I stood before the rack of cards and let out an irritated sigh. I folded another sparkling heart-smattered card closed after reading its equally garish sentiments. Wiping pink and red glitter from my fingers onto my jeans, I reached for another Valentine’s Day card. With each new expression my heart sunk and my frustration rose. Lies! These cards are full of lies and empty romantic nonsense! I wanted to shout in frustration in the middle of the aisle. Were there really married people out there who felt this way? I couldn’t imagine it to be true.

My husband and I were in the midst of a particularly difficult season in our marriage. The stresses of finances, caring for small children, and my own journey pursuing work outside the home added tension to an already tenuous connection. Emotionally distant, each resenting the other for countless tiny transgressions, we were going through the motions of life side by side. Neither of us knew how to bridge the separation growing between us.

My afternoon card shopping was followed by a particularly subdued Valentine’s Day which will forever mark our memories as the day we decided it was time to seek marriage counseling. Not being able to choose a card to give my husband that day was a superficial issue, but it drew my attention to a much more serious problem: I had lost my imagination.

Rehabilitating “imagination”

In his recent CT interview, pastor and author Rankin Wilbourne touches on the importance of imagination, claiming,

We have to rehabilitate this word imagination. It’s not imagination versus reality. Imagination is simply the God-given capacity to image what is real but is not visible. You use your imagination all of the time. For example, when Ephesians 2 says “you are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms”—to lay hold of what that could possibly mean, you have to use your imagination.

For many of us, imagination is akin to make-believe—a way children can picture and explore the world. In that framing of imagination, it’s something that is eventually replaced by the necessity of engaging with the “real world.” But the way we understand imagination should not be so hastily equated merely with fantasy. Here Wilbourne speaks in the context of utilizing imagination as a tool to “lay hold of” biblical truth. Imagination is also a vehicle, moving us forward.

In Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith writes, “We are, primarily and at root, affective animals whose worlds are made more by the imagination than by the intellect … humans are desiring creatures who live off of stories, narratives, images, and the stuff of poiesis.” He continues, “It is not enough to equip our intellects to merely think rightly about the world. We also need to recruit our imaginations. Our hearts need to be captured by the vision of a telos that ‘pulls’ out of us action that is directed toward the kingdom of God.”

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In this understanding of imagination—laying hold of spiritual realities, being captured by a vision of truth that directs our action—we can consider this question: If a marriage is struggling, is it possible to imagine a healthier marriage? Working within Wilbourne’s definition, while what is visible and what we may presently experience in a marriage may be pain and brokenness, what is equally real and true—even if invisible—is that same marriage being redeemed by the gospel. If, as Smith suggests, “we live off stories,” then the story motivating our marriages is of vital importance. Are we living merely according to the narrative we presently see and experience? Could we, instead, engage our imaginations to “see” and live according to a spiritual reality which we may not immediately feel—the reality of our marriage covenant before God, rich with his grace and the hope of the gospel?

A critical reframing

The narrative of any Christian marriage at its root is the story of a covenant. A man and a woman come together before God, forsaking all others, and make sacred vows of commitment to one another. Scripture adds depth to our understanding of the marital covenant as we see, over and over again, God’s relationship to his people being compared to that of a bridegroom and his bride. God demonstrates how to be the ultimate marriage partner, loving the stiff-necked and unlovable, regardless of reciprocity of affection, and forgiving countless transgressions. “He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations” (Ps. 105:8).

It is only once we have been captured by this covenantal vision for our marriage that we can then make intentional and concrete decisions to pursue it. Otherwise, we will default to a rival story supplied by the culture or by our own self-centeredness. Most often these stories are driven by personal fulfillment. They replace a telos directed toward the kingdom of God and its values with a trajectory marked by our own immediate gratification.

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When my husband and I attended marital counseling, our counselor would ask a crucial question at the end of each session: How would I rate my level of hope for the relationship, on a scale of one to ten? This question propelled me in a new direction; it was a reinvigorating discipline for me to intentionally look at our relationship through the lens of hope. Rather than focusing on hurts or disappointments in our present, could I envision a future of mutual forgiveness and increasing intimacy? Or had I, in fact, become resigned to enduring apathy?

This was the important work of reframing our experience, using a better story to build a scaffolding from which we could assess our brokenness and make necessary repairs. Our discerning counselor knew that filling our heads with better interpersonal skills alone would not help us attain our intended outcome. My mindset—my imagination—needed to be reoriented first.

What imagination isn’t

In marriage, we must be careful to know the difference between a biblically grounded imagination and envisioning an “ideal” that is not grounded in reality. In fact fantasy, or mental escapism, is a dangerous temptation many people face during low seasons in marriage. It’s easier to be swept off our feet by a romantic story in a novel or movie than it is to do the trudging work of utilizing imagination as a spiritual tool to consider what could become of our actual relationship. In sharp contrast, true marital healing requires us to turn away from numbing distraction and to be present to the complex realities of our current situation. Instead of turning inward to an alternate world, we look outward for ways our world could be altered to move us forward in living out our covenant story.

An imagination inflamed by gospel possibility will always turn us away from idols and bondage and reorient us toward the redemptive, hope-filled ways of Christ. Happiness may be a corollary of a healthy marriage, but if happiness is the goal of the relationship, then it has become an idol. Only Christ is sufficient to bear the full weight of our needs. We must be willing to sacrifice for one another—for, in marriage, as author Gary Thomas emphasized, we are not only to be made happy, we are being made holy.

Hope in my sock drawer

In my own marriage, this story of sanctification has manifest itself in a myriad of little ways. For us, it has meant pursuing an intimate friendship with one another by prioritizing time together apart from our kids. It’s meant committing to share with each other the news of our individual worlds and to respond to each other with interest and engagement.

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For me one of the biggest shifts has been recognizing when my imagination is faltering. An occasional disagreement, misunderstanding, or bout of selfishness does not signal a complete breakdown of everything we have worked toward. Rather than lose hope, I’m learning to view those inevitable moments as occasions to practice patient perseverance or to choose an others-first attitude. Together we called by Christ to live oriented to loving the Lord (and his image in each other) with our whole being, to honoring our covenant, and to loving our neighbor as our self. Daily, we’re trying to imagine and live out ways our marriage can demonstrate we believe this.

That day, when I was shopping for a card that didn’t make me nauseous, somehow my sputtering imagination sparked. I did buy a card that day—but I didn’t give it to my husband. It wasn’t how I felt at that time—it wasn’t for that Valentine’s Day. I bought the card that I hoped could someday be true of us despite the tough season we were experiencing. When I brought the card home, I hid it in my sock drawer. Buying it was an impulsive act that day—not an intentional, thought-through decision. But it turned out to represent a seed of hope that sprouted and grew through daily watering in the insistently redemptive story of Scripture. It was an investment in possibility.

Six months of marriage counseling, prayer, and hard work later, I gave my husband that card. We were out to dinner for our tenth anniversary, and I was overcome by gratitude for the years we’d shared. The vision of what could be was in particularly sharp focus that warm summer evening. I imagined us, decades down the road, the bulk of our years behind us rather than ahead, still being formed more into the image of Christ—together.

Aleah Marsden is a writer, speaker, and the communications director at Living Bread Ministries. She also serves as a board member of Redbud Writers Guild. Connect with her at AleahMarsden.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.