I woke up last night following a nightmare of my family being caught in a tragedy. It was one of those vivid ones where you are sure it was real for some time even after waking up. Usually my reaction to these situations once my mind is calmed down is to figure out the fastest way back to sleep, but last night the Lord directed my thoughts to those people who have endured my nightmare in real life. I prayed that God would give me more vivid nightmares if that’s what it took to help me imagine the lives of those struck with great suffering better than I do now.
Imagination seems to be one of the least used tools in the lives of Christians I meet. Those who use imagine God working in mighty ways are often cast aside as unrealistic or idealistic. People routinely respond to the tangible circumstances of the world as if they are the most real things in the universe when the Bible says that the things that are most real are the things we cannot see with natural eyes (2 Cor 4:18). Contrary to this thinking, the throughout the scriptures show us that imagination is a powerful force that can be used either to boost self-confidence (Prov 18:11, 1 Cor 8:2) or confidence in God (1 Cor 2:9, Eph 3:20).
There are several passages in the Bible that use the word “imagine” or “imagination” but we should think more broadly than that. Perhaps one of the best words to use as a pivot point for applying imagination to the Christian life is the word “consider.” When Jesus instructs his hearers to “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:28-29), he intends that we use our imagination. How did the lilies get to be more beautiful in appearance than even the richest and most opulent man who ever lived? We’re supposed to imagine the level of detailed care involved for God to have planned out and then executed his plan to make these flowers so beautiful so that we can truly appreciate God’s wonderful care for his kids who are often tempted to be anxious.
When the apostle Paul says “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11), he means for us to use our imagination. We are to imagine what it would look like if we were truly dead to sin and it had no control over us because of the life of God in us. What specific things would we stop doing? What specific things would we start doing? What would an ordinary day in my life look like? Imagine it and then go use the faith God supplies to live like that.
When the author to the Hebrews says “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:3), he means for us to use our imagination and make a comparison between how Jesus suffered mistreatment and how we suffer it. We are supposed to wonder what it was like for him and what was his motivation and his fuel. It’s only after we use our imagination to get a fuller appreciation for what it was like for the creator of the universe to be abused by his own creation that we gain the fuel and motivation we need in the gospel to prevent weariness and a desire to quit.
As we train our imagination to work for the Kingdom rather than for our flesh, we receive other benefits as well, especially in how we might live out the one another commands. An obvious place to start is Hebrews 10:24 where we are commanded to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Imagination is our helper because not everyone we know will be stirred up in quite the same way that we are. Think about your friend, spouse, child, or parent. What kinds of things do they pursue? What is it that they love? What motivates them to act under normal circumstances? How could you present a current problem or need to them in such a way that the gospel’s demands of them are more vivid than they would be to a generic person? Creatively loving, encouraging, admonishing, comforting, serving, and even forgiving one another begins with a godly use of imagination. That’s what I hope my vivid nightmare will produce in me as I try to comfort those who are dealing with situations I have not faced in real life.
We are not supposed to read the Bible like we read the newspaper. Be creative about using your imagination with the Scriptures. It will help you to grow in love, grace, and discernment more than you can imagine.