Imagine Your Way to Joy

Satan sits near Eve, squat like a toad. In the unfallen garden of Eden, the fallen angel pours smooth words down her sleeping ears. As she sleeps, Satan works “close at the ear of Eve; [attempting] by his devillish art to reach the organs of her fancy, and with them forge illusions.”

This scene, John Milton’s poetic depiction of Satan’s first encounter with humanity, never actually happened in the Bible. In Paradise Lost, Satan comes to Eve before he meets her as the serpent and tries to “pre-tempt” her by polluting “the organs of her fancy” — or her imagination.

Now, it may seem odd or irrelevant to include a scene like this in an epic poem expanding the actual fall in Genesis 3 — why include it at all if the Bible doesn’t talk about it? But what’s helpful for us is not that we get an added (unlikely) prequel to Genesis 3:1 — it’s what the scene says about sin. Milton’s portrayal of Satan contaminating “the organs of [Eve’s] fancy” helps show the significance of an often-overlooked aspect of sin and temptation — the power of imagination.

Sin’s Imaginary World

For sin to be accepted, approved, and even celebrated in our own minds, it must first be nourished by something stronger than just our senses. The seeds of sin, though sown in the flesh, are protected and watered by our imaginations.

Imagination puts flesh to the bones of our base desires so that our pursuit of sin appears not as evil to be fought but merely reality to be accepted — or worse, virtue to be extolled. Rarely do we celebrate sin as sin. Brazen debauchery may grab headlines, but that is precisely because it is recognized intuitively and openly as wickedness. We like Mardi Gras not because it’s good and beautiful, but because it seems like a harmless exercise of being “bad.”

However, there are many sins that we actually celebrate as honorable and virtuous — “sanitized sins” that we flaunt instead of covering in shame (Ezekiel 23:18–19). To sanitize a sin, you have to give it a home in a different “world” in which that sin doesn’t afflict the conscience as easily — because in that world, wickedness credibly plays the part of virtue. This is imagination’s work.

Sin is often at root a failure of imagination, the acceptance of an invalid alternative world or story which calls evil good and good evil.

Imagination in the Garden

So it is in the biblical account of the temptation in Eden. The serpent tempts Eve not by suggesting simple rebellion, but by offering an alternative world to her imagination in which God said, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden” (Genesis 3:1). Eve rejects this world, but promptly replaces it with other another imagined world in which they might not even touch the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:3).

Eve’s imagination continues to expand the details of the prohibited world, envisioning what it would be like to become wise by eating from the beautiful tree, until her desire for her imagined reality surpasses her desire for God’s reality. Eve grasps the fruit, losing paradise.

Your Sin and Society’s

The imagination is strong enough to delude us into validating both personal and societal sins. For example, a workaholic father believes he’s loving his children when he gives up another weekend so that their college fund can grow — and he’s offended or angry when his kids can’t understand why Dad doesn’t have time to play catch with them. In his imagined world, he has cast himself as a hero who sacrifices his time and his interests to gain prosperity for his family.

In the same way, cultural sins are not merely base lusts and fleshly desires writ large in a society. The imagination must first craft an alternative “safe world” to allow a sin to flourish widely in the hearts and minds of a society.

Take, for example, America’s institutionalized celebration of abortion. When abortion is celebrated, what story do you hear? It begins as the tragedy of victimized women, abused too long by an oppressive, patriarchal society. The only light of hope appears from the opaque windows of Planned Parenthood’s clinics, where women can finally grasp the power of self-determination. In such a story, suggesting that a baby’s life is more important than a woman’s choice to end or sustain that life is equivalent to growing a mustache to twirl and putting out the “Evil Henchmen Wanted” sign.

Amazingly, the imagination is able to transform even the most despicable sins to appear as noble acts of truth, goodness, and beauty by recasting them in illusory worlds and stories.

The Christian’s Hedonistic Imagination

From all this, we might begin to think that we should suppress imaginative activity. Imagination may appear to be a distraction from the pursuit of truth, or worse, a misleading trail away from it. Fidelity to reason alone, unpolluted by creations of the imagination, may appear a much safer stewardship of our cognitive capabilities.

However, dismissing the imagination from the Christian life will neither save us from sin nor help us grow in righteousness. In fact, all hope of putting off the old man and putting on the new rests in a God-given, Christ-purchased, Spirit-empowered redemption of the imagination.

What does “the new man” look like? We are given many details, but without the imagination, application is impossible. We know that the new man puts on kindness (Colossians 3:12), but one can only live out that kindness after the imagination has painted some concrete mental picture of what kindness looks like.

The imagination enriches our minds. It allows us to understand more clearly and feel more deeply concerning ambiguous or abstract ideas. For this reason, raising children in good stories is as important as raising them on their catechism. “What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?” Let me tell you a story about Frankenstein’s creature.

By using the imagination to envision the possibilities of our faithful service to God, we also find help in fighting our sins. The problem is that we are far too easily pleased with the imaginary worlds in which our sins find shelter. The glorious stories that act out God’s purposes will always be more beautiful than the stories we throw together to explain away our sins. So, we kill sin by expending imaginative effort to envision the superior delight and beauty of God’s stories over the twisted, ugly plots we write to justify evil.

The Imagination Will Yet Work

In an essay on the imagination, author George MacDonald wrote,

The imagination will yet work; and if not for good then for evil; if not for truth then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death. . . . The power that might have gone forth in conceiving the noblest forms of action, in realizing the lives of the true-hearted, the self-forgetting, will go forth in building airy castles of vain ambition, of boundless riches, of unearned admiration.

By the imagination, we are able to call into reality things not present. It is up to us whether we employ this capacity to build high the glorious walls of the fortress of the Almighty or whether we frantically add more padlocks to the gates of hell. We will create worlds to foster sin or righteousness. The question is not whether we will use our imaginations, but how.

God has created us with the capacity to act as “under-creators” by the exercise of our imaginations. Therefore, refusing to steward the imagination means refusing to love the Lord with your whole being. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your imagination.