“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”-Albert Einstein
Have you ever wondered about your ability to imagine? Imagination is the capacity to form mental images of things or happenings that are real as well as things or happenings that are not real or that have not yet become reality. Understanding that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) can add some clarity to the reason for which we have been given this power of imagination. At some point in eternity God would have conceived of (imagined) making man in his image with faculties similar to his, though on a much limited scale and for a grand purpose. In that sense, without the imagination of God, we would not exist!
Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible translation, says that imagination is the capacity to make connections between the visible and the invisible, between heaven and earth, between present and past, between present and future. It is, thus for Christians, an essential means through which we can see reality whole and in context.1
C. S. Lewis was a master in employing this principle of connecting. He argued that while reason is the organ of truth,imagination is the organ of meaning.2 In other words, our imagination can greatly enhance and make clear our understanding of God, his nature, and his word to us. In fact, a God-focused imagination is a key factor in our ability to personally experience the presence of God. Similarly, author Richard Foster believes that exercising a sanctified imagination is, in one very important sense, the highest act of faith and that through it we can literally have anencounter with the Incarnate Christ.3
For example, when in the midst of a trial, we can imagine ourselves under the shadow of his wings (Psalm 91:4) or when under an attack of the enemy, imagine ourselves as a weaned child protected and nurtured at our mother's breast (Psalm 131:2). When we partake of Holy Communion, we can imagine the reality of our life being hidden in Christ and of his dwelling in us and us in him (John 14:20). When we come boldly before the throne of grace in prayer, we can imagine his washing our feet (John 13:1-16) or seeing ourselves being healed by his wounds(1 Peter 2:24) or being embraced by our Father's unconditional love as he runs to us (Luke 15:11-24). We can also envision the Holy Spirit granting us immeasurably more than we could even ask or imagine.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more
than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,
to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Below is a spiritually formative practice that can help us to be drawn close to God through the blessed world of a sanctified imagination.
Imaginative Prayer Exercise
This practice employs the teaching of Greg Boyd in his book Seeing Is Believing and Ruth Haley Barton in her book Sacred Rhythms as well as personal experience. We will use a passage of scripture already referred to earlier in this article to jump start our imaginative experience.
- Schedule a specific date and time on your calendar for this practice.
- Choose a place that is away from distractions. This location should offer a comfortable chair or cushion where you can sit comfortably for an extended period. Soft music without lyrics,as well as candles or incense may be helpful but are not required.
- As you begin, offer a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to take what you know to be true intellectually and help you to imagine it with your five senses. While those who are new to imaginative prayer might feel awkward at first, it is important to realize that it may take some time before this practice feels natural.
- Slowly read John 13:1-6, allowing yourself to become a participant in the story. Feel free to pause on a word or phrase.
1Now that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” (John 13:1-6 ESV)
- Breath rhythmically as you reflect upon Peter’s phrase, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” As you inhale, think of the word “Lord.” As you exhale, think of the phrase "do you wash my feet?" Spend two to five minutes in this part of the practice. When distracting thoughts come, simply release them to God. If you seem to not experience anything in your imagination, do not worry or fixate on it—just focus on the reality of Jesus’ promise to always be with you.
- Spend this time imagining the passage with “all five senses.” Can you picture Jesus caring for you by loosening your “sandals," placing your feet into a basin of water and cleaning your feet? Notice this scene as vividly as possible. How does this feel both physically and emotionally? There is no time limit in this part of the practice.
- Now you can move into a time of resting in the Lord’s presence. There is nothing else to do but to enjoy the blessing you have received during this exercise.
We conclude by quoting Greg Boyd: “What we in our age of intellectualized Christianity so desperately need to see and experience is that our imagination and God’s Spirit can work together to bring us into a concrete and dynamic relationship with the Lord.”4
—Tom Fallon & John Novick
1 Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994) 169-170.
2 Art Lindsley, PhD., “The Importance of Imagination for C. S. Lewis and Us.” Knowing and Doing, A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind. Summer 2001, C. S. Lewis Institute Report.
3 Richard Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer (IVP Books, 2011), 37.
4 Boyd, Gregory A.. Seeing Is Believing: Experience Jesus through Imaginative Prayer (p. 131). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
-Tom Fallon is a support of Odyssey in Christ and a regular participant in retreats and classes. He is actively involved in sharing the ministry's teachings in prison ministry.
-John Novick has served in pastoral ministry for 25 years.