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Renewing the Mind: Pure Imagination

Last Updated: April 20, 2015

Luke Gilkerson
Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Your Brain on Porn and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

Continued from Part 1

Transformation: This is Paul’s promise in Romans 12:1-2 to those who would “renew their minds.” As we change the way we think, we will change the way we behave. As we begin thinking like Christ, we will begin acting like Christ.

So where do we begin in our discussion of renewing the mind? In today’s post we will begin in the realm of imagination.

Imagination, as I use the word here, is the brain’s capacity to form mental images. When I speak of imagination I don’t use it synonymously with “imaginary,” something fanciful or not based on fact. The mental images we create are not physical realities but they can very well be based on fact. Memory, for example, is a use of imagination. We see an image in our mind’s eye of something we’ve experienced. Our imaginations tap an endless reservoir of memories and experiences. Our imaginations piece together these moments of experience to create powerful and emotionally moving Technicolor movies projected before the mind’s eye. Imagination is a powerful faculty of mind.

The basic building blocks of a renewed mind are renewed imaginations, a renewed mental imagery. I write this with great conviction because I believe that much of our preaching in the church misses this point. When we speak of mind renewal we are focusing on replacing falsehood with truth by teaching people to understand the Word of God. We speak about reading and memorizing the text of Scripture. Many people respond to this teaching by using the Bible like a collection of supernatural mantras: if we simply repeat the truths of scripture to ourselves over and over, eventually we will begin to “think” like God. Doing this usually centers on applying the didactic portions of the Bible, and this approach has merit. However, the vast majority of the Word of God is in story form—a collection of experiences of the people of God.

It was wise for the Holy Spirit to inspire stories (retelling the experiences of God’s people) because stories touch our minds in a way nothing else can. Stories fill our minds with pictures and images that invoke emotion. Stories can make us feel a great solidarity with the characters of them. Stories inspire us and stay with us in ways mere words do not.

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Worship and Imagination

The connection between imagination and worship is important to recognize. The basic description of an idol in Scripture is a carved image. Human imagination is the birthing place of idols: it is within the imagination that the shape and form of idols find their genesis. John Calvin called the human mind “a perpetual factory of idols” that might later find their expression in wood and stone. The imagination fashions predictable gods that will cater to our pleasures, desires and comforts, while our hands form them into reality.

Similarly, worshiping the true God also relates to the idea of “image.” While we are commanded to never make a graven image to represent God, we are told that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), that when we see Jesus we have seen the Father (John 14:6-9). Thus, how we “imagine” Jesus will deeply affect how we worship God.

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Renewing Our Imaginations

Speaking in practical terms, what does it mean to renew our imaginations?

Let’s say I am convicted that my fear of the Lord is lacking. I am not struck by the awesomeness of God the way I should be. I’ve been told I need to “renew my mind,” so I first set about finding those portions of the Bible that command the people of God to fear Him. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). I set about to memorize these Scriptures and ruminate on them throughout the day.

Is this the best way to approach renewing the mind? Or perhaps we can begin in the realm of imagination. Read the following text aloud to yourself (seriously, read it out loud):

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. . . .

“Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.’ The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 19:16-20; 20:18-21).

God says one of His purposes for this awe-inspiring event was so that “the fear of him may be before you.” Israel was struck with the awesomeness of God that day at Mt. Sinai. Forty years later Moses would still refer back to this event in order to call the Hebrew people to lives of radical obedience and fear of the Lord (Deuteronomy 4:33-40). Several hundred years later the author of Hebrews would point back to this event (and look beyond it) to inspire readers with reverence and awe of God (Hebrews 12:18-24).

Notice this Biblical scene is intrinsically visual and auditory. There is no written exhortation to fear the Lord; no systematic theology of God’s magnificent attributes. It is a story: a heart-pounding, frightening scene of the fire of God descending on the mountaintop with peals of thunder and lightning and a great trumpet blast.

When we renew our minds with this passage, we are called to tap our faculty of imagination. This text beckons us to picture ourselves at Sinai that day: experience it afresh in our minds and allow it to capture our hearts. The more we do this as a habit of life, with the many stories of scripture, our minds will be renewed with the sights and sounds of scripture.

Some may be hesitant to call this “mind renewal” because, thus far, no propositional truths are being grasped. While this is certainly not the be-all of mind renewal, it is an essential part of it. We must believe that even the portions of the Bible that contain these highly sensory elements were “written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

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Daydream Believeri

Or perhaps we can think of it another way: What do we daydream about? When we daydream we usually do not do so in words, but in mental pictures. In the downtime of day to day life, thousands of little mental images run through our brains. When our minds are being renewed we can change the content of those daydreams. Whether we realize it or not, these daydreams powerfully affect our emotions and moods. I would go so far as to say that daydreams probably represent the majority of our conscious thoughts, especially in the times we are not actively engaging with specific ideas. If daydreams do represent much of our waking thought-life, how important is it that we renovate our imaginations?

This is especially relevant in the times in which we live. Before the age of television we lived largely in a print-based culture. In that type of culture a reader was used to processing written information in a text at their own pace. But today we have shifted to an image-based culture. We live in a culture saturated with images, from the TV to the computer. This shift is one that affects everything: from how we do politics to how we advertise from how we educate to how we worship. Because of electronic media we have billions of bite-size images that our minds are trying to digest at break-neck speeds. Whether we like it or not, the world we live in will play its part in shaping our imaginations.

But this is where Scripture can become a constant source of fuel for our ever-burning daydream engines. We could spend a lifetime pouring over Bible stories and never run dry. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, Elijah summoning fire from heaven, the visions of the prophets—all of these beckon the imagination and all of them can shape our daydreams.

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I can see at least two potential roadblocks to “sanctified daydreaming.”

The first roadblock we may encounter is that we simply have never developed the practice of picturing anything in our minds that is described in printed stories. Fewer and fewer people turn to books as a means of hearing a good story. As sure as video killed the radio star, the motion picture killed the imagination. Perhaps it would do us good to cut down on the movies and TV and go back to books. I’ll let the reader be the judge of that. I don’t make this point to speak ill against electronic media, but to highlight the fact that the age in which we find ourselves has shaped our imagination habits.

Just as sure as our image-based culture has shaped our discipline of daydreaming, so did the print-based culture before us. Consider what “Bible study” looked like before the age of the printing press. Believers were largely dependent on the Christian community to know the Scriptures. With a print-based culture came more of a focus on words on the page, whereas an oral culture relied on story telling and the imagination of the listener.

Thus one way to develop the discipline of Biblical imagination is to involve the help of other Christians, by going back to the age-old method of reading the Scriptures to one another aloud. It will take time, to be sure, to wean the mind from its diet of endless Internet and video images. But in time it will happen. (It will probably behoove us to remember that the Bible was written in a primarily oral culture: it was written more to be heard than to be read.)

The second problem we may encounter is making these stories “real” to our imaginations. We may read these awe-inspiring stories and be unmoved by them because, quite frankly, the experiences did not happen to us, but to other people, and long ago. The stories carry little emotive meaning and weight. We may trust that they are true, but the stories do not grip us and capture our imaginations.

Part of the problem has to do with our rugged individualism today. If something isn’t my experience then it really isn’t “mine.” The experiences of God’s people in the past do not resonate with me because those experiences didn’t happen to me.

But this is not the way the Bible addresses its readers. When the prophets address each generation of Israel, they speak to them as if they were their fathers, as if they had been through the Red Sea, as if they had been redeemed from slavery. In other words, the prophets were calling them towards an identity that went beyond their own experiences: “Don’t you know who you are? You are the people of God. Remember what God has brought you through.”

Developing our imaginations to include the sights and sounds of scripture will affect our “social identity.” We will continually need to jump over the hurdle of our individualism and say, “These are the stories of our people; these are the experiences that belong to us.” No, you have not personally been on the heights of Mount Hermon with the transfigured Jesus, nor have you seen His empty tomb, nor did you touch His nail-pierced hands. But we, the people of God, have experienced these things. As one eyewitness of Christ wrote, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).

The more you practice the art of sanctifying the imagination, these biblical images and stories will become the building blocks of the renovated rooms of your mind. These images will be the mortar that holds your foundation together, the colors and textures of your mental furniture, the pictures that grace your walls.

Continue Reading Part 3
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