Imagining something better

‘I just feel stuck’.

Many seek help because of a feeling of ‘stuckness’. It gets expressed in different ways: ‘I have run out of ideas’; ‘nothing makes any difference anymore’; ‘I can’t see how things will ever change’. An unsatisfactory state takes hold and in its grip a person feels helpless.

It happens in depression, when a deep, pervasive gloom settles on a person as if it will never lift. It happens in anxiety, when fears have been present so long a person gives up hope of ever being free of them. It happens in addiction, when deep rooted habits persist beyond every declaration that ‘this time things will be different’. It happens in relation to food, when cycles of binging and purging or the relentless pursuit of thinness dominate for year after year with no respite.

Feeling stuck is miserable. It sucks the life from a person. It can feel like every ounce of energy is given to combatting the stuckness and yet it makes not the slightest difference. No wonder people despair. And in that abandoning of hope – for that is what despair really means – a person loses belief that things can ever be different. Such is the desperate reality for many.  

And in the light of such despair, what I am about to suggest will seem so profoundly inadequate. But stay with me because I want to encourage us to imagine.

Perceiving Imagination

This isn’t likely to sit comfortably with those for whom imaginative ‘flights of fancy’ seem the very antithesis of ‘solid gospel truth’. But there is a spiritual dimension to imagination. Indeed, once you stop and think about it, it becomes clear that imagination is central to the Christian faith.

In 1 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul says:

“’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’— the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.”

In this part of his letter, Paul emphasises that without the work of the Holy Spirit a person will never know spiritual truth. But, once the Spirit works a person, they are able to believe (and therefore to imagine) those unseen things. Even though no human eye can see them, and no human mind could ever perceive them, by his Spirit God grants the capacity to see them. This happens at conversion and continues into the life of Christian discipleship. We perceive ‘spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words’. We imagine ‘the things God has prepared for those who love him’ and we marvel at him.

In famous words, the writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). And, of course, grasping something we cannot see will always require a little imagination.

This imagination is at work right through the Scriptures. We see it at the Red Sea when the people conceive safe passage to the other side. It’s there at Jericho when Rahab is persuaded that the red cloth is worth displaying. Faith imagines things that haven’t yet appeared. It sees blessing that has only been promised. Exiles in Babylon imagine the return to the land that the prophets are declaring. They see what is yet invisible. That is how faith works.

It’s the same in the New Testament. Sick people believe Jesus’ ability to heal them and imagine restored health. Peter hears Christ’s invitation to walk on water and trusts him thereby imagining the water taking his weight. The same Peter tells believers they are “looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” And he urges them: “since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be spotless” (1 Peter 3:13-14). By imagining this promised future state he calls them to respond with godly living in the present.

Promoting Imagination

A key element in conversational ministry is the prompting of such imagination – helping the troubled and distressed to imagine something better. Not in a Pollyanna-ish, ‘cross your fingers and hope for the best’ kind of way, but as a response to all that the Bible says to us. Imagining the difference: imagining the comfort a caring God could provide in the face of loneliness; imagining what God-given courage in the face of debilitating fear might do. Sometimes the imagined state will be big picture – a life restored with a habit finally broken. Sometimes it will be detailed – the specific act of resisting temptation at 10pm on a Friday when the temptation of porn is always at its strongest.

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically good about the imagination. We can also believe lies and imagine falsehoods. What’s needed is a Spirit-given vision of unseen spiritual truth. Which is precisely what God promises – “these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Cor 2:10).

Profiting from Imagination

Stuck people escape from their ‘stuckness’ at the point of imagining that things really can change. Christian promises and Christian hope are the surest grounds for imagining something better. God can break in. Light can come into our darkness. Hope can replace despair. Order can resolve the chaos. God can do this. He can bring restoration to a broken marriage; peace to a warring family; forgiveness to an embittered soul.

Faith means imagining difference, imagining change. None of this is magic. It’s not as though imagining something hard enough will make it happen. That’s not how faith works. This is better. It is imagining the world we keep forgetting. The world that remembers God instead of suppressing the knowledge of him. And it imagines these things not because they are make-believe but because they are absolutely and wonderfully true.

Such an imagination can unstick us and help us unstick others as well.