Why You Need Imagination to Follow Jesus

When I was in elementary school, the last thing I wanted to be known for was my imagination. In my context, boys were divided into two groups: those who played sports and those who used their imaginations. I chose the world of dirt and grass and bats and balls. I decided to let all the “weird” kids pretend to fight the dark side.

It was a university philosophy class that eventually caused me to reconsider my position on imagination. In the lecture hall, I began to see that everyone is using their imaginations all the time. Let me explain what I mean.

We all like to think that we inhabit the world objectively and are able to see reality the way it really is. We fail to realize that we bring a whole host of our own assumptions and presuppositions to the table. We are constantly interpreting the world imaginatively and making it fit into preconceived narratives.

Think about a beautiful autumn sunset. One man looks at the radiant sky, shrugs his shoulders, and immediately buries his head down into the glowing screen of his iPhone. A scientist sees the exact same sunset and marvels at the way in which beams of sunlight strike molecules in the air, causing “scattering.” Another woman sees it and worships God. Three people. One sunset. Three different imaginative responses.

Here’s where I’m going with this: the goal for the church of God is to imagine reality the way it really is; the way God sees it. Consider this quote from Paul David Tripp: “People struggling with life in a fallen world often want explanation when what they really need is imagination. They want strategies, techniques, and principles because they simply want things to be better. But God offers much more. People need to look at their families, neighbors, friends, cities, jobs, history, and churches, and see the kingdom. They need imagination—the ability to see what is real but unseen.”

We live in a uniquely difficult time to do this. There are more voices clamoring in our ears from more directions and with greater intensity than perhaps any other time in history. While this time is unique, the struggle we face is not unprecedented. The apostles were constantly having to remind first-century churches to use their imaginations to stay focused on the real but unseen reality of the kingdom of Christ in the midst of idolatrous cultures (2 Cor 4:18; 5:7; Rom 5:24; Heb 11:1).

In 1 Thessalonians 1:9 we learn that the Thessalonian church had turned to the living God from idols. Thessalonica was a city full of idols, including a cult dedicated to worshiping the Roman emperor. To follow Jesus in such a climate was to swim against the current of the world. Paul joyously praises God for this church’s perseverance in the face of affliction (3:9).

While he celebrates their perseverance in the faith, he also knows that more trials are on the way. Therefore, he closes his letter with practical instruction on how to continue to live in the world according to God’s reality, real reality. He gives the church three habits that will keep the reality of Christ’s kingdom before their eyes: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18).

Each of these three habits requires resistance against the tide of idolatrous culture. In order to rejoice always, we have to realize that our joy is not tied to our circumstances. Paul wrote this letter to a group of Christians who had no free speech, no right to vote, no legal representation in government, and no political, social, or economic power. They were able to rejoice always solely on the basis that they had Jesus.

The glorious promises of the gospel are not suspended by earthly circumstances. Survival requires that we train our senses to joyfully live in light of the invisible but glorious promises of Christ’s kingdom. It means refusing to shrink our worlds to the size of our problems. It means habitually glancing heavenward to live in the reality of sonship, justification, sanctification, and glorification in Christ.

Praying without ceasing seems impossible. We read the words and wonder if Paul intends for God’s people to become monks. The problem is that we don’t understand prayer. Praying without ceasing means living our lives toward God in such a way that he seems near and relevant. Most of our prayers will be one-liners: “Jesus help me”; “I need you”; “Come quickly.” This habit resists the separation of life into separate secular and spiritual compartments. It’s all connected to God.

Finally, we are to give thanks in all circumstances. Notice that Paul does not say, “Give thanks for all circumstances.” His point isn’t that every circumstance is ideal. His point is that Christians have a reason for gratitude, no matter the circumstance. In a world that trains us to focus on the bad, we must fight to remember that we are the most privileged people on the planet. We must use our Spirit-formed imaginations to behold the invisible, but glorious promises of the gospel in each and every circumstance of life.

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