Some Christians are afraid of seeking to use their imagination for personal or spiritual help because they associate it with Eastern religions, secular psychology, hypnosis, or “New Age” philosophy.
But there is a Biblical meditation. God has created human beings with the ability to imagine and the Bible is full of positive images and pictures that can offer us tremendous help! In fact, the frequent use of the present tense in the original languages of the Bible increases its vividness and transports us via our imagination into experiencing its actual scenes and prayers as if they’re happening now — and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on the Word God is indeed speaking to us now!
What is Imagination?
Webster’s dictionary defines imagination as the power of the mind to recreate or reconstruct visual representations of what has been or could be experienced; a mental picture of physical or spiritual reality.
Through imagination we can place ourselves in another context. It enables us to hope and dream and remember past events. We tell stories is to invite people to picture and experience something with us. We use metaphors (figures of speech that provide a symbol or image of a concept) to help people understand what we’re saying. For instance, “He’s as strong as an ox.” In fact, all language is based on visual symbols.
Imagination enables us to worship God and intercede in prayer for someone. It can also help us to heal from past trauma or be at peace in stressful situations. But our ability to imagine also enables to lust, hold angry grudges, ruminate with worry, and tell lies.
Let’s briefly look at what the Bible teaches about using imagination for Christian soul care and ministry to others.
Bible Verses on Using Imagination (NIV)
What is “Biblical meditation”? What does the Bible have to say about using your imagination? Historically, there’s been a lot of confusion on this. For instance, some Christians have thought that to imagine God is breaking the Second Commandment to not make a graven image. But certainly it’s not idolatry to see a picture of Jesus in your mind.
You can hardly read Jesus’ famous Parable of the Prodigal Son without imaging God as a loving Father! Or pray Psalm 23 slowly and you’ll begin to see pictures in your mind of Lord as a shepherd and yourself as a sheep. You’ll find yourself transported to green pastures, a stream, a path, a shadowy valley, a table…
Simply put, Biblical meditation uses Scripture to help us engage with God. It makes use of our mind, heart, and body to help us to worship God and to pray. It’s relational.
Here are a few key Bible verses that teach us on the benefits and dangers of imagination:
Imagination Can Be Used to Love God or to Reject Him
“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every desire [imagination] and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.” (1 Chronicles 28:9)
Idolatry is Reducing God to an Object (e.g., in Nature, a Human Being, or Idea) that You Can Make or Manipulate
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20:4)
We’re to Love God With Our Whole Person
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [And] ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
It’s Essential that We Imagine and Know the Lord Jesus Christ as He’s Revealed in the Bible (Especially the Gospels)
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullnessdwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15, 18-20)
To Imagine God as He is in Reality Helps us to Worship Him
“Set your heart on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1)
Cultivating Lust is an Example of Using Imagination to Sin
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28, ESV)
Vain Imagination Leads to Foolishness and Darkness
“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Romans 1:21, KJV)
Jesus Activated People’s Imagination with Parables (The Prophets and Apostles Also Did This)
“Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.” (Matthew 13:34, NLT)
We’re Transformed to Be Holy By Renewing our Minds
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
God is Able to Do More Than We Imagine!
“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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
We Need to Wash Our Minds with God’s Word
“Make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.” (Ephesians 5:26)
Biblical Meditation Techniques: Using Imagination for Soul Care, Spiritual Growth and Emotional Healing
As a Christian psychologist I have studied and practiced a variety of ways to use imagination to help clients who are stressed, hurting, or struggling with compulsive behavior or sin. The advanced use of some of these techniques requires specialized training in psychology or ministry, but in a basic way they can also be learned by most people for their personal growth or ministry to others as a peer counselor, Bible teacher, small group leader, or prayer minister.
There are many Biblical and healthy ways to utilize the visual and imaginative powers that God has given to the human mind. Here are a few:
Using a visual illustration, analogy, or parable that others can relate with in order to illuminate and empathize with their experience. Sometimes this is called using emotional word pictures.
Recalling a memory
In a counseling or other soul care conversation we ask questions to learn people’s personal history or stories. Effective psychotherapists will help their client’s connect their present emotional problems to past experiences to foster insight and personal change. This helps people to stop repeating destructive behavior patterns and release emotional pain.
Healing of memories prayer
Past trauma and other painful memories form our personalities in harmful ways. Trained prayer ministers and counselors can help people learn to attend to the omnipresent Spirit of Jesus in past memories. This is not pretending or creating a different reality — it’s perceiving the timeless spiritual reality of God’s loving presence in ways that were not previously noticed or appreciated.
If you’re helping someone or doing this for yourself in private prayer it’s important to be a non-directive facilitator. You’re opening your heart to God’s presence and waiting on his Spirit to guide you and communicate to you with your imagination, thoughts, or emotions.
This is a common technique that counselors and communicators use to help others. You re-construct a past conversation with someone or practice a future one by having people play the role of another person or themselves in that relationship.
For instance, in marriage counseling a wife might play the role of their teenage daughter by communicating her perspective and the husband might respond as he normally does. Then the counselor guides the father in responding with active listening and empathy.
Or a counselor may pull out an empty chair and say to the client, “Let’s imagine your mother is in this chair, as she was when you were ten years old. What kinds of things did she say to you?… How would you respond?… What are some healthier ways you can respond?”
Watch and pray exercises
Preparing for future situations of stress, hurt, or temptation by perceiving visually the spiritual reality of God’s presence and provision (Jesus teaches this to Peter in Matt 26:41)
Meditation on a Bible Passage
Experientially entering into a Gospel scene, Psalm, or other Scripture (In the 16th Century Ignatius of Loyola developed his “Spiritual Exercises”)
Using positive, soothing images to learn to calm stress, anxiety, or fear (stress management)
Some Scripture Meditations to Shepherd Your Soul
Here are some examples of how to use Biblical meditation techniques for personal soul care or to minister to others in counseling, spiritual direction, small groups, and Christian discipleship.
Help for Anxiety: Trust Jesus in the Storm at Sea (Mark 4:35-41)
In stress we tend to worry or become fearful. Anxiety grows if we internalize the stress and then our body becomes disturbed. We need to feel our emotions, seek empathy from a compassionate person, and learn to return to peace.
Imagine yourself in the fishing boat with Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm suddenly overtakes them. You’re being thrashed by rain, wind, and waves! Your boat is nearly swamped! You fear for your life! But Jesus is so relaxed that he naps — that’s how much he trusts God his Father.
Visualize a “storm” that’s upsetting you… See Jesus with you in your boat… Hear him say, “Peace! Be still.” to your soul… Pray to learn to trust God with him and be at peace — even while the storm rages on… Keep meditating and praying until your body relaxes and rests with Jesus… Then when your inner storm is calm ask the Lord of the Seas to calm your outer storm…
For further peaceful meditation try these Soul Shepherding resources:
- “With Jesus in the Storm: Rembrandt’s Meditation” (Devotional with picture; or try the audio version)
- “Peace! Be Still.” (One page “Breath Prayer” and “Lectio Divina Guide”)
- “Discover the Secret of Jesus’ Peace and Power” (Longer article)
Help for Depression: Appreciate Jesus’ Smile (Matt 11:28, 19:14)
Hurts, failures, pain, and all sorts of disappointments in life can discourage us and lead to depression till even our body becomes weighed down and tired. We need to share our feelings with a caring listener who is glad to see us. We need to receive emotional comfort and return to joy. We need to rediscover our smile — not a smile of denial, not a fake happiness, but a true smile of the soul that goes with the joy of loving someone and being loved.
What is something that you feel sad or discouraged about? In quiet prayer share your feelings with the Lord Jesus…
Who is the person in your life that you feel most emotionally safe with? Someone who is always glad to see you and takes time to listen to your heart with tender care and graciousness? Thank God for this person who is Christ’s Ambassador to you (2 Cor. 5:20)…
Imagine Jesus in the Gospel scenes where he smiles and opens his arms to receive little children… The hurting or needy part of you is like a child — bring this little one to Jesus and receive his smile, his hug, his listening… Stay with this to feel the joy of the Lord… Smile a prayer of love and gratitude to Jesus and the Father… Keep smiling to God — it’ll help your body and soul return to joy!
These Soul Shepherding meditations offer additional joyous meditating:
- “Embracing Abba Father” (Devotional, picture, and Breath Prayer)
- “Jesus Smiles at You!” (Devotional with a delightful picture of Jesus’ shining smile!)
- “Smile, Play, and Laugh with Jesus!” (Article with examples of joy-building Biblical “Picture Prayers”)
Additional Biblical Meditation Resources
In Soul Shepherding ministries of care, counseling, retreats, or spiritual direction we use a number of Biblical meditation resources. Our most popular ones are in these categories:
- “Lectio Divina Guides.” (Over 60 Bible passages, each formatted for Scripture meditation on a one page PDF.)
- “Breath Prayers From the Bible.” (Popular Bible phrases to meditate on with suggested breathing rhythms to help you use your body to engage your mind and heart in prayer. See also the Tag “Breath Prayers” which has many specific examples.)
- “Picture Prayers.” (A number of experiential devotionals/articles that use visualization and guided imagery to help you meditate on a Bible passage.)