What Is My Imagination For?

I love having an imagination, it’s an artist’s best friend after all. But lately I’ve been thinking how my Christian faith should affect the way I imagine. Now you may feel I’m over thinking this – it’s a tendency I have! Yet if God has created us with complex minds and fertile imaginations, is it not a good thing to ask ‘What for?’ How do we best use our imaginations? How can we glorify God by using what he has given us, as he designed it to be used?
Head in the Clouds - Nim Clemo

…And don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a call for us to curtail the use of our imaginations, but for us to use them more fully and intentionally!

Fallen Fantasies

I have sometimes caught myself imagining things that I know to be unhelpful – playing out mental scenarios that are selfish, or thinking about things that are sinful as if they are good. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realised that I have often exempted my mind and imagination from the Lordship of Christ! Yet I’m becoming convinced that when I do this I miss out, and fall short of something really good.

C.S Lewis (whose great imagination gave us The Chronicles of Narnia) said that if we allow our imagination to merely become ‘the medium through which we adore ourselves’ – through self satisfying fantasies – we sterilize it. Fortunately Lewis also points us in the right direction saying:

The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people, and (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving.

We can all fall into the trap of using our imaginations in this way, as a substitute for the things we should be doing in real life – even though the reality may be harder and more costly than the imagined version – such as taking the time and risk to form healthy relationships, or working and studying hard to achieve a goal.

And I think we already know that there are some things we shouldn’t be imagining!

The Apostle Paul says whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

Paul is not encouraging narrow or boring thinking. “Whatever is excellent, pure, and honourable” – these are high and beautiful concepts and wide ones too. There is plenty of space here for our minds to roam.

Thinking about the opposites of what Paul says here is helpful too, in identifying what to avoid: Whatever is false, dishonourable, unjust, tainted, ugly, lamentable, if anything is poor or worthy of condemnation.

Hugs and Rainbows?

Now of course I’m not suggesting that we should only think ‘nice thoughts’ and never seek to imagine anything but hugs and rainbows! There will be times when it is appropriate for us to think about and imagine things that are ugly, because often a light is most visible when placed in the dark. The Bible itself does this to teach us, shake us from complacency, and contrast the darkness of the world with the perfection of Jesus Christ. Christians must engage effectively with reality, both good and bad. For instance, being compassionate towards those who are suffering often requires us to imagine being in their place so that we can comfort them well. Or perhaps in trying to raise awareness of injustice or cruelty you might think about how you could use such themes to get your message across effectively and resonate with people.

What else should I use my imagination for? Here are some thoughts – some not my own:

Our imaginations are a wonderful gift from God, for our benefit and for his glory. It’s particularly important for an artist to have a good imagination – in fact the picture on this blog post is a painting I’m currently working on called “Head in the Clouds”, featuring Becky, a friend of mine. Without using my imagination, I would only have been able to paint Becky exactly as I saw her in front of me with no real creativity or embellishment! But using my imagination, I can celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of God’s creation, and paint things I imagine, create a narrative, make connections, experiment with colour, and bring enjoyment to others too.

“Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.”

John Piper

“There are vain imaginings, of course. These tend to be the ones that encourage us to see our lives as part of some other picture where God is either absent or other than the Father of Jesus Christ. It is by seeking to live by the word in the power of the Spirit that our imaginations become sanctified. I need a sanctified imagination as I seek each day to improvise my life to the glory of God.”

Kevin Vanhoozer

Redeeming Reality

One of my conclusions as I’ve thought about this, is that I don’t use my imagination deeply or widely enough! Having a God-given clarity on reality should free the Christian to imagine ways to creatively express this reality, or respond to it:

Knowing that we are made in the image of God should set us free to imitate him by seeking to create intelligently and beautifully.

Knowing that God has given us a purpose on earth should cause us to imagine new and relevant ways to bless our communities and society.

Knowing that we live in an ordered and meaningful universe should set our minds free to revel in it, engaging, exploring and inventing.

Knowing that Jesus Christ brings hope to a fallen, broken world, we should respond with imaginative, compassionate, and redemptive involvement in it.

Practical Pointers

So how about getting really practical? Let me share some of the things I’ve challenged myself to change, so that I will use my imagination as well as I can:

  • Don’t imagine idealised relational scenarios. Do live out real ones – imagine how to communicate well, and love others creatively. Invest in real relationships in all their messiness, trusting God to bless you and others through this.
  • Don’t imagine selfish ‘success scenarios’, where you receive the glory. Do imagine how to achieve good things that use your gifts, bless others, and glorify God, and then do them!
  • Don’t rely on your imagination to supply things that God has not given you. Do trust his wisdom and timing, and imagine how to best use what he has given.
  • Don’t imagine things that glorify sin and undermine righteousness. Do think about things that are good, honourable, and beautiful, and aspire to them.

What do you think? Can you think of other good ways we can develop the use of our imaginations?