What's the Use of an Imagination?

Originally published on January 28, 2014

I saw a commercial the other day for a high definition television. It showed a director (or producer?) looking out over an ocean. Then flames started to appear on the surface of the deep. After that, mighty towers emerged from the abyss to reach toward the sky. It was not long before angry workers were swarming those towers, while two lovers kissed in the background. The director was bringing his imagination to life, and thanks to the new high def television, he could bring it to you, as well.

It was meant to be a visually stunning commercial, and it was. It left you with the impression that if you lived in the mind of this director, you would have exciting adventures that included jet skis, rusted metal, true love, and watery mysteries. Hey, it's not just any nation. It's the imagi-nation. 

As a writer of fantasy novels, I regularly tip my hat to the power of the imagination. I'm grateful for it, because without it we wouldn't have the IliadCanterbury Tales, the Lord of the Rings, or Chronicles of Narnia. We wouldn't even have Flatland. Imagination gives us access to worlds both more complicated than ours and less complicated. We can escape into alternate planes, explore deep theological issues through fictional characters, and relate timeless truths to our children in vivid color. Truly, there is no limit to the power of our imagination. 

Why is there no limit? Because none of it is real. We all know this. We are dealing with inflated reality: we can print off as many dollar bills as we like, some with encouraging, beautiful designs and some with harmful, hateful ones, but it's all play money. I can write my books, get movies made of them, market action figures of Vancien and Amarian, and even do a mock-up of the capitol city of Lascombe in New Zealand. But I cannot give any of it life. I can't make it live and move and have its being. My characters live only in stories, which is sad, but probably for the best.

So why all the hype about imagination? Why pour our energies into it, when reality is right at our fingertips? There are several ways to answer that. After all, Jesus himself spoke in parables, or fictional stories telling truths. Today, I want to throw one more reason onto the pile. I want to argue that one of the highest functions of the imagination is its use in prayer.  

I can see the Jewish nation joyfully recognizing Christ as their savior. So I can "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:6). I can imagine how the IRS agent hounding me goes home at night to a nagging wife and a pounding headache. That might help me "pray for those who persecute me" (Matthew 5:44). I can see the woman at work who insists on being so negative slowly choosing gratitude over complaint. And if I can see it, I can pray it.

I posted on Facebook recently that the true test of the imagination is being able to see your enemy as forgiven. We may not be able bring our fictional characters to life, but we can visualize a change in our own hearts and in the hearts of others. We can pray for those changes. And God will bring them to life.