Pastor John, in a couple of places, I’ve recently heard you talk about visualizing Christ in the battle against lustful thoughts. Lust is so often a visible battle. So, it makes sense that this battle is fought in the imagination. This point surfaced in your parable on the power of sin, in a sermon clip I posted as episode 291 of this podcast.
And all the way back in episode 18 you explained the acronym ANTHEM to fight lust, and there you described “H” as “Hold a beautiful vision of Jesus in your mind until it triumphs over the other sensual vision.” In the fight against lust, how important is it to have this “beautiful vision of Jesus,” and how does this work for you in this moment of temptation? What’s happening in your imagination?
Well, as I read this question that you sent and hear you say it now, I heard, at least for myself, a need to answer the question about the dangers of visualization. Maybe not everybody has the history I do, but I have had history with really bad ways of using visualization in prayer. So even though the question isn’t exactly that, let me start there.
A Word of Caution
Pictures can begin to displace the words of Scripture as the center of God’s saving communication. And that is really dangerous. We can edge right up to and transgress the intention of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exodus 20:4). There is an approach to healing prayer that I have run into — it’s pretty widespread, at least it was — where people are instructed to go back into their painful past and visualize a scene of, say, sexual abuse: “Imagine Jesus — picture Jesus walking into the room and picking you up and hugging you and caring for you.”
“The healing of the soul involves a profound spiritual perception, not only of a tender, affectionate Jesus, but of the full meaning of the cross.”
And there are problems with that kind of counseling, it seems to me, because it is foreign to Scripture. You don’t find any pattern quite like that in Scripture. And it is usually slanted away from some of the aspects of the role that Jesus plays, namely in providence and portraying him only as a comforter and not as a sovereign and not as a judge and not as the one who is going to handle that perpetrator with violence some day. It tends to be just soft and gentle and warm, and therefore slanted. It tends to oversimplify it and over psychologize what is really needed. The healing of the soul involves a profound spiritual perception, not only of a tender, affectionate Jesus, but of the full meaning of the cross and the reality of the Holy Spirit and God’s ways and justice and judgments. So, there are real dangers that I have encountered in this whole area of visualization in prayer.
Images and Sounds that Surround Jesus
But let me get back to the positive side. Jesus is the eternal “Word became flesh” (John 1:14). So we know he had a body. People looked at him. They could see him with their physical eyes, unlike God the Father who can’t be visualized in that way. I don’t think we should picture God the Father as a grandfather with a white beard. I think that is a big mistake. But Jesus had flesh and bones.
And here is another point. Some words do not invoke visual realities, like love, hate, right, wrong, kind. Those are general principle kinds of words. But other words do necessarily evoke images in our minds: cross, blood, nails, spear, side of body, hands, feet, thorns, beard, spit, rod, sun darkened, hill. You can’t say those words without seeing something, because those words are names of sights. They are names of sights. You see a hand. You put a word on it: hand. You expect people to process that word and have a kind of hand visualized in their mind — no specific hand, but the idea of hand is being visualized in their mind.
“I picture him saying, ‘I love you. I love you. I am dying to free you from that bondage to lust.’ And I picture a battered body.”
So when you read “at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice,” now you have sounds as well. There are words that designate sounds like loud voice. That word is supposed to conjure something in your mind concerning, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:34), and it was loud. The word loud is used to make you feel and think loud. And then “Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’” (Luke 23:46). The point of those very words is to get our minds hearing something, and the words like beard and spit are supposed to get our minds seeing something.
And then here is one pointer from the Apostle Paul that inclines me to go ahead and form this image in my mind: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). Now what does that mean? I don’t think it means Paul got out a piece of chalk and drew Jesus, but it means, evidently, that he portrayed the cross so vividly with the words of the gospel that he says, “It was like I was doing it before your very eyes.” He used the word eyes here. It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed. So maybe he means, “I am embodying this with my sufferings. I am speaking it in such a way that you can see it.”
Fight Nudity with Christ’s Misery
One of my strategies — back to ANTHEM and the whole battle with lust — in trying to obey Jesus, tearing out my eyes and putting sin to death and counting myself dead, is to fight nudity. Let’s just take that as a concrete example: I fight nudity in my mind with Christ’s misery on the cross. So, nudity is a picture in my mind. Now I have argued that Christ’s misery on the cross is a picture in my mind. Christ died to make me pure. This lustful thought is not pure. Therefore, if I willingly hold this image in my mind, I am taking the spear and thrusting it into the side of Jesus. I picture myself about to do that. I picture him saying, “I love you. I love you. I am dying to free you from that bondage to lust.” And I picture a battered body.
And maybe I should qualify: It is not photographic. I don’t have a particular face in view. I don’t know what Jesus looked like. I don’t pick a movie star from The Passion of the Christ or whatever. I don’t have a particular face before me. He doesn’t look like any actor. I don’t get that specific. It is a word-created picture, not a photo-created picture.
It is what I think Paul did when he said in Galatians 2:20, “The life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me.” Now he could have stopped right there, couldn’t he? On “who loved me.” But he added, “And gave himself for me.” In Paul’s mind, the faith to kill sin every day in his life was strengthened by remembering the love of Christ for him. And the love of Christ is emblazoned in Paul’s mind as he thought of him as crucified: “He gave himself for me.”
And Paul saw crucified people. They were on the hills. It was horrible. And when he said, Christ “gave himself for me,” I can’t believe that he didn’t have some picture — if not photographic — in his mind of Christ suffering profoundly for his purity and, thus, his faith was empowered to defeat lust.