One of the things I love best about my favorite book character, Anne Shirley, is how she always talks about having “scope for the imagination.” A tree in its white array of spring bloom, a meeting of a new kindred spirit, the dawning of a new day – all of these held endless possibilities for delighted Anne to imagine things about them. Indeed, her vivid imagination is something we share in common, magnified in both of our childhoods.
Unfortunately, such an imagination can also get a person in trouble – as Anne discovered when she imagined her ghosties into existence in the Haunted Wood, and as I’ve discovered when I have brought myself to tears imagining my own death or the death of a best friend.
Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about all the ways that I can waste my imagination. Imagination is a gift from God to be used creatively. By it we can hone our gifts, reach out to others, and come up with new ways to better the world around us. Yet how often do we waste our imagination on fruitless thoughts?
Are we imagining scenarios of what others think of us, based on looks they gave us or words they said?
Are we imagining arguments we’ll get into with someone based on our assumptions of how they feel towards us?
Are we imagining forbidden scenarios of sinful mind wandering?
Are we imagining not-forbidden-but-still-dangerously dreamy future scenarios that will leave us devastated if they don’t happen?
Are we imagining what life would be like if we were prettier, more successful, more popular, more admired, richer?
Some of us have more active imaginations than others, and they are working round the clock often without our noticing (even into our very vivid dreams). We might not even be aware of how much time we spend imagining all the above scenarios until we start catching ourselves at it.
But God didn’t give us our imaginations to waste. He gave us our imaginations to create, to discover, to wonder, to expand, to grow with. And I find myself in a much healthier state of mind when I’m using my imagination for these purposes rather than the introspective, self-focused purposes listed above.
I find myself inspired and excited when I imagine new ways to reach out to others and offer hospitality.
I get lost in the “creative zone” when I imagine new things to try in my classroom and ways to teach my students.
I get delighted when I imagine new stories and things to write about – or simply stop to observe the world around me and imagine new ways to describe it.
When I stop to contemplate God’s glory and imagine all there is still to learn about him, I’m captivated by wonder and awe.
These are the ways God wants us to use our imagination. In ways that bring light to our lives and others – not the darkness of things that are most likely not even true. When I get trapped by the deceitfulness of my imagination and the lies I convince myself to believe, I get discouraged and depressed. But I always have the ability to refocus my imagination and train my thoughts to go where there is truth.
God meant for us to use our imagination to love and serve others, to see depth and beauty, to generate life and inspiration, to connect with others, to communicate what our souls love.
So here are a few questions to ask ourselves when we wonder if we’ve been wasting our imagination:
Is this an actual situation that I have reason to believe is true? If I’m anxious about a conflict with someone, do I need to go talk to them directly instead of imagining what they’re thinking and feeling?
Is what I’ve been imagining helping me to set my affections on the wrong thing? Is it attaching me to idols instead of to God?
Is imagining this future scenario productive to my heart and mind? Or is it making me more discontent that I don’t have it?
Am I rehearsing my own flaws or someone else’s flaws, growing my guilt or dislike for another person instead of seeking grace for myself or them?
Have I been praying about this problem as much as I’ve been imagining all the ways I’m going to control it?
Have I been growing my own self-exaltation or self-admiration by what I’ve been imagining?
If any of these things are true, the best thing to do is stop and pray about them. I’ve been learning that the more I recognize these thought patterns by the grace of God, the more I’m prompted to pray, which in turn leads to greater peace. And if I consistently pray that God will guide my imagination to more productive means, he will bring to mind the things he wants me to create and do.
Sin and Satan want to distract us from all the glorious ways God will use our imaginations. The idolatrous and self-seeking thoughts fly into our minds more quickly than we realize. Yet when we surrender them to Christ and ask him to reshape our imaginations to be like his, he will slowly accomplish this in us. It’s not a process we’ll ever master in this lifetime, but it is a process worth pursuing.
So let’s stop imagining the worst about ourselves and others and let’s start imagining the best that God has in store for us. Because just like Ephesians 3:20 says, he is able to do far more than anything we could think or imagine. What a great God we serve.