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What are the godly and ungodly uses of the imagination?

The Question:

I have watched many TV programs lately that believe that we should promote creativity and imagination without any restraints. Is this wise? What is the imagination, and how can it be used by satan to defeat us? How can it be used to promote spiritual growth?

The Answer:

The imagination is one of the mental faculties given to us by God. In itself, the imagination is neither good nor evil, but it tends to be led by the sin nature until we are born again. It is that part of our reasoning processes that can visualize an end, something that does not yet exist. Any time a person has an idea, creates a work of art, conceptualizes a plan, or "day dreams", he is using his imagination.

According to the online Encarta dictionary, imagination is defined as the:

1. ability to visualize: the ability to form images and ideas in the mind, especially of things never seen or never experienced directly

2. creative part of the mind: the part of the mind where ideas, thoughts, and images are formed

3. resourcefulness: the ability to think of ways of dealing with difficulties or problems

4. creative act: an act of creating a semblance of reality, especially in literature

This is parallel to the characteristic of God's nature that "calls things that be not as though they were" (Romans 4:17, KJV). In the beginning, God spoke the universe into existence… but the concept, the plan, the imagination of what would be existed before He spoke. Of course God cannot sin, so His imagination always brings forth good.

Although this short study will not cover everything about the imagination, I want to zero on two main topics: 

Imagination can lead to sin

Isaiah 65:2 All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations--

 One strategy that satan uses very successfully for his purposes is perverting our imagination. Part of his deceptive process is to get us to visualize things that are not godly, and then persuade us to act on them, all the while making us believe that these thoughts have originated within us.

James 1:13-16 When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don't be deceived, my dear brothers.

In this case, the evil desires inherent in sinful flesh excite the imaginative process, visualizing the person engaging in that sinful act, and then prompting that person to physically participate in it.

Imagination can be in vain

Proverbs 12:11 He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.

Proverbs 28:19 He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.

Psalm 73: 3,17-20 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked… till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

A philosopher once said:  "My live has been full of terrible tragedies, most of which have never happened". One vain use of the imagination is worry! Walter Mitty is a fictional character who imagined himself in all sorts of heroic circumstances, while his "real" life was nondescript and dull. We can use our imaginations to visualize nonsense and vanity, and miss the great things God wants to do in our lives. Another word for this is escapism.

Psalm 2:1-4 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision. (KJV)

The Psalmist here talks about the vain imaginings of the heathen that lead them to plot against the Lord. Peter and John to this verse in Acts 4:25 in talking about officials of the day who were trying to pervert the work of the Lord. All of these vain imaginings will come to nothing, and since they are an object of scorn to God, we should purge ourselves of them also.

Imagination can be corrupted

Not only can our imaginations lead us into sin, not only can they cause us to waste time thinking on vain things, but they also can become totally corrupted and cause us to believe and live a lie.

Romans 1:20-25 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen.

The essence of idolatry is using the imagination to create objects of worship from created things. In order to worship an idol, one must impart to that idol the reverence and devotion meant for God alone. Instead of viewing creation as evidence of God's glory, a corrupted imagination will view creaturely things as objects of worship in themselves. They imagine that bowing down to a graven image will bring them the satisfaction of their desires. In other words, they believe a lie.

Zechariah 10:2 The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.

The word imagination means the process of imaging … creating an image. We cannot worship without first mentally making an image of what we worship. If we allow our imagination to be fixed on earthly things, we will imagine a false god. What we allow into our minds is the stuff imaginings are made of. If we allow deceit, lying visions, false dreams and vain comfort to enter our minds, that is what will create our image of God.

Jeremiah 14:14 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.

The content of communication media, whether TV, movies, videos, audio, newspaper, books, magazines, etc., has a powerful effect on the imagination. We don't think of the writers and producers as prophets today, but they have a profound influence in the direction of our thinking. You should test what you allow entrance into your mind. Ask yourself, what is this prophet trying to tell me? Has he/she been sent to me by God? Is the vision that I am receiving false? Are they encouraging me to engage in some form of divination (sťances, psychics, tarot cards, etc.)? Is this leading me into idolatry and delusion? Is this corrupting my imagination?

Deceiving the people with a false concept of God is nothing new. Pagan temples typically had an "oracle room" with a conduit or pipe leading to the image of the idol. A priest would pretend to be the god, and his/her amplified voice would deceive the people into doing the idol's will. This was a very crude form of all the imaging abilities modern communications have.

Jeremiah 23:16 This is what the LORD Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.

Someone of corrupt imagination can influence you in that direction and fill you with false hopes. It is very important to watch out for delusional visions in the guise of friendship.

Proverbs 29:18 Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

The writer of Proverbs points to the Word of God as the focus of our imagination or vision. Any other object that holds our imaginations in captivity will lead us astray.

There is such a lying spirit of divination in the world today I feel compelled to repeat again the warnings of scripture:

Ezekiel 13:2-8 "Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. SAY TO THOSE WHO PROPHESY OUT OF THEIR OWN IMAGINATION: `Hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD. Their visions are false and their divinations a lie. They say, "The LORD declares," when the LORD has not sent them; yet they expect their words to be fulfilled. Have you not seen false visions and uttered lying divinations when you say, "The LORD declares," though I have not spoken? "`Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because of your false words and lying visions, I am against you, declares the Sovereign LORD.

Allowing our imaginations to become corrupted, listening to lying prophets who prophesy to us out of their own vain imaginings, who claim to speak for God, although they do not know Him, will cause the Lord to turn against us and our nation.

It would be impossible for me to list all of the influences in our culture that are corrupting our imaginations and keeping us from serving God. On the other hand, our imaginations can be put to good use if we follow the directions in the Word of God. Read the Word and listen attentively to the Holy Spirit, and He will give you discernment.

Imagination can assist our faith

Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect

It is no accident that Paul admonishes us to renew our minds. When we are born again, we have a new spirit within us, but retain the same old mind, thought habits, and damaged imagination as before. Habit will cause our imagination to follow corrupt paths of thought, and it takes a conscious effort to think on godly things and to renew our minds with God's Word.

As a man thinks in his heart, so is he, the writer of Proverbs declares (23:7). What we think about God will determine how we act in our lives. And the only true source of information about God is the Word of God. Instead of allowing our imaginations to become corrupted by ungodly ideas, we need to feed our imaginations with God's Word.

Romans 10:17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (NKJV)

As we partake of the Word of God, and allow it to transform our imaginations, faith will come to us. That faith will cause us to see things from God's point of view, and what is conceived in us will NOT be sin, but everlasting life.

Hebrews 11:1-3 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

When the Word of God transforms our minds, our godly imaginations will reveal to us the substance and evidence of what God has done and is doing and will do in our lives. We can visualize our sins being cleansed. We can see Heaven in our hearts. We can receive visions from God and fulfill the task that God has planned for us to do.

Jeremiah 29:11-13 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."

It is in our imaginations that the plans God has for us can take root, and we can cooperate with Him. Or we can ignore God and our imaginations will lead us down a false path without hope.

Imagination can be inspired by the Holy Spirit

2 Corinthians 1:16-17 I planned to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, "Yes, yes" and "No, no"?

Paul makes it clear in his second letter to the Corinthians that there is a worldly way to make plans, and a godly way. The worldly way is based on false premises and information, and causes us to waffle between "yes I'll do it, no I won't".

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God [God-breathed], and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NKJV)

First, to create godly plans, we must have the counsel of Scripture. If the Bible forbids it, you know it is a vain imagination and will not succeed. Our imaginations must conform to the WORD not the world.

2 Peter 1:20-21 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along [moved] by the Holy Spirit.

To use our imaginations to create godly plans, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us, as He guided those who wrote the Word. This is often called "inspiration", allowing the Holy Spirit to breathe His life and knowledge into us so that the imaginations of our hearts will be holy and conform to God's plan.

I'd rather be carried along by the Holy Spirit than by a corrupted imagination wouldn't you?

The limits of the imagination

Ephesians 3:20-21 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.

Even a renewed mind and a godly imagination has its limits. God can do so much more than we can imagine that it is not measurable by human means. Sometimes we forget we are finite, and God is infinite. He is not limited by what we can conceive or imagine.

I Corinthians 2:9-10 However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" -- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.

Hallelujah! I'm so glad that God has given us the ability to imagine the wonders He has planned for us, but I'm also glad that He is much bigger and more than anything we can imagine. And I'm also thankful that even when our imaginations fail us, that His Spirit can still reveal to us the deep things of God.

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