Godly and ungodly uses of imagination
Our imagination is a God-given gift. It gives us the ability to create new ideas or images beyond what we have seen. Mankind’s first task required great imagination; Adam was asked to think of a name for every animal and bird God created. The Bible shows that the first person to be filled with the Holy Spirit was a master craftsman with creative skills. Unfortunately, the first sin also involved our imagination; imagining that we can be like God.
Genesis 2:19-20 ESV Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field…
Exodus 35:30-33 ESV Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.
Our imagination can be used for good or evil. When we follow God’s Spirit, our imagination can be used to bring about good outcomes.
If we, like Eve, listen to Satan (the serpent), our imagination will lead us away from God and bring about destruction and curses. In fact, mankind’s imagination can be so evil that we have done things that have not even crossed God’s mind, such as burning one’s own children as sacrifices to Baal (Satan). Our imaginations can be grievous to God.
Genesis 3:4-6 ESV But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Jeremiah 19:4-5 ESV Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—
Ways our imagination has been corrupted
God never intended our imagination to be used for evil. When He created us, He made us in His image. We were destined to be good and righteousness in all our ways and kind in all our works
Genesis 1:27 ESV So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Psalm 145:17 ESV The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.
It was only after Adam and Eve sinned against God and ate of the forbidden fruit that mankind also got to know evil. Eventually, evil became so pervasive that everything mankind “thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.” We just need to look at the ways we mistreat the earth and one another to know that this is true up to today.
Genesis 3:22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.
Genesis 6:5 NLT The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.
Psalm 73:7-8 NIV From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Here are some examples of how we continue to misuse our imagination:
- False ideas about God: Imagining wrong ideas about God | Matthew 10:34,37,39 NLT “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.
- Unbelief: Imagining arguments against God | 2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
- False securities from this world: Imagining that money is our security | Proverbs 18:10-11 ESV The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe. A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination.
- Pride: Imagining we are superior to others | Romans 12:3 ESV For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
- Evil schemes: Imagining ways to take advantage of others | Romans 15:2 ESV Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
- Judgmental: Imagining the worst in people without connecting to present reality | Romans 15:1 ESV We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
- Pessimism: Imagining the worst of outcomes consistently | Philippians 4:8 ESV Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
- Fear: Imagining that we will be harmed, rejected or punished | 1 John 4:18 ESV There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
- Worry: Imagining all the different possibilities, most of which will never happen | Matthew 6:34 ESV “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
- Idolatry and ungodly art: Imagining up and creating ungodly images and idols | Isaiah 65:2-3 NIV All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations— a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick;
- Lust and adultery: Imagining ungodly sexual activities | Matthew 5:28 ESV But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
- Daydreaming: Imagining alternative scenarios in order to escape the present situation | Ecclesiastes 5:7 NLT Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.
- False divinations and prophecies: Imagining up prophecies and misrepresenting God | Jeremiah 14:14 NIV Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.
- New age visualisations: Imagining our own healing or well-being, instead of going to God for peace in our hearts and minds | Philippians 4:7 ESV And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Godly use of our imagination
Once we ask Jesus to be our Saviour, we are expected to put on a new nature and have our minds renewed so that we think more like our Creator, that is to:
- Seek God’s righteousness
- Be kind to others
Colossians 3:10 NLT Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.
Instead of allowing our minds to wander to dark, sinful areas, we ought to let the Holy Spirit renew our thoughts and imaginations.
Ephesians 4:18,20,21 NLT Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. But that isn’t what you learned about Christ… throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes.
Here is how we can pray as we submit our imagination to God for His glory.
“Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for my gift of imagination. I confess I have lacked self-control over this gift and allowed it go wild in the past. There have been times I have even abused this gift and led others to sin against You too. I repent for corrupting Your gift and using it for ungodly purposes, ignoring your promptings in my spirit. How I have grieved You, Heavenly Father. Please forgive me and teach me discipline. Holy Spirit, please show me how to use this gift for God’s glory.
In Jesus’ name, I pray, amen.”
Proverbs 3:11-12 ESV My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
When we do, we will also find ourselves using our imaginations to help others:
- Loving others: Imagining how to love others as we love ourselves | Leviticus 19:18 NIV “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
- Empathy: Imagining how someone feels and share in their experiences | 1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
- Encouraging others: Imagining how we can support and encourage others | Hebrews 10:24 NLT Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.
- Creativity: Imagining and creating music and artwork that praise God | Ephesians 5:19 ESV Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
How imagination works in our brains
Little is known about how our brains conjure up our imaginations.
As we all know, our imaginations can bring about very real emotional and physical reactions. Just imagining an ice cream with our favourite toppings may elicit pleasant feelings. Our mouths may salivate and our hearts may beat a bit faster. Imagining all the uncertainties about our future can generate a lot of anxiety. We experience a tightening in our chest and may start to frown subconsciously.
Brain research has shown that the act of imagining something activates multiple regions of our brain and uses the same neural circuits as our perception of reality. The neural signals for imagination and reality, however, flow in different directions. Signals for reality flow from the part in our brains that processes visual information (the occipital lobe) to the part that integrates sensory information, such as taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell (the parietal lobe). Imagination, on the other hand, causes the signals to flow in the opposite direction. We process more sensory signals before we “see” something as we imagine. (Source: Imagination, reality flow in opposite directions in the brain.)
The human imagination tends to draw on what we have been exposed to. This is one reason why our dreams, which is one aspect of our imagination, tend to reconstruct stories based on what we have tasted, heard, seen, touched or felt.
God is beyond our imagination
God, on the other hand, is far beyond what we have seen or heard or can ever imagine. His ways and His thoughts are way higher than ours. He is not limited by our limitations.
1 Corinthians 2:9 NLT That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Acts 17:29 ESV Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.
Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Placing our faith in God, therefore, requires us to go beyond our imagination – to a place of rest. No amount of striving or thinking will help us know God’s good and perfect will. God Himself has to reveal that to us, as He accomplishes infinitely more than we can ever imagine.
Ephesians 3:20 ESV … Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,
Using imagination wisely when reading the Bible
Reading the Bible can sometimes require us to stretch our imagination, especially when deciphering the various parables, analogies, and unfamiliar Jewish traditions. Yet there is also a danger that we use our imagination to fill in the gaps too much and misinterpret God’s Word.
We will only truly understand the true essence of what is being taught in the Bible when we understand Jewish culture and history, and the context in which the text is written. Thankfully, that is very easy to do these days with all the online resources that are available.
One such example is the apostle Paul’s “thorn in his side” in 2 Corinthians 12:7. When we read such a statement, we may imagine that he was referring to a painful physical ailment. But if we look deeper into the Bible, we will see that God had warned the Jewish people in the Old Testament (Numbers 33:55) that they would be harassed by the people they failed to drive out their land. These people would be become “thorns in their sides.” Paul, being very learned in the scriptures, would have been familiar with this phrase and have used it to refer to someone who tormented him too, like a “messenger of Satan”. If we rely merely on our imagination to fill in the gaps and make some sense of scripture, we would have misunderstood the meaning behind 2 Corinthians 12.
2 Corinthians 12:7 NIV or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
Numbers 33:55 NIV “‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.
Also, see Reading the Bible with God’s Spirit.
Using imagination wisely when exercising spiritual gifts
The same error can be made with visions and prophecies. God’s Word shows that there are those who “prophesy from their own imaginations” and “speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.”
Ezekiel 13:17 NLT “Now, son of man, speak out against the women who prophesy from their own imaginations.
Jeremiah 23:16 ESV Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.
Because both prophecy and visions are very similar to imagination, in that they also bring about “new ideas or images beyond what we have seen,” we must exercise wisdom and discernment. The Bible warns us to test all prophecies.
1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 ESV Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.
It is all too easy to imagine that we are seeing or speaking something “spiritual” and loving, when we could simply be following our desires and will or influenced by our past experiences.
Jeremiah 16:12 ESV And because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me.
Thankfully, the Bible provides some guidelines for us to ensure we do not fall into this trap. Here are some ways we can test prophecies and visions:
- To start with, did we invite the Holy Spirit to speak to us? | Isaiah 11:2 ESV And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
- Does the prophecy or vision strengthen, encourage, and/or comfort? | 1 Corinthians 14:3 NIV But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
- Does it point people to God’s glory? | 2 Corinthians 4:5-7 ESV For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
- Does it lead to the fruit of the Holy Spirit? | Galatians 5:22-23 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
We can always recognise false prophecies and false visions by their fruit.
Matthew 7:15,17 NLT “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
Ephesians 4:29 ESV Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
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