By Rick Booye
I pray … that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you …
Imagination and intuition are two universal and crucial human capacities (created in God’s image) by which we perceive things that we are not necessarily looking at with our physical eyes. They are aspects of knowledge, of knowing reality. They are ways in which we “see the invisible” and so they relate intimately to what we call faith. They get short shrift in most churches, but are words we should add to our vocabularies, especially in preaching.
Imagination is the ability to bring into our minds things that are not present to our visual senses. These things, events, states of affairs, or actions, either have happened in our absence (in the past), or have not happened yet (in the future), or are currently happening in a different material location, but we can mentally visualize them happening, or “being.” Because our imagining of things often turns out not to be precise or accurate, we usually associate the term imagination with fiction, so that when we say that a person is “imagining things” we mean that the things they are keeping or creating in their minds are not real—never have been, never will be. But our imagination is not necessarily or innately inaccurate. In other words, it doesn’t have to be untrue to reality. If we are imagining something we have actually experienced, like snow skiing for instance, our imagination of the event might be very accurate and precise indeed, right down to the icy wind on our face and the feel of the crunching snow under the sharp ski edges as we schuss down the slope. So, fiction is not the only way to use imagination, and in fact is not the most common creative way we use it.
Imagination is the mental tool we use to do pretty much everything. When I plan a road trip, even on a familiar route, my imagination almost instantly produces a picture in my mind of the road, the various turns and stop lights, crossroads, and the final destination. It calculates the time, includes my sense of being in the car, listening to the stereo, sipping a Starbucks drip with no room. All I have to do is do it, to fulfill what my imagination provided. It doesn’t make me mistrust my mind if sometimes there is an unforeseen detour or delay on the road. I know that my imagination is not perfect or flawless. But I trust it enough (intuitively) to get in the car and put my foot on the gas. If my imagination did not or could not supply the picture for my road trip, I would be unlikely to start it at all, for fear of the unforeseen.
When a skilled person produces a piece of art, it begins in her imagination. She then exercises material energy (painting, sculpting, drawing) to bring the imagined entity into physical reality. We all imagine this way. I am right now imagining what I will do when I finish writing this paragraph; in addition to how the writing will potentially look in the larger work I am creating for publication. The thing isn’t done yet. But I am seeing it done in my mind’s eye. If this were not so, I couldn’t sit down and type a word. Writer’s block, the bane of an author’s existence, is essentially a (hopefully momentary) failure of imagination, a blank spot on the mental DVD.
When an architect plans a building, right down to what sorts of fasteners he will use, his imagination is working. He visualizes the entire project, piece by piece at first, but eventually the thing is so clear in his mind that he can make a scale model of it to show to the people whose money he hopes to use to build it. We would be veggies without our imaginations. We are the high order of being that we are because of our ability to imagine, like our Creator.
God gave us the gift of imagination because he has it in perfect, infinite measure and power, and it is such a profound pleasure to create good things, especially for others, that he determined to share the power with us. He knows how to hold something in his mind and then bring it into existence in a way that we can only … imagine. We imagine and create in the material world by moving our hands, putting together material stuff, then building, shaping, sculpting, writing, painting, gluing, fixing, planting, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, until the thing is before us and available to others for their admiration and appreciation (which we sincerely hope for). God does this by simply expressing his mind—speaking his Word. So, Genesis 1 tells us that God “said” things into existence and experienced the intense pleasure of seeing that, of course, they were all “good, good, very good.” The intense pleasure of creating good is so profound, so much a part of God’s own excellent life, that the creatures he created in his image simply must have it. And we do. Though we use our imaginations now for all sorts of evil things.
All of our human imaginings find their source in our experience of the world around us (including our physical experiences, educational input, reading, and so on), mixed with our mental ability to “re-arrange” the imagined material. We do not have the capacity to create images ex-nihilo, that is to imagine things that are totally foreign to our experience in every way. Which is why we cannot rightly “image” God’s person by using things from the created order. “No images!” He insists (Ex 20:4; Deut. 5:8). Neither can we very clearly imagine the realm he created called “the heavens” or the one he will create, the renovated New Heavens and New Earth that he has been designing all this time (John 14:1-2; 1 Cor. 13:12; Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1). He uses symbols and apocalyptic imagery to seed our thoughts, teaching us to trust that what he has planned will be infinitely beyond what we can imagine (Eph. 3:20). We use not infinite, creative energy, but our finite experiences, knowledge (including intuition), observations, learned skills, and combined energies, to imagine and create.
Therefore, the ideas and images that inform us will set the course of our energy, our creative effort—and in fact, our destiny. This is why God insists that we set our minds on him and let his word inform our imaginations. This is the skill of meditation (Josh. 1:8; Pss. 1:1-4; Phil. 4:8; Col. 3:3). In the case of the New Creation, we can meditate on the word of God regarding what he has said about it, in light of what he has created in this current vast universe. If he created this, and even in its unfriendly state (any part of the universe can kill us in any number of ways) it is beautiful and fascinating, we should imagine a new universe in which goodness is the reality and danger never mars beauty. In fact, judging by the fact that he speaks often of the wonders we cannot see, it seems he wants us to exercise our Scripture-informed imaginations deliberately to enhance our perception of his reality. Oswald Chambers wrote,
“Is your imagination stayed on God or is it starved? The starvation of the imagination is one of the most fruitful sources of exhaustion and sapping in a worker’s life. If you have never used your imagination to put yourself before God, begin to do it now. It is no use waiting for God to come; you must put your imagination away from the face of idols and look unto Him and be saved. Imagination is the greatest gift God has given us and it ought to be devoted entirely to Him. If you have been bringing every thought captive to obedience to Christ, it will be one of the greatest assets to faith when the time of trial comes, because your faith and the Spirit of God will work together.”
However, in our fallen state, our imaginations are infected, deformed so to speak (Mark 7:20-23; Rom. 3:9-18; 7:13-25). When we let our minds go they usually run to some form of evil, do they not? Dark fantasies are the seepage of infected imaginations. There are lust (epithumia) fantasies, anger fantasies, fear fantasies and so on. When we set our minds on this age, ourselves, this world, to the exclusion of God, we use our imaginations in some terrible ways. Look at the evil that we have created in the fictional worlds of media, movies, novels, music, computer graphics, and so on. Witness the horror, the radically violent and immoral fantasies that bubble out of the entertainment industry like so much sludge from a failed septic system. A computer researcher once told me that what fueled the expensive early research and development of VHS technology was pornography. People were willing to pay huge prices to view porn in the secrecy of their own homes. This is not the fault of the media itself. Many people create beauty and blessing using film, literature, music, and computer technology. But it does speak to the heart of humanity. If half a tree produces good fruit, and the other half produces poison, what would we have to say about the tree? Something is wrong (Matt. 7:16-20). And something is wrong with the human imagination that only God’s regenerating grace can heal.
Enter the gospel and the renewed mind resting on the invisible realities of the kingdom (Col. 3:1-5).
None of the rulers of this age understood this [the wisdom from God, the gospel], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him—“
These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Cor. 2:8-13 ESV)
Human imagination can be healed and shaped by the Spirit to comprehend what the Lord has planned for his people. We do not see it with our physical eyes, but with a regenerate imagination we can dwell on God’s reality and Christ’s presence in a way that grants certainty of future blessing even without precision of detail (1 Cor. 13:12).
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:8-9 ESV).
Imagination, then, for a Christian, is not primarily a tool of fiction, but of faith. If it is informed by the gospel and the witness of God’s word, it becomes a powerful aid to Spiritual knowledge and intuition.
Intuition is an assurance or certainty of something not necessarily based on empirical cognition It is the internal sense that a particular course of action or item of knowledge is true, right, appropriate, or correct without needing immediate empirical data. Intuition is more than a hunch or guess. It is a form of knowing that is spontaneous, often but not always based on experience, and usually correct (We have a different word for things that come to mind and turn out routinely to be false: delusions.) Philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig give the following useful definition of intuition:
“While philosophers differ over a precise definition of intuitions, a common usage defines an intuition as an immediate, direct awareness or acquaintance with something. An intuition is a mode of awareness—sensory, intellectual or otherwise—in which something seems or appears to be directly present to one’s consciousness.
Intuitions are not infallible, but they are prima facie justified. That is, if one carefully reflects on something, and a certain viewpoint intuitively seems to be true, then one is justified in believing that viewpoint in the absence of overriding counterarguments (which ultimately rely on alternative intuitions). Furthermore, an appeal to intuitions does not rule out the use of additional arguments that add further support to that appeal.”
In other words, intuition is a very important sort of knowing that all people do. I am suggesting that faith is intimately associated with intuition. It is a way of perceiving that is informed by various means, but not reliant on immediate sight. Most of us understand “mother’s intuition,” by which we mean Mom’s sense that something needs to be trusted, done, avoided, provided, or otherwise experienced, when in fact there is no compelling empirical reason at hand. But because Mom “just knows,” she turns out to be right most of the time, and even when she’s wrong, she’s not usually that wrong. The same may be said for other fields of endeavor besides parenting. I once heard a man question a business leader about a decision he made that seemed not to be based on the empirical data at hand. He asked, “What’s that, just your feeling, your hunch?” The leader responded, “Well, isn’t that really what you pay me for, my intuition in situations like these? If it’s not, what do you pay me for?” Good point.
Truth be told, most people make most of their decisions intuitively, even when they claim not to. A hardnosed empiricist might insist that he never makes decisions on feelings, only on facts. But a further question will reveal that the reason he makes his decisions this way is primarily because he feels strongly that this is the way to avoid the most mistakes. Human beings are intuitive by nature. God created us in his image and all of his knowledge is what we would call intuitive. That is, it is immediately available to him without his having to “learn” it, figure it out, remember it, or test the theory to see if it works. God’s knowledge is perfect, eternal, infinite, factual, true, exhaustive, and immediately intuitive to him in totality and at all times. People accustomed to God’s presence have always known this about him. The Psalmist reminds us, “ Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” (Ps 147:5 NASB) and John the apostle says, “For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20 NIV)
The Lord gave us the gift of intuition in a limited (and in this age, fallible) way; and we are happiest when we use it successfully and rightly. It is a way of “seeing the invisible” in that it senses and “intuits” rather than simply watching and cogitating. Though intuition is not opposed to “thinking through things,” and in fact should welcome additional reliable insight, it offers a way of knowing that is particularly easy, natural and pleasing to us. If you have ever “just done the right thing without thinking” and found afterward that it was excellent, productive, and rewarded, you have had the feeling of a successful intuition. God created us to live this way all the time and redeemed people will live this way in the next age with unerring goodness and positive effect.
Meanwhile, our intuition can be nourished, shaped and developed. It is the “inner man,” the “circumcised heart” that responds to God’s word. When the expression of the Lord’s mind (his Word) remains in our mind over time (John 15:7), it shapes the intuitions within the heart. The result is an increase of “natural” responses to life that “just happen” to be very like what Jesus would do if he were in the situation you find yourself in. On the other hand, if other ways of thinking “abide” in one’s mind, the intuitions take on a different shape. For instance, a person steeped in sexual immorality has certain intuitions about how to approach the opposite gender (or in some cases the same gender). They find that seducing and being seduced just “comes naturally” to them. A cheater finds ways and means to cheat, a liar to lie, and so on. This is intuition trained in particular way, the result of long-term, deliberate, imaginative meditation on evil themes, possibly coupled with various other visual or auditory stimuli.
As with imagination, so with intuition. God intends to shape it by his Spirit and his Word. This is in large part what takes place in what we call spiritual transformation. The Master molds our mental and volitional habits and intuitions to be like his (Mtt. 11:29-30; 28:18-20; Rom. 12:1-2; Gal. 4:19). Pastoral work happens in this venue.
Pastors must teach the Word in a way that speaks to people’s imaginations and intuitions. The Spirit takes the Word-made-text and reveals the Word-made-flesh in the souls/minds/hearts of the people who hear the Lord’s voice (Jn.10:27; 15:7). It happens slowly, over time, and is always imbedded in the experiences (especially sorrow) of life in this age.
Seeing the invisible, living by faith and not by sight, opening the eyes of our heart, all involve our imagination and our intuition. From time to time we should ask ourselves the condition of our “inner person” with regard to these things. What is shaping our imagination these days? How is our intuition growing in Spirit-guided ways? What is the role of meditation on God’s Word in these things?
 Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines imagination as, “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality; creative ability; a creation of the mind.”
 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1935) 42.
 Note the similarity between this definition and that of faith in Hebrews 11:1.
 J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 422.
 Any good systematic theology will expound this in various ways, Open Theism notwithstanding. For good discussions from different angles see: John Frame, Doctrine of God, 469-512; John Feinberg, No One Like Him 299-320; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology 190-193.