Can You Imagine?

Why imagination is crucial to the Christian life
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When the biblical writers call us to faith, they are calling us to reject this view of the world and, instead, foster an active imagination that can see what God sees. When the prophets looked around them, they too saw injustice, sin, and unrighteousness. The rational response to this sort of experience is despair. But the prophets called the people—and us—to hope. A constant refrain of the prophets is a summons to imagine a godly future. "The day is coming," they said again and again, a day when injustice will be judged, when evil will be put right, when exploitation will cease, when God's faithful people will experience the deliverance they have hoped for—hoped against experience. This is a radical message. It requires a godly imagination that can form "images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses," an imagination shaped by the truth that God is a loving Creator who is deeply connected to his people and works tirelessly for their good. The prophets call us to share this vision, and they do so by painting landscapes of a world that contradicts our experience because it exists only in the mind of God until that "day" comes.

Jesus calls us to an even more demanding act of imagination. He stood in the line of the prophets, but he radicalized their message. "The day is coming," they had said. He changed the tense. He says, "The day has come." The world the prophets had envisioned is no longer a future reality. It is happening here and now. Jesus invites his followers to imagine that the kingdom of God is at hand, and with it have come all those promised reversals. If I may be so bold, it appears that the imagination was Jesus' main target. With his parables about the kingdom of God, Jesus helps us peek behind the veil and see the truth beneath the appearances of our experience. A statement like "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" takes considerable imagination to believe.

The apostle Thomas lacked imagination. The other apostles had seen the risen Lord, and they told him so. But Thomas only trusted his own experience. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were," he said, "and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25). Jesus rebuked Thomas and, in doing so, affirmed those of us who trust the testimony of the apostle through the faith enabled by a sanctified imagination: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).

Imagination and the Christian Life

More often than not, Jesus talked about the kingdom of God in a way that aroused the imagination. We tend to think that if we simply believe the right things then we'll behave the right way. But Jesus knew better. He knew that touching the imagination means penetrating beyond the intellect and pricking the conscience. If reason changes our minds, the imagination changes our hearts. It helps us feel the truth, not just know it. We can know full well what we ought to do. But touching the imagination can inspire us with a vision of God's reality that will compel us to act.

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