Recently I read an article by Tim Keller called “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling.” In it he summarized Owen’s teaching on the imagination from his work on being spiritually-minded. I remembered not understanding what he meant by imagination when I read Owen myself. I’m finally starting to get it. Eugene Peterson has also helped me by what he wrote in his book Subversive Spirituality. He says that when you look at a tree you see in your mind’s eye more than what you see with the eye of the flesh. In your mind’s eye you see a root system underground, you see light pouring energy into the leaves. This is not fantasy, this is imagination. The roots are really there, but they are not visible without the imagination. So your standing in Christ is real, but not visible. We must use our imagination.
Imagination is essential in the Christian life because we live by faith and not by sight. Imagination is using the eyes of the heart. Imagination is the faculty of the heart that supplies the mind with things to think about. Whatever has captured your imagination will effortlessly fill your mind with thoughts. When you are trying to read your Bible and thoughts of work or hobbies distract you, this means that work or hobbies have captured your imagination. When you are trying to do your work and thoughts of God distract you, this means that God has captured your imagination through his word and Spirit. The difference between study and meditation is that in study you are aiming at understanding but in meditation your aim is to have your imagination captured by the Word of God. For this we must pray. When we find this hard to do and become discouraged, this discouragement comes from spiritual pride. What’d you expect? Of course it’s hard to do. It’s impossible to do without the help of the Spirit so quit beating yourself up and just ask for help.
The importance of imagination implies the importance of illustration. I tend toward the abstract and the philosophical and have in my pride regarded illustrations as the fluffy parts of the sermon. But now I see that illustration is absolutely essential to good preaching. For the goal is not just to transfer information but to capture your imagination.