A few months ago, I attended a conference where the speaker shared about his counsel to those battling sexual sin. Paraphrasing, he said, “Imagine every impure action as another thrust of the spear into the side of Jesus.” Woe! What a sobering and sickening image! Can you say that? Should you think that, really?
Never before had I heard someone speak so graphically about the need for the use of imagination in our fight against temptation. However, as I have reflected on his point, I am increasingly convinced he is exactly right.
Imagination, when rightly used, is one of the most powerful tools God gives us to put off the old nature and to walk in the new. After all, Jesus himself said to those battling lust, “gouge out your eye” and “cut off your hand” (Matt 5:29–30). But it is not just for lust. In every area of life, we need to train and retool our imagination for the purpose of sanctification and greater gospel service.
Imagination in the Bible
The Bible is filled with imagery. From the Spirit brooding over the waters (Genesis 1) to John’s vision of a glorious city, dressed like a virgin bride (Revelation 21), the Bible drips with word pictures like the Matrix rains green code. Jesus regularly employs parables to capture the imagination of his disciples. The prophets of old spoke of Israel as a harlot, while Paul speaks of the church as a radiant bride.
The question is, do you see it? In a way that most fast-paced Americans don’t appreciate, Scripture begs to be pondered s . . l . . o . . w . . l . . y.
When Psalm 32:8-9 says, “Be not like a horse or a mule, . . . which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you,” it moves us to stop and reflect: What is it about these animals that must be avoided? Is it the same thing for each beast? Or are these they expressing two opposite errors—e.g., the error of running ahead of God like a wild horse and the error of lagging behind God like a stubborn mule? The imagery fires the imagination and impresses upon us the need to walk humbly with our God.
Moreover, Scripture calls us to discipline our imaginations. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that we are to “take captive every thought to Christ.” Because Satan wages war with words of deception, Jesus’ disciples “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” by means of ‘thought-control.’ Only this mental exercise is not some metaphysical séance. Rather, it is meditation on the propositions and poetry of God’s Word.
To wield the Sword well—another image, I might add—takes not only a right doctrine but a sanctified imagination. Such an imagination begins with learning the gospel and God’s view of the world (Rom 12:1–2), but soon this renewed mind must and will generate new thoughts that serve the needs of those around us. While some believers may be more creative than others, imagining acts of kindness for others is not limited to creative-types. It is a universal calling for everyone purchased by God to do good works. We all must employ our minds to imagine that which is excellent and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).
Three Places Where Imagination is Key:
Sincere Sympathy, Holy Outrage, and Practical Service
Let’s get more specific. Instead of talking in the abstract about imagining concrete ways of doing gospel-empowered good, let’s consider three ways imagination serves as the link between good intentions and good works.
First, a sanctified imagination creates sincere sympathy. Think about the last time you heard sad news. How did you feel? Chances are if you have experienced a similar pain, you were quick to empathize. But if the mourner experienced something foreign to you, you may have been slower to weep with the one who was weeping. What to do? The answer, of course, is to pray that God would comfort that person. But is that all? I don’t think so.
Using our imagination, we can conceive of what a widow goes through on the anniversary of her husband’s death, even if we’ve never been married. By means of a sanctified mind we can consider what a son misses when he grows up without a father, or what a father of four worries about when he loses his job. In short, we don’t need to have shared the same experience to minister comfort, but we do need is an imagination that makes up the difference.
Second, a sanctified imagination fuels holy outrage. In Ephesians 4:26 Paul quotes Psalm 4:4, saying, “Be angry and do not sin.” For most of us, we need to guard against undue anger. However, in a world where moral outrage is dulled by a diet of sitcoms and emotionless news reporting, many Christians need to learn how to “be angry.” Here again, “pondering”—not visceral experience—is key (see Psalm 4:4–5).
For instance, how should we feel about sex trafficking or late term abortion? To begin with, we must let the truth of God’s word inform our thinking. But after that, what? Is it enough to have cognitive data? Can statistics alone form our moral conscience? I think not.
Before, during, and after we encounter these travesties in print or in person, we must use our minds to aid our hearts feel the effect of men stealing girls from their homes or babies being mutilated in their mother’s wombs. Of course, this kind of deliberate rumination is unpleasant and painful; some might unnecessary or even wrong-headed. But honestly, how else will we learn to hate the horrors of sex trafficking and abortion, unless we feel with the victims, and with the Lord, the heinousness of the crimes?
The same goes for any other form of brutality, abuse, or ethical injustice. Personal narratives are needed to grow our moral conscience. And when personal experiences are lacking—either because of distance or present circumstance—biblically-informed contemplation of our neighbors need is what we need to prepare our hearts for the day when we do meet those suffering from injustice.
In truth, we cannot personally tackle every moral dilemma in the world, but we can and must cultivate a moral conscience that abhors every kind of injustice. A sanctified imagination does that by creating in us a holy outrage at sin and a deepening love for Christ who alone can make all things new.
Third, a sanctified imagination quickens practical service. The golden rule demands a sanctified imagination, for without it we would regularly bless others in the very same way we want to be blessed. In other words, when we love another, we need to think about who they are, what they need, and how they will receive our love. This requires imagining the living conditions of another and prayerfully considering what would serve this person. Husbands desperately need to think this way, but so do social workers and car manufacturers.
In the home, husbands love their wives best when they imagine new ways to serve them—according to what delights the wife, not the husband. In the workplace, engineers show love by thinking about how the products they are making will improve life for the people who buy their cars. Social workers show love by dreaming up an elaborate birthday party for the child who has never received a present.
On it goes. In every arena of life, imagination will help you be a better servant and a better lover. Indeed, without such imagination, you will grow tired in your compassion. Likewise, without a creative imagination the person who rejects your offer of the gospel will probably not hear it again from you. Yet, with a Spirit-led, gospel-driven imagination, there are countless ways to insert the gospel into the natural rhythms of life and conversation. After all, Jesus is the Maker of all things, and all things point back to him (Eph 1:10).
Creativity is for All New Creations in Christ
Of course, genuine service can happen with little creativity. Jesus said that a simple cup of cold water given in his name would be rewarded (Matt 10:42; cf. 25:35–40). Yet, in some instances the only way to deliver a cup of water involves the ingenuity of international travel and the problem-solving of purifying dirty water.
All the same, if we desire to be salt and light in the world and to share the gospel with the poor and needy, a sanctified imagination will be necessary. Especially among those people who are hard to love or hard to reach, a sanctified imagination is not optional but essential. It is part of the bridge system that moves vertical faith to horizontal love. It flows from a mind renewed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it has an endless array of applications.
Give it a shot this week. As you read the Scripture, pay attention to the imagery. Ask God to awaken your imagination. Instead of filling your mind with the endless images of television and YouTube, let the Word of God prompt your creativity. Begin to imagine what you can do to serve others and to share the message of Christ’s cross and resurrection, the only message that sanctifies the mind and brings peace and justice to the world.