What is the imagination? What does it do? How does it work? Is it an organ? A particular part of the human soul?
We talk day in and day out about imagination—“Oh, Miss Writer has SUCH a huge imagination to write such amazing stories,” or, “Joe Bob Billy Bob has such a small imagination that he can’t even see animal shapes in clouds”—but what is the imagination?
A while back, a man posed that question to me, and I opened my mouth (ready to let fly some philosophical sounding answer) but couldn’t think of a single word to describe it. My mind was as blank as a wasteland, and I realized for the first time that I had never really understood what the imagination was.
So, after a whole heck of a lot of thinking, I came to the conclusion that, in short: The imagination is the portion of our minds that allows us to connect our intellect and emotions to the process of worship. It is the human capacity to wonder. Our built-in desire for something greater than ourselves that manifests in millions, maybe even billions or trillions of ways, though its end goal is always the same.
When I think back to when I was five years old, I can still feel a portion of the mind-splitting awe I felt while playing with my brother’s GI Joe figurines in the sandbox out back.
My imagination, in a fraction of a moment, transmuted piles of wet, moldy sand into a vast Saharan wasteland. The main character? Joe, a military man abandoned by his double-agent platoon leader, forced to chop cactuses (here I made Joe karate chop a chunk of rhubarb my mom brought out back for me to eat) just to stay hydrated enough to rejoin his platoon and expose the leader for the slime bag he was.
Ever since I can remember, my imagination has been activated by the transcendent. In other words, things that were bigger than me. Each time my imagination was fully engaged by some new wonder, I felt the most profound sense of freedom, peace, joy, belonging, and excitement. I entered into a pseudo-religious experience where I was at once awed by reality and drawn in to create a pseudo-reality alongside it.
The only problem was that once that pseudo-religious experience had transpired, I would seek to repeat it, and re-igniting a sense of wonder becomes harder and harder the more you are exposed to wonderful things, until it is nearly impossible except by going to extreme lengths.
Here is where, I believe, the imagination can be used to terrible evil.
God put an imagination in us and told us that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven because he knew we must aim our imaginations toward the majesty and unending glory of God to truly find rest and relationship with our Creator. It is the purpose for our existence, and the only action that brings true, lasting satisfaction and joy.
In so aiming our imaginations toward God, we are freed to enjoy the myriad earthly pleasures we can apply our imagination to, because in everything we do, there will be a sense of worship and of spiritual purity. But when our imaginations are aimed only at intensifying our own pleasures, they can easily be perverted.
Example: We feel a sense of wonder when we look at the face of our beautiful mother. Then, after we get older, our mother’s beauty no longer offers a sense of wonder. So, instead, we become infatuated with the beauty of a girl we have a crush on. On and on it goes, until less and less satisfies us, and in our hearts there kindles a terrible wanderlust—a search for momentary satisfaction that only leaves us hungrier than before. Our desire for beauty becomes gluttonous, and eventually perverse.
That is why the first commandment is, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” because every sin imaginable branches off from our forsaking of true worship.
Everyone wants someone to hope in and aspire toward. In childhood, our parents are that force—at least until we grow wise enough to see their brokenness. But as we grow older, it becomes harder and harder to find someone to look up to.
John Mayer wrote the following lyrics in his song, Speak for Me:
Well, they’re celebrating broken things,
I don’t want a world of broken things,
You can tell that something isn’t right,
When all your heroes are in black and white,
What a drag to say,
At least I still have yesterday,
Show me something I can be,
Play a song that I can sing,
Make me feel as I am free,
Someone come speak for me.
The glorious truth of the Gospel is that someone has spoken for us. God himself came in the form of a man, carried our brokenness on his back, and with his final breath said, “It is finished.”
Now we don’t have to say, “I’m a man of unclean lips,” because he’s washed them in his blood. Now we have someone to aspire toward in the person of Jesus. A way of being transformed by the renewing of our minds by the Holy Spirit. A place to call home in our Savior’s arms. And, most importantly, the infinite wonder of the Creator to set our imaginations toward for the rest of our lives and into eternity.