Capturing imaginations

When it comes to communicating Christian truth, illustrations are often considered to be decorative. They are added extras, definitely not essential. Stories can be dismissed as a poor substitute for hard logic.

Perhaps they’re considered a concentration break, or an added dash of emotion to spice up your gospel presentation. Mostly, stories and illustrations are thought of as a sideshow while the real business is to state truths as plainly as possible. This, of course, is not the way people tick, nor the way the Scriptures present truth.

The mind, after all, is not a debating chamber. It is far more like an IMAX cinema, and it works best in ultra-high definition with the surround sound turned up to 11. Thomas Cranmer’s account of human behaviour has been well summarised by Ashley Null: What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies. This is a good summary of Pauline – indeed of Biblical – anthropology. The mind does not come first. Actually, it comes at the end of a process where first hearts and lives are captured and only later do we rationalise our decisions. People are not computers, crunching data, we are heart-driven lovers giving ourselves to compelling visions (and, naturally, giving ourselves to unworthy visions). That’s how the Scriptures see things anyway. Think of how Paul describes his evangelistic mission: ‘(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;). Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:4-5, KJV).

Mission is spiritual warfare. It’s not the casting down of city walls with earthly weapons, it’s the casting down of ‘imaginations’ by the preaching of the gospel. The fortress in which people live is their imagination, that is, their framing of the world – the story they tell themselves about life. It’s this imagination that needs demolishing and a different framing of the world established.

Ever since Genesis 6 the Bible has spoken of the power of the imagination. By nature ‘every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually’ (Gen. 6:5, KJV). Notice how thoughts spring from the heart, and imaginations spring from those thoughts. We love certain things and by nature we love the wrong things or we love the right things in the wrong proportions. From these faulty loves flow faulty ways of thinking. When you add up all these ways of thinking you have a whole thought-world – an imagination. This is where we live. We consider it to be an IMAX cinema. We enjoy the show. But Paul says we’re trapped in this fortress and we’re keeping the truth out. The barriers need to come down. How?

Think of King David, after his appalling sexual greed, abuse and murder. He wasn’t immediately racked with guilt. He didn’t immediately pen Psalm 51. In fact he was in his own little world of self-justification and pride. That is until Nathan came to him wielding a mighty spiritual weapon: a story. In 2 Samuel 12 he spins David a yarn. But it proves the perfect vehicle for the truth. Nathan tells of a callous rich man stealing his neighbour’s sheep. It evokes the correct emotional response in David, then – plot twist – Nathan says to the king: ‘You are the man!’ That’s how to cast down an imagination. Fight fire with fire, fantasy with fantasy, story with story.

I’m sure that, prior to Nathan’s arrival, David thought he was living in the real world: the world of politics, warfare, lust, greed, and murderous schemes. In fact that world was a fantasy in which he imagined he could safely sin. But even as David was imprisoned in his own delusions the truth snuck into his palace dressed as a story. It was a fiction that awoke him to the facts.

Next time we will think of the stories our friends and family live by, and the better stories we can tell. But for now, let’s acknowledge the power of telling and retelling God’s story. It is captivating in the deepest sense: seizing people from the lies that imprison them and releasing them into the truth of Christ.

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.