus say to such a disconnect?
Look. In a moment of their anxiety, Jesus fixes the disciples’ attention on the mundane—some birds and flowers—and stretches their imaginations. Matthew records this sermon with Jesus saying
Look…see (Matthew 6:26, 28), while Luke, in either the same or a repeated sermon, says,
consider (Luke 12:27). They’re synonyms. In fact, the word in Matthew can also be translated consider. Matthew focuses on the visual aspect while Luke on the mental, but they are saying the same thing:
Sin, Suffering, Sainthood
At Sojourn, we’ve found it helpful to look at counseling through the paradigm of sin, suffering, and sainthood1. At any given moment we are enmeshed in all three (though, of course, the degree of each varies). In the midst of the twin realities of sin and suffering, we often forget who we are in Christ, our sainthood. Jesus reminded the disciples of who they are before God by engaging their imaginations: Look at what God does for the birds and flowers, surely he cares more about you than they!
Of course he does. We know that. But why is it so hard to live it? The head is disconnected from the heart. Jesus bridges the gap through the imagination.
Imagination and Identity
In my own personal experience of counseling others and receiving counsel, what lies behind much of our issues is an identity-crisis. Whether we’re suffering because we’ve been sinned against, or we’ve sinned and caused suffering to ourselves and others, we take our eyes off of our sainthood.
Have you ever wondered why Paul speaks so much about our union with Christ? It’s because we often forget it and need a lot of reminding.
There are three aspects of our identity in Christ that we have to hold in tandem: our past (sin), our future (sainthood), and our present (already/not yet—sin, suffering, and sainthood). But what does this have to do with our imaginations? Everything. When we are unable to forgive someone, we must remember who we once were. Paul reminds the Ephesians,
you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:1-3). In other words, don’t look down at others because you are the same as them. Imagine who you are at the foot of the cross, where as the cliché puts it, it is equal grounding. Yes, condemn evil. But remember that you, too, have evil deserving of condemnation.
As Alfred Poirier puts it in his excellent article, The Cross and Criticism,
In response to my sin, the cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than anyone else ever could. This knowledge permits us to say to all other criticism of us:This is just a fraction of it.
As this reality shapes our self-consideration, so too should it shape how we see others. Consider your past.
When we have sinned, we must remember our present. Because of the tension between the already and the not yet, sin remains a reality. How often do you feel condemned because of your sin? But, “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Is there no truth which necessitates the use of our imaginations more? What truth appears more abstract than this under the suffering of our sins—but what is imagination if not
the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.2
Again, Poirier is helpful:
I must not only agree with God’s judgment of me as sinner in the cross of Christ, but I must also agree with God’s justification of me as sinner…The cross of Christ reminds me that the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me. And because of this, God has thoroughly and forever accepted me in Christ.
But how do we deal with suffering? It is at this point that the Bible turns to the future. When the Bible speaks of the future, it is always to shape the present. Paul teaches the Corinthians that the future resurrection means that they can find value in their jobs and vocations now (1 Corinthians 15). John counsels seven churches to not fear the axe of Rome by giving them a picture of the world that awaits them (Revelation 21-22). Perhaps, more than the other two, it is this future element that most readily probes the imagination. So much of our present fears and anxieties are predicated on the future—a future established and known only by God. Where can we go for comfort but to him? And it is there, in our fear and anxiety, that God meets us with poetry, metaphor, and story. With images that are used to spur on the imagination.
Imagination for Better and for Worse
If it is true, as I believe it is, that we are story-formed people, then we must also be imagination-formed people. Imagination is formative. The problem is that our imaginations are, as the rest of us, corrupted by the fall. The good news is that, as the rest of us, our imaginations are redeemed under the saving work of Christ.
As A. W. Tozer once wrote:
The imagination, since it is a faculty of the natural mind, must necessarily suffer both from its intrinsic limitations and from an inherent bent toward evil. While the word as found in the King James Bible usually means not imagination at all, but merely the reasonings of sinful men, I yet do not write to excuse the unsanctified imagination. I well know that from such have flowed as from a polluted fountain streams of evil ideas which have throughout the years led to lawless and destructive conduct on the part of men.
A purified and Spirit-controlled imagination is, however, quite another thing, and it is this I have in mind here. I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the Sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal.
Let us engage our imaginations that we may see fully the grace of God. And, let us also remember and rejoice that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 4:20).