How do you picture God when you pray to him?
I remember being asked that question many years ago in a small group. I’d never thought about it before, but almost everyone had quick responses. Those responses ranged from a grandfatherly figure to one like Aslan (in the Narnia series) to the slain and risen Lamb described in Revelation 5. One person said that she didn’t picture anything visual but thought of a formless personal being overflowing with power, grace, truth, and love. Everyone responded in some way; not one person said, “That question makes no sense to me at all.”
Another time I asked a group of people this question: How is Psalm 23:4 a part of your life? (“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.”) Two group members recalled times when a loved one was dying. A third remembered the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. Another related it to a time when he had lost his job, his brother’s marriage had broken up, and his church was going through a difficult conflict. Everyone could easily weave the psalmist’s words into a particular time in their lives.
One small group reflected on prayer, the other pondered Psalm 23. What’s the thread connecting these two discussions? It’s this: the role of the imagination.
Members of the first group reflected on how they imagine God in particular ways, and the psalm readers spoke of how they imagine themselves walking with the Lord through the valley of the shadow of death. These two stories point to something central in the Christian life: faith requires an active imagination.
Some of you might be thinking, “Wait a minute—the imagination has to do with fantasy, and faith has to do with fact. There might be a limited place for the imagination in our walk with God, especially for folks more creatively inclined, but I would rather relate to God without my imagination. Combining imagination with faith is too dangerous and might lead me into error.”
Certainly there are dangers to be aware of (see “Cautions”), but it’s impossible to turn off our imaginations as we walk with God.
Our spiritual lives deal with largely invisible realities that are too deep for us to comprehend but are woven into every fiber of our beings. God has created us with imaginations so that we have ways to visualize, think about, and discuss these invisible, mysterious realities that are part of every moment of our lives. Loving God without using our imagination is like loving good food but eating three meals a day at McDonald’s: that love is forced to remain superficial and immature.
Before my wife and I married, we lived 800 miles apart. (We foolishly decided to attend two different Christian colleges.) During that pre-electronic era we wrote each other snail-mail letters three times a week.
As I read each newly arrived letter, I imagined her living through the things she described, and my imagination became a servant that helped my love for her to grow in spite of the miles between us.
Frequently, a new letter helped me to see that what I had imagined in the previous letter wasn’t quite right, so my imagination was continually being “tweaked.” My imagination could never perfectly capture what her life was like, but that didn’t matter—its portraits “through a glass darkly” were accurate enough to deepen our relationship.
Our walk with God is somewhat like that, because the Bible is God’s love letter to us.
Imagination in the Bible
Let me suggest four ways in which the Bible appeals to our imagination:
1. The Bible encourages us to pray imaginatively. In Scripture there are dozens of creaturely metaphors and pictures to help us imagine God and ourselves in relation to God. An introductory list of biblical metaphors for the Father, Son, and Spirit would include these: shepherd, lamb, rock, fortress, light, bread, living water, down payment, comforter, warrior, shield, lion, mother hen, and stronghold. One verse alone, Psalm 18:2, contains seven different metaphors for God!
Similarly, the Bible describes us in many ways as well: wheat, chaff, a city on a hill, salt, light, a body, living stones. If we were to read Scripture without our imaginations, we’d be forced to become idol worshipers, confusing Scripture’s many creaturely metaphors with the actual reality of God.
2. Jesus’ primary teaching tool was the parable, an enigmatic story aimed directly at our imaginations. Parables work through our heart’s understanding of God, ourselves, and our place in God’s world.
Think of the parable of the prodigal son: it provides a profound picture of our heavenly Father’s deep grace responding to our rebellious hearts (younger son) and our proud, legalistic hearts (older son).
Why didn’t Jesus limit his teaching to simple facts? Why didn’t he just say, “We rebel against God’s love with murderous intent and we judge each other in self-righteous indignation, but my Father’s profound grace challenges us to repent of both of these types of sin to find transformation in God”? We know the answer to that question, of course. The parable travels through our imaginations into our hearts in a deeper, more profound way than bare facts ever could.
3. The Bible repeatedly uses open-ended metaphors. Remember Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh” in
2 Corinthians 12? We don’t know what his thorn was, thought a handful of scholars speculate that it was bad eyesight. Imagine if Paul had written, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, I was given poor eyesight. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (vv. 7-9). These would still be powerful verses, but the focus would fall more directly on Paul and his failing eyes.
But because Paul uses the open-ended metaphor of the “thorn in the flesh,” the focus falls instead on a common dynamic in our walk with God: a significant trial in our lives leaves us no choice but to abandon ourselves again to God’s grace, and as we do so we discover that God’s power is made perfect in our surrender. This metaphor frees our imagination to place hundreds of different trials from our own lives under its wide umbrella.
4. We are called to dream dreams and see visions. We live in the age of Pentecost. On that wondrous day when the Spirit was first poured out, Peter explained what was happening by quoting the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy’” (Acts 2:17-18).
Through the Spirit we are called to see visions of God’s coming kingdom and then live toward these visions as we seek first God’s kingdom in all that we are and do.
We are called to imagine the ways in which God at present is making all things new (Rev. 21:5), and then to participate in God’s newness-making project. Once again, we have no choice but to follow God through our imaginations.
Twenty years ago at a conference I heard Nicholas Wolterstorff read a poem comparing the Christian life to riding on a tandem bicycle with Jesus. Ever since, that poem has hung over my desk because that metaphor captured for me the intersection between biblical teaching and my walk with the Lord in profound ways. That poem has been a servant to me, encouraging and deepening my faith through my imagination.
As the Bible tells us, we are fearfully and wondrously made. I thank God that he blessed us with imaginations that nourish our walk with him.
Christians have a history of being somewhat nervous about the role of the imagination in their walk with God (responses to the bestselling novel The Shack illustrate this ambivalence). It may be helpful to keep these cautions in mind:
There is a crucial difference between using our imagination as a servant and forming an image that we worship. Our imagination points beyond itself to deeper realities, while an image becomes an end in itself, an idol. For example, our imagination helps us pray to God who is “our rock,” but it does not lead us to worship rocks.
Scripture uses so many different metaphors because even a thousand different metaphors could not express the fullness of God’s being. As we use our imagination, we remember that it is a helpful servant that provides partial and incomplete descriptions of God and our walk with God.
Our imagination builds on the testimony of Scripture. It’s as if the Lord says to us, “Here is a book that will stimulate your imagination in ways that will deepen your love for me and your obedience in following me. Use it well!” But other voices around us declare, “Let your imagination run wild in whatever direction you wish, and it’s all good.”
These cautions should not lead us to fearfully abandon our imaginations; they simply remind us of the need for wise discernment.
- How do you picture God?
- How does this picture affect your prayer life?
- What is your favorite parable of Jesus? Why? How does it speak to your life?
- Sid Hielema says that we are living in the age of Pentecost. In what ways do you see God making all things new? How can you participate in this?
- How do you practice wise discernment in your spiritual life?