One place you might meet God: The holy space of the human imagination.
We all carry around an incredible tool for drawing closer to God. I want to give you permission to use yours.
Neurologists and cognitive scientists have occasionally theorized about a “god module” located in the human brain. The idea partially springs from studies in which the brains of human test subjects were exposed to electrical currents. Electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain was found to trigger religious hallucinations in many subjects. Skeptics interpret this data as suggesting that religious experiences (such as those upon which religions are founded) are merely glitches in the human cerebral circuitry. For many believers, this data suggests that people contain a built-in apparatus for accessing the spirit world.
But I’m not interested in neuroscience here. I’m talking about something more familiar than neuroanatomy, yet more ethereal. I’m talking about your imagination. In the Bible and in religious history we see people interacting with God in dreams, in voices, in trances, and in visions that resemble daydreams. In childhood I always assumed that visions hit people out of nowhere, uninvited, like lightning from the sky. I now think they more likely emerge through a discipline of contemplative and imaginative prayer. Stated differently, there’s a hypothesis in some charismatic circles that we can intentionally approach God and seek out visionary experiences by entering the holy space of our own imaginations.
If our brains are somehow wired to connect to God’s spirit realm, then perhaps we can open this connection intentionally by asking the Lord to meet us in our imaginations. What I’m describing is a sort of prayer that is not active and verbal, but more passive and multisensory. I realize that for some of my readers I’m simply describing your everyday experience of being with the Lord. For others, what I’m saying may sound like New Age hooey. But bear with me.
My wife and I have always been artistic creative types. As a kid (an introverted only child), I often lived inside my noggin. But my noggin was kind of a dark place. I tended to fantasize about violent things. I watched TV and Sci-Fi movies and read horror stories. My head-space was stuffed with terror and death. But I could also draw on that space to write stories, draw pictures, and (later) make music. I had a highly functional organ for creativity, but it was a tainted one.
Lydia was an art major in college, and I told her once back then that the fact she was an artist made her closer to God. What I meant was that as a creator she was imitating the Creator and showing herself to be his Image and Likeness. There was a spark of divine activity in her.
You may have heard me mention that we went through a really dark and difficult time of depression after our twins were born. One thing that helped my wife break through this valley of shadow was that God started filling her mind with songs. They just poured out of her, out of nowhere. She’d never written fully original songs before, but now tunes and lyrics were spilling out of her – sometimes several a day. The songs memorialized and contextualized her pain. Or they would crystallize her yet unrealized hopes. What was clear was that they were healing. And that they felt like they were being beamed into her from outside.
Soon we embraced the fact that God gave us the imaginative space as a tool for communicating with him.
How did St. John the Revelator acquire the ferocious and horrifically beautiful visions of the Book of Revelation? I think it came to him via the incorporeal organ of his imagination. John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” when Jesus approached him and filled his eyes, his psyche really, with one of the most compelling trance-visions ever recorded. I believe John was meditating at the time, and that he was adept at opening his imagination-space to God’s use.
What I’ve discovered is that I can clear my mind and retreat within, into the sacred space of the imagination. It’s now a sacred space; I don’t let horror and death live there anymore. And sometimes, Jesus meets me there. The sensation is distinctly different from “making something up.” In my childhood imagination, I was consciously constructing worlds and controlling the actions of characters. But when I surrender my imagination space as a place for God to meet me, what unfolds feels like it happens outside my control. You could call it dissociation. I become a passive observer. When I invite God into my imagination during prayer, all I have do is wait, watch and listen.
To be clear, this doesn’t always work. To the extend that it depends on me, I’m not terribly good at it. I’m merely sharing this in the spirit of helpfulness, wearing the hat of a non-expert.
My first experiment with this phenomenon was a simple, self-directed visualization exercise. I don’t remember if I read about the exercise or came up with the idea myself as an experiment. Since then, I have seen other people use the exact same approach. I imagine myself sitting comfortably somewhere calm and beautiful. For example, seated alone on a log by a beach, the crunchy cacophany of ocean waves surrounding me, twilight repainting the horizon. In that dream-space I sense a presence approaching me. And then I watch Jesus walk into view. At this point I consciously relinquish control over the direction of my imagination. Jesus approaches me, and I simply wait and watch and listen to whatever he does and says.
Here’s what happened the first time I did this in a group setting. My imagination space ended up being a verdant forest. I was still on a log. Jesus approached me. I asked the Lord, “why aren’t you healing Lydia?” We’d been praying for healing for so long, with seemingly no progress. Jesus stooped down, put a hand on my shoulder, and spoke clearly into my right ear, “I am healing Lydia!” He repeated it several times, and the vision ended.
Several days later, while walking on the Greenway behind my house, I intentionally entered that same sacred imagination space. Jesus approached again, and I asked him again about Lydia. Why was she still struggling so hard? Again, he spoke loudly into my right ear, “I’m making her stronger than you can imagine! I’m making her stronger than you can imagine!”
That was three years ago. My wife is healed. And she’s stronger than I could have imagined at the time.
Now, to put on my rationalistic skeptic hat. Was I was actually communicating with God? Or was I simply tapping into my own subconscious? Either way, these experiences were powerful and encouraging. Plus, they came true.
To be clear, I don’t always trust these experiences. You’ve got to keep your wits about you if you go chasing visions. You’ve got to prayerfully sort divine visions from demonic visions from your own flights of fancy. Some rules of thumb? It’s more likely that God has spoken to you when the content is loving and/or encourages you to take a leap of faith for the good of others. Another great rule of thumb is to always share your visions and dreams with the most spiritually mature people you know so that they can help you sort through and interpret them.
To be clear, inviting Jesus into you imagination-space isn’t something that’s required of all Christians. The point of this blog is that I’m sharing part of my spiritual life, in love, in the hope that it will edify someone. These practices have been good for me, and I want to give you permission to try them. They’ll work best if your mind is already saturated with scripture, your life is filled with prayer, you are anchored in a Christian community, and you are accustomed to walking by the Spirit.
Although I once let the devil run loose in my imagination and use it against me, filling it with dark and violent imagery, I have now surrendered my imagination for God. It is a holy and redeemed space deep inside myself where he has an open invitation to meet me. The visions people experienced in the Bible don’t really seem at all unusual anymore.
Like this post? Share it! And read more about communion with God in my book, Heaven’s Muscle.
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.) is a lawyer and former minister who lives in the hills of Kentucky.