Mark Sanders Maple Glen Church August 31, 2014
“A Holy Imagination”
C.S. Lewis. The man who continues to capture the hearts of both young and old with each passing decade. The man who was once a staunch atheist who became a great apologist for the Christian faith. The man who would become for many writers, pastors, and scholars, a chief influence in their lives. Men like Tim Keller and John Piper put him at the top of their list of most influential writers, of course apart from those who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. And the question we must ask ourselves is simply, “Why does this man continue to have such a pervasive influence in both the Christian community and the world at large, even 50 years after his death?” Particularly, in the Christian community, why would someone who for many conservative evangelicals, we would say had some sketchy theological understandings, why would he be the man in which we all have a fond a place in our hearts for? And why do we all resonate with him so clearly? I believe C.S. Lewis has such power in his writing because he himself was captured by something we all have been captured by, but very few us have been able to articulate like he has. C.S. Lewis was captured by Christ. But more specifically, C.S. Lewis’ imagination was captured by Christ!
What I want to explore a little today, and what we all have been so profoundly impacted by in C.S. Lewis, is the use of the imagination in the Christian life, and its benefit for us today!
Lewis interestingly notes a significant difference, yet not opposition, between reason and imagination. Lewis has famously said, ““For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”
You see what Lewis understood so clearly, and what we need so desperately in this generation, is a resurrection of the imagination, that does not pit itself against reason, reality and truth, but instead, enhances it. As any apologist will admit, reason and arguments alone win very few to Christ. But as the disenfranchised ex-members of L. Ron Hubberd’s Scientology will also admit, imagination, without reason and truth, saves no one. And so my brothers and sisters, our task as Christians is not to pit truth against the imagination. We don’t have to choose just one, indeed, we must not choose only one. Instead, our goal is to use imagination to make truth even more real to our own hearts, and to the hearts of those we minister to.
My desire, and goal, each and every time I preach and teach, is to do all that I can to capture your imaginations with the truth of God’s word! Every single one of us can testify to the experience of being reasoned with as to why it is valuable and good to pray and read our Bibles. And we understand that reasoning; and admit to its profitability. And yet, if our imaginations are not captured, we all know that no change in our prayer life will occur. No matter how sound the argument, meaning will ultimately be lost for the audience, without the imagination.
One of my favorite examples of truth being enhanced by the imagination, comes from William Wilberforce. Listen to the effect that Wilberforce’s imagination had on himself, and also on anyone who was with him. James Stephen said of Wilberforce, “”Being himself amused and interested by everything, whatever he said became amusing or interesting. . . . His presence was as fatal to dullness as to immorality.”
Just chew on that for a moment. There are 3 incredible realities in this quote.
1st – Everything was interesting to Wilberforce. What makes something interesting? It’s the imagination. Many people look at a tree, or a person, or a math equation, and they see nothing interesting. But when Wilberforce saw these things, when he saw anything, worlds of possibility and imagination opened up to him. Now you might say, well, that was just his disposition. You know he’s wired that way. But I’m not wired that way, and I’m not very creative. But that’s not really the point here with Wilberforce. The point is that he understood that all of the universe declares the glory of God. It does take an innate disposition towards creativity to find anything and everything interesting, it takes the New Birth! It takes Spiritual eyes that see past the mere fact, to its ultimate meaning. This is a Holy imagination that we are seeking to develop.
Secondly, because everything was interesting to Wilberforce, everything he said became interesting to others. The people in this world who capture the hearts and imaginations of others, are those people who have already had their hearts captured themselves. My brothers and sisters, what has captured your heart? Because whatever that is, you will speak about it to others, and you will speak it in the most attractive way you can. And thus, if Christ has captured our hearts, our witness about him will be filled with interest, imagination, and through the Spirit’s power, great appeal to others.
Lastly, Wilberforce’s influence on others was a two-fold blow to both dullness and immorality. Oh how we in America have the equation completely reversed. When you hear the word morality, what words come to mind? For most people, dullness would be at the top of the list. Rarely in the minds of most people, would we ever team up excitement and morality together. But when there is an awakening of a Holy Imagination, these two words are perfectly at home with one another.
But if all I have to say about a Holy Imagination comes from C.S. Lewis and William Wilberforce, we might be in trouble, because these men do not speak directly for God. So we must see what God has to say about this topic. Does God care about his children, his servants, his church, cultivating the imagination? Well let’s see what the Bible has to say about it.
There are a plethora of ways we can go about exploring the imagination in Scripture, but let’s just start with the most obvious place, the beginning! In the beginning, God created the world, “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. Psalm 33:6 tells us that “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” Everything that is, was, is and will be, came from the imagination of our all wise, all knowing, all powerful creator God! “The heaven’s declare the glory of God’s imagination!” And God is so powerful, that whatever he imagines becomes! He imagined stars in the sky, the waters below, the birds of the air, the trees of the field, and behold, they came into being by the very word of his power! But the crowning achievement, the most miraculous display of God’s creative imagination came on the sixth day, when God created man! For in man God was pleased to display his very image! God, in his infinite wisdom and power, created us with attributes that would reflect his very character! And one of the ways we reflect God’s character is in our own exercise our imaginations! What would the world be like if the imagination was an incommunicable attribute of God, like his omniscience or omnipresence. What would the world be like if we had no ability to imagine? For as we know, God in his good imagination, was pleased to give us a world rich with natural resources, all that we could ever need as society, and yet, he gave us no instruction manual except our own imaginations. He told Adam to have dominion over and subdue the earth, and the chief way that we do that is through exercise of our imaginations. God in his infinite wisdom, gave us 66 books of his revelation. None of those books is a guide for how to make a car. Or how to provide indoor plumbing to an entire city. Or how to write a sonnet, or how to convert electricity into heat. No, instead, God was pleased to have us image him in the exercise of our imaginations in subduing the earth! You see, we must understand that when we say “image of God,” we can’t simply think of image as a noun. We must also see it as a verb. Imaging God is something we do! Every time you sacrificially love your neighbor, you are imaging God. Every time you worship and adore God’s excellence, you are imaging God, because he himself prizes his own glory above all else. Every time you tell a story with a beginning, conflict, rising action, a climax, and a resolution, you are imaging the greatest story-teller of all, who has crafted the most spectacular story in the universe! Every time we exercise our imaginations, we are imaging our amazing creator!
So we see from the very beginning, that the imagination is a wonderful gift from God. But like all good gifts, sin and Satan has the uncanny ability to corrupt and distort that gift into a curse. When Satan came into the garden, what did he appeal to in his argument with Adam and Eve. He appealed to their imagination! For when Eve told the serpent that God told them that eating of the tree would result in death, Satan told her “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Just imagine what that would be like, to be like God!! And Eve’s mind begins to imagine all the things she is missing out on by following God’s command.
Is this not the seductive power of an imagination that is corrupted by Satan and the fall! The fall takes a good, and godly attribute, and pins it against the revealed will of our good, loving, all-knowing, and sovereign God. A corrupted imagination does not trust the Lord, in what he says is good and right. Instead, it begins to wander into realms of darkness and death. A corrupt imagination wonders what it would be like, if we were with someone other than our spouse. A corrupt imagination considers all the profit and riches that could come from dishonest gain. A corrupt imagination is unsatisfied with what the Lord has graciously provided for us. Discontentment in God is the source of all kinds of sinful imaginative lusts. Ecclesiastes 7:10 so aptly warns us, by saying, “Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” A corrupt imagination always wants what we don’t have. A corrupt imagination is never satisfied with God’s provision in our lives. Its lust for more and more is insatiable.
And thus Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree.
Now Genesis 3 teaches 1,000 different lessons. But the lesson I want us to take away from it today is to “Guard the precious gift of your imagination!” It is a good and powerful tool that God has given us, but as Peter Parker’s uncle told him, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” God gave us this great gift of our imagination, the question is, “Will you honor him, will you IMAGE him, with how you use it?” We all image our father with our imaginations. The question is who is our father? There are only two choices.
But the amazing thing about God is that with every warning he gives us, he accompanies that warning with a promise! Just after Satan, Adam, and Eve had all used their imaginations in an act of rebellion against their creator, God chooses to counteract their rebellion with an even greater use of His imagination! You see an unimaginative God would have simply destroyed Adam and Eve, destroyed Satan, and perhaps even destroyed the earth for their sin. And he would have been just and right in doing that! But God had a much more imaginative solution in mind. For you see a Holy Imagination always looks for a win in the midst of a seeming total loss. And thus God reveals to Adam, Eve, and Satan, his master plan, that with the God-head, he had been planning before the universe ever was! In Genesis 3:15, he gives them the proto-evangelion, the First Gospel! He says to Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This is a preview of the coming attractions of the Gospel narrative, the most imaginative story ever told! All good stories, all amazing storytellers, take their cues from the author of redemptive history!
This week, in your prayers, in your times of private praise and worship, I would encourage you, to meditate on, and worship God simply for his imagination. Just consider the peacock, or Mount Everest, or the anteater, with a tongue that can protrude for more than two whole feet. We can worship God for that! Or let’s get a little bigger. What about the universe? What about simply the known universe? If you were creating all things, why would choose to create your image bearers and worshippers to be an infinitesimal size compared to the rest of your created universe! Would it not be the further enjoyment of our worship of Him? I mean why else create a Sun, which can reach up to 27 million degrees F at its core, and could fit 1 million earths inside of it. But if that’s not enough, why create the largest known star in the universe, VY Canis Majoris, and make it 1 billion times bigger than our Sun! Or let’s go much much much smaller to our taste buds. God not only had to imagine tastes themselves, but also receptors in our mouths to receive and enjoy those tastes. And God in his infinite grace was pleased to allow a plethora of cultures to develop in the world, all uniquely, some better than others, perfecting their own style of the culinary arts. But even more important, even more majestic than stars in the universe, and spices in our pantries, we should every day, be marveling, and praising our great master story-teller, who through Christ, but also, in the daily events of each of our lives, is still telling his wonderful story of cosmic, gospel redemption!
What I would like to do with the rest of our time together this morning, is simply look at a few more passages, and see how God would have us cultivate our imaginations in a Holy and redemptive way!
First, let’s look briefly at how we use our imaginations to engage the God’s word. The act of reading anything, but particularly the Bible, is an exercise of the imagination. Now let me be very careful in stating from the outset, what I have already sought to show you from C.S. Lewis. When I use the word imagination here, I am not speaking about something that is not true! But instead, I am using the imagination as a tool to greater understand the meaning and vastness of the truth presented to us in Scripture. God could have given us a manual, laying out in cold, logistical, stark terms, his commands, his character, and our correct responses to him. The Bible could have read like a car manual. But it doesn’t. Instead, it is filled with metaphors, prophecies, poetry, stories, proverbs, parables, visions, illustrations: all of these thing which capture our imaginations! The writer of Proverbs 26 could have plainly told us, it’s foolish and awful to repeatedly sin against God in the same manner over and over again. And while we might acknowledge the truth of that, our hearts might not be very moved by such a proposition. The writer of Proverbs understands that. That to have a greater impact on our hearts, he must appeal to the imagination. And so instead, he writes, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit, is a fool who repeats his folly.” Now that sticks with us. We all know that verse. Why? Because it’s such a vivid picture!
One key principle in understanding the Bible’s appeal to the imagination, especially when it come to prophecy, is that while prophecy may have some future fulfillment element to it, we must never forget that all prophecy is meant for our application of it today! Whatever your views on Revelation and the end times may be, I guarantee it is a faulty view if it does not impact and influence your life today! Prophecy is not just given to us for speculation and prediction. It’s chief purpose, is for present perseverance, repentance and trust in the Lord, in the midst of difficult times right now! The imagination is never employed by God just for imagination’s sake. It is meant to impact our lives, and impact the way we act in this life.
There are obviously those places in the Bible, like prophecy, which more overtly appeal to the imagination, but what about those places that seem much more like simple history! What can we say about the use of the imagination in stories like David, or Daniel, or genealogies? I believe there is a less than satisfying way to use our imaginations in these passages, and then there is an amazingly rich and profitable way to use it. First, the less than satisfying way. The simple imagination, looks at the story of David and Goliath, and extrapolates meaning from that story. And the meaning of that story goes like this: “David was a man who trusts in the Lord. Goliath represents all those of those giants in your life who would tempt you to stop trusting in the Lord. But we must be like David, and trust that through God’s power, we can defeat the giants in our lives.” That is one way to use our imaginations in this passage. Is that false or wrong to think that way? No, not necessarily. For truly, we should trust God. And we should believe that God will help us in times of trouble. But if that’s all we get from David and Goliath, we have only scratched the surface of it’s true potential for meaning in both biblical history, and in our lives. A more satisfying engagement with our imaginations, looks at this passage in the context of all of redemptive history. As we look at 1 Samuel 16, the passage right before David and Goliath, we see that David had just been anointed King of Israel. So this David is no ordinary Israelite. He is the successor to the throne! Thus his defeat of Goliath is an assertion of his lordship over not only Israel, but all those who would oppose Israel. In this light, it starts to become difficult to make a direct application to our lives today. None of us would claim to be Kings or have authority like that. So when we look at this passage through a Kingly lens, our focus is taken off of ourselves, and shifted to the true King of Kings! Jesus Christ! And we begin to see how it is Jesus who was anointed as King by John in his baptism, and as the newly anointed King, Jesus goes out to defeat all of his enemies, and claims Lordship over the entire universe! Jesus Christ, and his work on the cross, is the key principle guiding factor, we must use when we engage Scripture with our imaginations. Whenever you read history in Scripture, remember, it is not mere history. It is a story, that’s climax is in Christ Jesus. In a story, everything is leading up to the climax. So when we read about Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, Boaz, Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Job, Daniel, we don’t jump immediately to ourselves. First, we ask, “How would the original audience of these books understand what was written to them, in their context?” And then we ask, “How do these people, in these stories, ultimately point us to Jesus?” We must understand that all good history writing is purposeful history writing. No good historian writes without wanting his readers to take away meaning from the events they are recounting. Thus we must be responsible imaginative readers of history! We must consider, what was the intention of this recounting of history. And when you make Christ the anchor of your understanding of biblical history, you will never go too far off into false interpretations.
But if there is any one thing I want you take away from our discussion of Scripture and the use of our imaginations, I want to encourage you that our experience with Scripture will be greatly enhanced as we engage our imaginations in it. If you are one of those people, which I confess I can often be, who struggles to stay daily in God’s word, I would encourage you to consider how you are cultivating your imagination as you read the Bible. Do you read it simply as history, or simply as moral lessons? Or do you see all of Scripture as the most amazing story ever written? A story with themes, meanings, avenues, paths and depths that would take all of eternity to unveil and fully understand. And it’s a story you’re a part of! Some theologians use the word Drama when talking about Scripture, because drama involves actors and parts to play, and we are all players on God’s redemptive stage. When we read about Adam, Abraham, David, and Elijah, these are not just historical figures in some historical story. They are key players, forerunners, in our own drama today! What they did directly impacts us today! For me, perhaps the most profitable thing I took away from Seminary, was an awakening of my imagination as I read Scripture. As professors began to unpack the riches of Scripture in so many of its forms, I began to see that I had only begun to scratch the surface of God’s amazing beauty in the Bible. I’ve only tasted of glimpse of how Paul must have felt, when he wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” If you have not tasted Scripture in this way, I would encourage you to wrestle with God about this in prayer. Plead with him to give you a glimpse into the wonders and beauties of his Word! This does not mean that we will ever get to a point where every single reading of Scripture is a mountain-top experience. That is not what we’re expecting. But we should hope and pray, that God would give us more and more an imagination that results in the heart of the Psalmist when he says, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” My exhortation to all of us who are bored and uninterested by God’s word today, comes from Ephesians 5:14, which states,“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
So we looked at just a few ways of how the imagination enhances our reading of Scripture. Secondly, I want to consider briefly how the imagination impacts our understanding of reality. For as we all know, what is truly real, is much much more than what we can experience through our five senses. We might call these things Spiritual Realities. Of course, God, is the greatest of these Spiritual realities. We cannot see him, we cannot audibly hear him, we cannot feel his warming embrace, and yet we know him, and we love him, and we experience his love for us! On this earth, people live as citizens of many different countries. There are Christians whose loyalty is to the USA. There are other Christians whose loyalty is to South Korea, or France, or Germany, or Brazil, or South Africa. Those are realities we can see. And yet the greater Spiritual reality is that in Christ, we are all citizens of an even greater Kingdom, and this Kingdom demands our ultimate allegiance. And when our earthly Kingdoms call us to rebel against our heavenly King, we respectfully decide to obey God rather than man!
A Holy Imagination looks about our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our shopping malls, our schools, and it sees much more than people simply living simple lives on this earth. A Holy Imagination sees the potential in every single person for unimaginable greatness, or incompressible horror (a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”). It understands that every single person on the earth is on one of two paths. And it compels us to implore as many people as possible to get off of the wide, and easy path that leads to destruction, and join us on the narrow path that leads to life. A Holy Imagination considers how long eternity really is, and how short in comparison our lives on this earth really are! And that compels us to live each day in light of eternal realities!
A Holy Imagination encourages us in our moments of greatest despair, suffering, shame and guilt. That no matter what your circumstances may be right now on this earth, it is a Spiritual Reality that right now you are united to Christ, and right now, you are seated with him in the heavenly places, because of your union with him! It is this imagination that allows us, compels, demands that we persevere, because one day, what we know only by faith, we shall see with our eyes! The men and women of faith in Hebrews 11 had this Holy Imagination, when it says of them, “13These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them (that is with spiritual eyes) and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” It was Spiritual realities, not their present earthly circumstances, that governed their lives!
Lastly, just briefly, let us consider the use of a Holy Imagination in “Prayer.” And I want us to look at the imagination in our prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (the acronym ACTS, as many of you may know as a tool for prayer).
So first, adoration, I believe we have already covered this. Simply looking up at the stars at night should give us ample fuel for prayers of adoration of our glorious God! If you have trouble thinking of things to praise God for, I would encourage you to simply pray the Psalms. They were incredibly imaginative in their laud and adoration of our glorious King!
Second, confession! If we do not feel the need to confess our waywardness and sinful disposition towards our loving creator and savior, perhaps it is because we have not imagined fully enough how terrible, how ugly, and how utterly repulsive sin really is against a Holy, good, perfect God. For this, I would simply point you Isaiah 6, and imagine what he saw that made him so quick to repent. In order to confess better, we not only need a more vivid imagination of the terrible nature of our own sin, but we also need a more vivid imagination of the amazing, awesome, unapproachable nature of God’s Holiness! Sin’s heinousness increases exponentially with the reality of God’s utter Holiness!
Third, Thanksgiving! If we truly have confessed our sins in a worthy manner, then Thanksgiving will be all the sweeter. Just imagining what Christ went through on the cross to purchase our lives, should result in a myriad of praise and thanksgiving to our God! That though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich. It takes no imagination to bring to mind what we don’t have, but a Holy Imagination marinates not in covetous longings, but soaks in the infinite love of God poured for us in so many ways that it would take entire libraries to fit the pages that we could write about God’s rich blessings upon each of our lives!
Last, Supplication! God is not a stingy God! We do not need to come to him with small prayers. That is not the way God is glorified by our prayer life. Some, in misguided or even false humility, pray for very little. Now of course, we all know that God’s chief desire is not for us to be comfortable and have it all in this life. And we also know that God would not be loving us if he did that for us, for in having everything we could ever want in this life short life, our vision of eternal, spiritual realities would shrivel up and die. And likewise, God would not be loving, if he simply satisfied our appetites for idolatrous passions! No, God doesn’t hate us! He doesn’t give his children over to sinful, idolatrious lusts and desires. Instead, God gives us exactly what we need to greater desire him and his Kingdom! But the question is, when we pray, do we expect and believe that God wants to and can do amazing things in our lives and the lives of those around us.
The passage read before this sermon is a great and wonderful passage to stoke the flames of our imagination. And for the sake of time, I will just read the last two verses, Ephesians 3:20-21 –“ 20 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, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
This passage is so amazing! We can pray huge, world-changing prayers for two reasons in this passage! First, we can pray for God to do amazing things in our hearts and the hearts of others, because it is according to His power that these things happen! It’s not up to us, it is his power that changes lives! Just recently I was praying for a loved one who doesn’t seem to really know Christ, and neither does her boyfriend. And of course I was praying that she would come to know Christ and love and worship him! But then the question was, well how do I pray about her boyfriend. Do I pray that she will break up him? Well, if that is what God calls her to, I pray that she will have the courage and faith to do that. But at that moment, I felt myself under-estimating God’s power, and I felt a Holy desire to pray not only for her boyfriend’s salvation, but that God would so radically work in his life, that he would actually become a huge agent in her life to bring the grace of God to her! I began to imagine what it would look like for him to lead her in times of prayer and reading Scripture! I began to imagine what it would be like for him to sacrificially love her in a way that gives the world a picture of what Christ’s love for his church looks like.
Now how do I know that was a good prayer? I know that because first, it would only be through the power of God that would be working in his life that that would happen. But secondly, look at verse 21 of Ephesians 3. Why does Paul encourage us to pray in grand, imaginative ways? It is for God’s glory! “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” I loved praying for this boyfriend because I got such an amazing glimpse of God’s glory in that moment! I have often wondered how amazing it would be if someone like Kim Jung Un became a Christian. Not only would that be such an amazing answer to prayer for the persecuted church and the people of North Korea. But also, what an amazing testament and display of God’s power and glory if Kim Jung Un bowed the knee to Christ!
So I encourage you, this week, to pray bold prayers! Jesus himself prayed incredibly bold things before his death in his high priestly prayer. And pray too that God would guide and direct your prayers in such a way that your bold and imaginative prayers are for his glory!
I just want you take 30 seconds right now, and let’s just pray for a bit! They could be prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, or supplication. And after a little while I’ll close us in prayer.