Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Imagination Serves God... if It Is Shaped by God

The imagination sometimes gets overlooked as a tool of faith. Some people see the imagination as a tool of fantasy and daydreaming, something that people use to escape from the really important business of life. Others may be put off by the association of imagination and "imaginary," as if talking about using the imagination about God somehow implies He isn't real. But the fact is that without imagination, we can't really encounter God.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV)

the conviction of things not seen. That sure sounds like a job for imagination.

There are many other good examples in Scripture: “The imagination is a necessary component for reading fiction books, non-fiction books, and, of course, for reading the Bible. God’s book engages our imaginations by the parables of Jesus, the poetry of the Psalms, the adages of the Proverbs, and, of course, the apocalyptic language of the prophets. But what makes human imagination even more incredible is how we experience in our minds things we did not, have not, or cannot experience ourselves. The book of Revelation is one example.” (Tony Reinke, Dragons and Holiness). In the past several months, I have noticed some exceptionally good articles on DesiringGod.org by various authors examining the imagination at work in faith. Here's my quick summary connecting the dots.

Imagining for Good or for Evil

Like anything else, the imagination can be misused. Bryce Young captured both sides well a few days ago in a thoughtful post: Imagine Your Way to Joy. He starts out by confronting "an often-overlooked aspect of sin: the power of imagination." Young observes: "For sin to be accepted, approved, and even celebrated in our own minds, it must first be nourished by something stronger than just our senses. The seeds of sin, though sown in the flesh, are protected and watered by our imaginations. Sin is supplemented by story, an alternative narrative — an imaginative world in which sin does not afflict the conscience as easily because in that world, wickedness credibly plays the part of virtue."

Imagination allows us to construct an "alternate reality" where we rearrange what is right and wrong so that we can justify our desires. In our minds, we can bend the rules until the wrong direction seems natural and right. Have you ever noticed how most people who are caught up in some sin will rationalize it by saying they think God understands? In their minds, they can imagine God's reaction to be anything they want. And conveniently, they usually imagine His reaction supports what they feel and desire.

But imagination can also get you out of trouble too. When you feel a strong temptation or desire for something, and at the moment it seems like you couldn't possibly be content or satisfied without giving in, imagination allows you to experience the feelings that will come with standing firm and keeping faithful to God. At the moment, the self-denial seems painful, but later on you will be grateful for having stayed true to the Lord, and the blessings of a clean conscience will seem very sweet. But you don't feel that in the moment of great temptation - and so you need imagination to remind you what those rewards of faithfulness feel like. Young concludes:
From all this, you might begin to think that we should suppress imaginative activity. Imagination may appear to be a distraction from the pursuit of truth, or worse, a misleading trail away from it. Fidelity to reason alone, unpolluted by creations of the imagination, may appear a much safer stewardship of our cognitive capabilities.
However, dismissing the imagination from the Christian life will neither save us from sin nor help us grow in righteousness. In fact, all hope of putting off the old man and putting on the new rests in a God-given, Christ-purchased, Spirit-empowered redemption of the imagination. ...
By using the imagination to envision the possibilities of our faithful service to God, we also find help in fighting our sins. The problem is that we are far too easily pleased with the imaginary worlds in which our sins find shelter. The glorious stories that act out God’s purposes will always be more beautiful than the stories we throw together to explain away our sins. So, we kill sin by expending imaginative effort to envision the superior delight and beauty of God’s stories over the twisted, ugly plots we write to justify evil. 

The imaginary life we build up around some desires can be overpowering and very hard to give up. Even when we are convinced that we need to do that, and we direct our imagination to consider the glory and joy of pursing God instead, there is normally a gap between breaking off from the pleasure of deceitful sin and actually experiencing the satisfaction that comes from embracing God. For that, I strongly recommend Breaking Free from the Spell of Fantasy, an article from several months ago that left a strong impression on me.

Letting God Shape Your Imagination

Our imagination is a powerful weapon and tool, but it has to have something reliable to guide it. And that something is not going to be found within ourselves. I recalled Jon Bloom's description in an August post:
Everything God creates is good (Genesis 1:31). But we must take this in large measure on faith because under the curse of the fall, our fallen perceptions often don’t see it. And our fallen natures often don’t believe it. We are disordered and pathologically self-centered. We are out of sync.
The only things fallen humans tend to believe are good are those that sate our appetites, increase our personal prestige, align with our preferences, pleasantly interest us, operate within our desired timetable, and are convenient and comfortable. In the scope of the created universe, these add up to only a very few things. (Let Good Things Run Wild)

When our imaginations are used to make sin seem normal or okay, they aren't doing it on their own. They are conspiring with our hearts, which desire things they shouldn't. Then the imagination tries to serve the desires of the heart by creating an illusionary world in which fulfilling those desires seems good or even inevitable. Jon Bloom summed it up perfectly in another post: "Our hearts were never designed to be followed, but to be led."

Bloom's description that follows, on how our hearts should be led, is excellent, and his points apply to the imagination as well: let your imagination be used and used freely, but let it be directed and shaped by God. Your imagination can be a slave to your desires or it can serve God by shaping your heart and desires. Let the Scriptures and the life of Jesus define the nature of your invisible world.
If we make our hearts gods and ask them to lead us, they will lead us to narcissistic misery and ultimately damnation. They cannot save us, because what’s wrong with our hearts is the heart of our problem. But if our hearts believe in God, as they are designed to, then God saves us (Hebrews 7:25) and leads our hearts to exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4).
Therefore, don’t believe in your heart; direct your heart to believe in God. Don’t follow your heart; follow Jesus. Note that Jesus did not say to his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled, just believe in your hearts.” He said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).
So though your heart will try to shepherd you today, do not follow it. It is not a shepherd. It is a pompous sheep that, due to remaining sin, has some wolf-like qualities. Don’t follow it, and be careful even listening to it. Remember, your heart only tells you what you want, not where you should go. So only listen to it to note what it’s telling you about what you want, and then take your wants, both good and evil, to Jesus as requests and confessions.

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