imagination-and-faith

Dragons. Elves. Rocket ships. Those are the sorts of things that come to mind when we hear the word “imagination.” Stories, myths, and child’s play are all the stuff of imagination.

And as we grow older, we lose our sense of imagination—or at least, our imaginations turn rather drab. Instead we fantasize about the weekend, the summer vacation, the car we’re saving for, that promotion we want, or life as a retiree.

Or perhaps the adult imagination is the source of religion, some would accuse. Some people would argue that the whole Bible is derived from someone’s fantasy.

But imagination is a sacred, beautiful capacity of the human being, who is created in the image of God. And we cannot afford to ignore the vital role it plays in our lives.

Defining Imagination

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, many of us began defining “imagination” as “that part of my thinking I use for picturing things that aren’t real.” That is simply inaccurate, however.

The imagination is the part of your mind that sees without ever seeing. With it, you can recall memories in vivid detail, or picture future realities that are sure to pass.

Sure, it can be used to dream up nonexistent things like unicorns or leprechauns. But it’s also useful for envisioning the reception you’ll receive at home from your wife after a long day’s work, or what it will be like once you’ve finally lost that extra 10 pounds, or how your parents are spending their evening right now, or what life will be like once the kids are moved out.

Call it whatever you will—we humans have a sacred capacity to set our sights on future realities. We do it daily. We live by it.

And that capacity plays directly into how we interact with God.

The Eyes of Faith

In the English Standard Version, the Book of Hebrews uses the word consider seven times in only thirteen chapters. The anonymous letter is a glimmering, multi-faceted theologically-technical plea for first-century Jewish Christians to persevere in their newfound relationship with God through Jesus. And virtually every time the author calls believers to consider something, the implication seems to be, “imagine and imitate.”

Twice, the write urges us to consider Jesus himself (Hebrews 3:1; 12:3). Are you struggling to hang on to your new faith? Remember Jesus, drawing from everything you know about him from Scripture and from the eyewitnesses. Is suffering assaulting you? Picture the suffering Jesus endured on the cross in hope of the glorious joy awaiting him at his resurrection.

The theme reaches a climax in chapter 11, where the author finally defines faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a firm, fact-informed envisioning and trusting of invisible realities—like eternity, God, the historic life of Christ, Heaven, judgment, and so forth—with the result that we live as though we are actually seeing them.

Lest the connotations of the word “imagination” confuse you, the Bible doesn’t call us to have blind faith. It’s not about “figments,” silly sing-alongs, or purple dragons. Biblical faith, aided by our envisioning capacity, is an expectant hope grounded in knowledge of the truth. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25, ESV).

That means our “imagination” capacity is a gift of God designed to aid our faith. As we image the realities we know cannot be physically perceived, we’re empowered to act on the basis of their reality. Our ability to see the unseen in our minds links our faith to our action.

But what does that look like?

Why Moses Obeyed God

Hebrews 11 then lists off faith’s hall of fame, with one crucial, often overlooked example: Moses.

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. (Hebrews 11:24-27)

Notice the key phrase, “…for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” That’s a direct continuation from the definition of faith in verse 1.

In other words, Moses was able to endure persecution from Egypt because he determined to obey the invisible God the same way he would have obeyed a visible God.

Struggling to obey God? Imagine Christ beside you when you are being tempted. Imagine the fearsome God of Isaiah 6:1-5 standing before you when you are afraid your neighbor will reject your faith.

We live differently when our eyes are in the right place. After all, spiritual things are more firm, more real, and more solid that physical things—not less.

So it’s no mystery why Hebrews climaxes with this rally cry:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1-3, emphasis added)

Don’t waste your imagination on sinful fantasies, selfish dreams, childish tales, or worldly goals. Redeem it for God’s purposes, imagining the eternal real things our minds can hardly grasp. Picture the blinding light of the Father as you pray. Visualize the cross of Christ when you feel the weight of your sins. See yourself standing before God’s throne at the end of an imperfect, redeemed life. Look to the risen Savior, standing at the right side of God and interceding on your behalf.

May we all, in the terminology of Hebrews, learn how to always “consider.”


Image credit: R. Nial Bradshaw (CC 2.0)

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