There’s a door in your heart labeled ‘Imagination’ and Jesus often knocks on it. I believe He prefers this means of entry into the deeper spaces of the heart and our spiritual formation is significantly stagnated, even distorted, without His presence there. Initially I was both inexperienced with ‘imagination’ and clueless about my ‘heart.’ I needed His persistent knocking simply to awaken the one so that I could ‘see’ the other. Allow me to share something of these interdependent necessities – imagination and heart – in my journey with God.

Hearing With Your Imagination. If we listen closely we hear Jesus knocking on the imagination door via many verses of scripture. For instance, Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). To have “assurance for things hoped for” and “conviction of things not seen” requires imagination. Many of us hear the knocking but assume Jesus is rapping his knuckles on the door labeled ‘Reason & Intellectual Analysis.’ We side-step the imagination and keep opening to ‘faith’ with a different door; so many “things hoped for” and “things not seen” remain inaccessible to us.

And consider Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (ESV). Most of us can be “as though in prison with them” only by engaging the imagination. It’s another indication that to live the life Christ would have us live requires an active, supple, responsive imaging ability.

Some of us respond to this imagination-challenge by saying, “I don’t have much imagination.” But really, we would not be Christians if we had not imagined God raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life. There are many great invisibles which we can only know by imagining – the short list includes God Himself, His mercy, His grace and His forgiveness. Only after we have imagined them as true do we see their observable effects in our lives. We each have an imagination which provides the ability to realize the reality of God. It may be stunted but we have an imagination.

Imagination Defined. It’s our ability to produce mental images and ideas; our ability to see the unseen, believe and trust in reality which is not detectable with the five senses. No, we are not talking about ‘fantasy’ which deals with the unreal, the illusory. Rather we mean truth: real stuff both discoverable and apprehensible through the imaging power God has equipped us with. I especially appreciate Eugene Peterson’s functional explanation: imagination is “our capacity to make connections between heaven and earth, past and present, present and future” (Subversive Spirituality, Eerdmans, 1997).

For Evil and Good. The word ‘imagination’ in the Bible appears at first to refer only to a negative, sinful human ability: Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts (imagination) of the human heart was only evil all the time” (NIV). Yet here’s an important explanation:

“But the same word that describes the ability of the human mind to pervert, distort, and ruin a sense of reality is also used in the Bible to describe deep devotion and piety to God. Isaiah does this in a text beloved by many people: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3, NIV).

Here the word translated ‘mind’ is yeser –‘ imagination,’ the same term we found in Genesis 6:5 used for evil imagination. But in this case Isaiah says that the imagination of the righteous is ‘steadfast.’ …this verse describes imagination that is under discipline. This kind of imagination is born of confident faith in Yahweh and results in sublime peace – the peace that comes only from God.” (Imagination: God’s Gift of Wonder, Ronald B. Allen, Multnomah Press, 1985).

Jesus’ Imagination. Our Creator God loves to use imagination. Before there was time, Jesus imagined it and brought it into existence. During creation there was, initially, chaos and then Jesus imagined form and order. First there was darkness on the face of the waters and He imagined light and caused it to happen. When it was time for a Savior/Messiah to rescue humanity, the Trinity imagined Jesus as the man. Jesus imagined water becoming wine. He imagined two fish and a few loaves of bread feeding thousands. He imagined dead people walking out of tombs and you and me loving one another; loving even our enemies. Jesus imagined Himself to be the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the vine, the way, the truth and the life, even the resurrection. Jesus has an awesome imagination – He imagines us having one too.

Seeing My Invisible Heart. In November 1998 I listened as Dave Hutchins, Executive Director of Genesis Institute (Spokane, WA) briefly described (knock, knock) the ‘heart’ as the control center of our life. Dave described the Christian’s heart as “good,” able to be captivated and influenced by God and able to direct our life in Godly ways. Knock, knock! Until then I had little interest in my heart, mostly understanding it to be deceitful and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9). But that, I slowly realized, was the stony, un-regenerated heart. Actually, I didn’t know what my heart was but I suddenly yearned for it to be captivated by God. My imagination was awakened and the search for my heart was launched!

Discovery. I found my heart is new (Ezk. 36:26), is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:17), needs to be enlarged (Psalm 119:32) and must be united (Psm. 86:11). These verses served as intriguing, disruptive knocks on the imagination door and my redemptive curiosity was deeply aroused. Over the next few years I examined, compared and absorbed ‘heart’ information from a variety of theologians, philosophers, pastor/teachers and therapists. For an insightful and helpful over-view of the spiritual heart, seek out the J.I. Packer and the Jerry Bridges references in the recommended resources below.

We have a theology of the heart which undergirds the ministry of Genesis Institute including the Spiritual Formation Workshop. Our heart ‘model’ (below) depicts the central, integrating function of the heart as it incorporates the input and generates the output of the interactive human capacities, one of which is imagination. This heart activity functions within the context of the ‘war zone’ where the battle rages between the Spirit and the flesh, between Godly desires and self-centered human wants/demands. With the model in view, can you imagine…

Christ, dwelling in your new heart, desiring to rule and rein over more and more of your mind, will, affections, desires, imagination and conscience, thus further restoring the image of God within you and bringing integration.

Spiritual formation occuring in the war (growth) zone where the battle rages between your flesh (your points of unlikeness and resistance to Christ) and the Holy Spirit. As God’s influence grows, transformation occurs and the heart ‘enlarges.’

Growing Imagination and Heart. Meditation will do it – the imagination can be engaged and will grow, the heart can be accessed, united (integrated) and enlarged as the Holy Spirit influences you more widely and deeply as you relate to God through meditation. We’ll probe into more details of Bible meditation/prayer in later posts. For now, simply imagine yourself as one of the trees written about in Psalm 1:3. Jesus has His “I Am” statements and we can have ours: “I am a tree…”

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, …but their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season and their leaves do not wither” (vs. 1-3, NRSV).

Imagine your roots – in what kind of soil are your roots embedded (Jer. 17:8; Luke 8:5-8)? Imagine the water by which you are planted – what kind of water are your roots seeking and drinking (John 4:10)? Imagine your branches (John 15). Imagine the fruit you are designed to produce (John 6:44). Knock, knock!

We end with this: “Western theology, particularly since the Reformation has emphasized propositions, a particular way of knowing truth that discounts imagination in favor of reason. We need to correct the imbalance in our lives and somehow find for ourselves what we weren’t given in school or church. We need to seize imagination” (Cheryl Forbes, Imagination: Embracing a Theology of Wonder, Multnomah, 1986). It’s true for me and I imagine it’s true for you.

Recommended Resources

John Flavel, Keeping the Heart, Christian Heritage, 1801 and 2012

H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man, T. & T. Clark, 1926

Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, HarperOne, 1941

Bernard Haring, Christian Renewal in a Changing World, Desclee Co., 1964

Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, NavPress, 1978

Henri J. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, Ballantine/Random House, 1981

Bernard Haring, Heart of Jesus, Liguori Publ., 1983

Jan Bovenmars, A Biblical Spirituality of The Heart, Alba House, 1991

Michael J. Wilkins, In His Image, NavPress, 1997

Larry Crabb, Connecting, Word Publ., 1997

Neil Anderson and Robert Saucy, The Common Made Holy, Harvest House, 1997

Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, W Publishing, 1999

Dwight Edwards, Revolution Within, Water Brook Press, 2001

John Eldredge, Wild at Heart, Thomas Nelson, 2001

John Eldredge, Waking the Dead, Thomas Nelson, 2003

J.I. Packer, Praying, IVP, 2006

R. Thomas Ashbrook, Mansions of the Heart, Jossey-Bass, 2009

Henri J. Nouwen, Spiritual Formation, HarperOne, 2010

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2012

Dave Hutchins, Core Concepts in Biblical Mentoring – Class Notes, Genesis Institute