Life + Culture

Obey God with Your Creativity: The Christian Duty of Imagination

Obey God with Your Creativity

One of the great duties of the Christian mind is imagination. But not all uses of the imagination are a Christian duty. Some are exactly the opposite. Nor is the imagination the only duty of the Christian mind. The mind is also charged with the duties of observation, analysis, and organization.

Imagination happens when the mind goes beyond observation, analysis, and organization of what’s there, and imagines what is not seen, but might be there — and what might explain what we do see (as in the case of most scientific research). Imagination also happens when the mind imagines a new way of portraying what is already there (as in the case of creative writing and music and art).

Imagination Hijacked

There is imagination that is incredibly creative, and yet deceptive, even pathological. The book of Proverbs creatively portrays this kind of deceptive creativity. For example, Proverbs 26:13–16:

The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!
     There is a lion in the streets!”
As a door turns on its hinges,
     so does a sluggard on his bed.
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
     it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
     than seven men who can answer sensibly.

These picturesque (imaginative!) verses might be four distinct proverbs only related by the fact that they are all about the sluggard. But I suspect there is more going on in this grouping than that.

The imagination of the sluggard is in full swing in verse 13. He invents, out of his own wonderfully imaginative head, a nonexistent situation in order to justify his lazy unwillingness to get up and go to work: “There’s a lion in the streets!” He does not want to go out. So his imagination kicks into gear and creates a situation in which he can’t go out. This is deceptive. He is using his imagination to lie.

But it may be worse than that. He might even believe his own imagination. The middle two proverbs emphasize the depths of this man’s sloth. He stays in bed. The greatest extent of his progress toward a productive goal is like a door on a hinge. Movement. But no progress.

As a door turns on its hinges,
     so does a sluggard on his bed.

When he manages to get to the breakfast table, he is so lazy he can get his hand into his dish, but he can’t get it out. This man is on his way to starvation. Won’t work. Can’t eat.

The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
     it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.

The point: sloth leads to self-destruction.

But then comes the stunner. This man thinks he’s brilliant. He is more impressed with the shrewdness of his imaginative powers (“There’s a lion in the streets!”) than he is with the true wisdom of seven sages.

The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
     than seven men who can answer sensibly.

In other words, his powers of imagination have reached such levels of creativity and cleverness in the service of his sloth that he has lost touch with reality and is living in his own masterfully crafted cage of creativity. This is why I said the imagination can be pathological. This is not Christian duty, but Christian defection. Sin has hijacked the imagination, and made it the servant of self-deception.

Minds at Their Most God-Like

So let’s turn from this destructive use of the imagination to the Christian duty of imagination. I say that imagination is a Christian duty for two reasons. One is that you can’t apply Jesus’s Golden Rule without it. He said, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). We must imagine ourselves in their place and imagine what we would like done to us. Compassionate, sympathetic, helpful love hangs much on the imagination of the lover.

The other reason I say that imagination is a Christian duty is that when a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin. The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, organized clearly, and communicated boringly.

Imagination is one key to killing such boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world — all of it — rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth — whether from the world or from the word of God. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.

Imagination may be the hardest work of the human mind. And perhaps the most God-like. It is the closest we get to creation out of nothing. When we try to express beautiful truth, we must think of a pattern of words, perhaps a poem. We must conceive something that has never existed before and does not now exist in any human mind. We must think of an analogy or metaphor or illustration which has no present existence. The imagination must exert itself to see it in the mind when it is not there. We must create word combinations, and music, and visual forms that have never existed before. All of this we do, because we are like God and because he is infinitely worthy of ever-new verbal, musical, and visual expressions.

Make a New Song to Sing

A college — or a church, or a family — which is committed to the supremacy of God in the life of the mind will cultivate many fertile, and a few great, imaginations. And oh, how the world needs God-besotted minds that can say the great things of God and sing the great things of God and play the great things of God in ways that have never been said or sung or played before.

Imagination is contagious. When you are around someone (alive or dead) who uses it a lot, you tend to catch it. So I suggest that you hang out with some contagious people (dead or alive) who overflow with imaginative ways of expressing things. (The Bible may be the most imaginative book of prose in the world. Not because it creates reality that is not there, but because it puts that reality in so many surprising expressions.)

Imagination is also like a muscle. It grows stronger when you flex it. And you must flex it. It does not usually put itself into action. It awaits the will. I encourage you to exert this muscle in your mind. Make conscious efforts to express precious truth in striking and helpful ways. Think up a new way to say an old truth. God is worthy. “Oh sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1; 33:3; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10) — or picture, or poem, or figure of speech. Let’s flee together from the sin of boring people with God and his amazing works and ways.

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