If I had a time-travel machine, I would stand in the Red Sea basin and watch the surrounding spectacle of two towering walls of water. I would climb the marble steps and squint at the gleam of Solomon’s temple. I would look into Jesus’ swollen eyes as he cried over Jerusalem.
God has not given us time-travel machines, but he has given us imagination. And while we can use our imaginations for all sorts of things, good and bad, the most worthwhile way to use them is in devotion to the God who imagined us and the world into being. Luci Shaw, writer in residence at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, taught me a spiritual exercise she calls “praying the text with the imagination.” When I imagine my way into the world of Scripture, my mind becomes a movie screen for Bible stories, and I get lost in them.
It is one thing to have an intellectual grasp of “Christ died for us.” It is quite another to stand in the crowd that took pleasure in Jesus’ suffering; to hear a Roman taunt him (“Who’s got the power now, Jesus?”); to feel the crick in your neck as you stare up at a naked, sputtering man; and to swallow as he utters, “Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.” When I pray Scripture with my imagination, I gain a fresh reading, I’m compelled to revisit important truths, and I discover new convictions.
The imagination’s most fertile ground is silence and mental space; thus, a spiritual retreat, be it in a monastery or in one’s own living room, provides an ideal setting for this exercise. Following are some suggestions if you’d like to give it a try.
02. Getting Started
You’ll need something with which to write. I suggest using materials that make it easy for you to revisit your imaginative journeys. I use my favorite pen and a spiral-bound notebook.
Pick a narrative passage, such as a historical narrative from the Old Testament or a story about Jesus in one of the Gospels. (see “Try It for a Week” below.) Regarding which translation to use, the earthy, accessible language of Eugene Peterson’s The Message works especially well for this exercise.
Ask God to be with you as you journey through his revelation and to show you what he wants you to see.
Read the passage aloud multiple times (under your breath, if need be).
Next, imagine your way into the Bible story, and write what you see. Pay close attention to the details of what you observe. Creating your mental movie will be easier if you think in terms of the scene and the characters.
- The scene. What time of day is it? What smells are in the air? Is it an urban or a rural setting? Are you inside or outside? What sounds or noises do you hear? What’s the landscape like? What’s the weather like? Where are you?
- The characters. How many people are there? Are they rich, middle-class, or poor? Are they young or old? Is it crowded? Who is close to you? What are the occupations of the people around you? What is the mood? Are you standing or sitting? Through whose perspective are you looking? Are you a bystander or one of the disciples? Are you Jesus? Are you a child or an adult?
After finishing the exercise, take a moment to reflect on it and write down your observations. Talk to God about the experience and ask him to help you follow through on any new convictions. Record your prayers. This process cements into your psyche what you’ve learned so that it becomes a lasting part of you.
03. An Example
Assuming the perspective of one of the disciples, I used my imagination to pray the text of Mark 2:1–12. Here is the result:
Word traveled fast. We had been in Capernaum less than an hour, and already the place was full of whispers and sidelong glances.
I shuffled in and took a seat in the back of the synagogue. It was cool inside—a welcome respite from the cruel sun.
Jesus’ voice was loud and full of authority. “If someone slaps you across the face,” he yelled, “don’t retaliate! Give him your other cheek.” Everyone was silent.
“If you help a friend, that’s good, but don’t stop there,” he continued. “Help your enemies too. If your enemy forces you to walk a mile, walk two miles. This is the way of the kingdom of God.”
Sounds of confusion shot here and there throughout the synagogue. “Walk two miles for a Roman? He’s mad!” someone said.
Then a light shone upon him. For a second I really thought it must be heaven’s light breaking in, but just as fast, I saw dust in the air and some homely faces peering down through a hole in the roof. A man’s arms and legs hung over the sides of a mat as the men on the roof lowered their friend to Jesus.
The master stepped back to receive the poor man and smiled upward at the souls on the roof. He carried the man to a nearby table and with great care arranged the man’s lifeless limbs and clothes.
Jesus pushed the hair from the man’s face. “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
“What?” someone yelled, and I sensed some commotion up front. Jesus walked to the front of the crowd.
“Why?” he said angrily. “Why do you think these things? Which is easier? To tell this man to get up and walk or to tell him his sins are forgiven?
“Don’t you see the son of man can do both?” He shook his head and went back to the man. “I tell you, get up, take your mat, and go home.”
We shuddered as the man’s atrophied body began to flex! You could have heard a pin drop. The man’s head was bobbing lifelessly, and then all of a sudden, his eyes came alive, and he smiled. He stood up and stared at his body. “Look at me,” he said. “Look at me!” He stretched his arms up and to the sides. He jumped. He jumped again. Oh, you should have heard him laugh! He embraced Jesus and sprinted out the door.
I saw Jesus look upward as we all ran out to make sure the man was still walking. “Who is this Jesus?” people said. “We’ve never seen anything like this?”
I then took some time to ponder and pray, as follows:
Here and elsewhere people start by asking questions of Jesus (“Who are you?”), and he does something that turns the questions back on his interrogators (“Who do you say that I am?”). Jesus’ responses to our questions take a variety of forms— explanations, healings, resurrections, miraculous feedings, silence—but their purpose is often the same: to throw the ball back into our court. Jesus’ responses to our questions seem less crucial to our spiritual well-being than our responses to his questions. Lord, sometimes I don’t even know the right response. But more often I do, and I choose the wrong one. Have mercy on me. Forgive me my many sins.
Jesus was happy with the men who lowered the paralytic down, and their efforts paid off. I’m often too lazy or too busy to pursue you, Jesus, and I miss out on your miracles. Thank you for friends who look out for me. Thank you for reminding me of the rewards of pursuing you.
The outward miracle was a reflection of the inward miracle. I get the feeling that forgiving the man’s sins was much more important to Jesus than helping the man walk. Just as it was difficult for the crowd to believe you could heal him, it is often difficult for me to believe you can cleanse me of my sins. I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.
This exercise belongs in a long tradition of imaginatively engaging holy texts. The ancient Hebrews knew well the importance of meditating on Torah, for example. Lectio divina, as well as Ignatius’ “Application of the Senses,” stands in this trajectory of biblical interaction as well.
In our post-Enlightenment era of scientific reasoning and linear, logical modes of thought, we can easily begin to think of the Bible as a mere repository of information—an object of study. We need to remember, however, that whenever we engage the Word of God, it is ultimately we who are the object, and God who is the subject. This reality becomes acute when we bring ourselves into the text and let the words and images work us over.
When I read and pray the Scriptures in this way, I see things I did not see before, and the reflection process roots these discoveries deep within me. Serving as both channel and chisel, this practice brings God inward and carves out a space where he can dwell.
04. Try It for a Week!
- Moses parts the Red Sea: Exodus 14:15–29
- Elijah and the fiery chariot: 2 Kings 2:9–15
- The baptism of Jesus: Matthew 3:13–17
- Jesus walks on water: Matthew 14:22–33
- Jesus calms the storm: Mark 4:35–40
- Jesus and the woman taken in adultery: John 8:1–11
- Paul at the Areopagus: Acts 17:19–34
Chad Allen is an acquisitions editor for Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, and has written articles for Rev!, Radix, PRISM, ePistle, Relevant.com, Next-wave, Re:Generation Quarterly, and the PMA Independent. He holds a BA in English from the University of Nebraska Lincoln and an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame. He and his wife, Alyssa, live with their son, Lucas, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.