In the Image of God:
Uses and Abuses of the Imagination
Sabbath Day Sermon, Saturday 7 July 2001
"Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness ... So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Gen 1:26-27, NKJV).
In these two short verses in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the origin of man is explained to us. We are built in His image. A little later on we read:
"And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth" (Gen 5:3, NKJV).
We learn from these two passages two very important things about man: firstly, we are very much like God Himself in so many ways. And secondly, that our children are in many ways like their parents too. In the case of Seth, the likeness with his father was much closer than that of his evil brother Cain, who most certainly did not resemble his father in his nature and spiritual disposition.
An image is a representation of a likeness of a person or a thing. Sculpture is one example of an image. In biblical times sculpted objects of metal, wood and stone were known as idols when men and women bowed down and worshipped them. Another kind of image is an optically formed reproduction of an object. An example might be the reflection in a mirror. Another would be a photograph, cinematic film, video, holograms, or computer images. Another type of image is a mental picture of something, an idea produced by our imagination. When we speak of an image we also refer to, for example, a politician's image - that is, the side of himself which he presents to the public, but which is not necessarily the same as when he is in private. There are indeed many ways in which we use the word "image" in our language.
But we can summarise the word "image" as being a material or mental representation of something which is tangible and real. It appears a great many times in the Bible in both a positive and a negative sense. As we have seen, mankind is made in the image of God, and our children are made in the images of their parents. But perhaps even more importantly as far as we are concerned is what Yahweh expects of us in terms of image-building.
Paul reminds us that as men are made in the image of God, so women are made in the image of men (1 Cor.11:7ff). It is for this reason that men of God are supposed to wear tallit and the women of God to wear head coverings to indicate this created order. Man and woman are images. We are reflections of something other than ourselves.
When a sculptor makes a sculpture he must use his imagination. He must create a mental picture of his subject and then translate that into a statue or other object. Our English verb "to imagine" literally means 'to form a mental image'. When a person meditates, say, on a loved one, he creates in his mind a mental picture of that person. It's not the real person, anymore than a photograph is the real object under photography. Indeed, it is well known in psychology that we often think in pictures, which is why we dream in pictures. And the faculty which enables us to do this is the "imagination" - that which enables us to make images. Or as one of my dictionaries puts it: "imagination is faculty or action of producing mental images of what is not present or has not been experienced". It is also described as the creative faculty of man, our innate ability to be creative with our minds. In short, it is the power to be creative.
It would not therefore be wrong to say that we human beings are the product of God's imagination. We originated as His thoughts which He then translated into literal, substantial objective beings. We did not therefore technically exist as thoughts of God - we were latent but not manifested. Not until God created us and gave us independent action did we really come into existence.
In the opening verses of John's Gospel one of the deepest scriptures there is may be found which has so much meaning on so many different levels that it would take books to elucidate upon it. The first verse, so well known, hints somewhat at the mystery that I myself am trying to examine, saying: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn.1:1). All that is around us - this planet, living things, the entire physical universe, including that which is presently invisible to us - originated as images or thoughts in the mind of God, into which He breathed live to give them independent existence. If they had remained in His thoughts we would not be here today.
We have an expression in our language which says that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". Put simply, that which consists only of intentions or images is really quite useless to anyone. The writer who thinks out his story but never writes it down has achieved nothing. The housewife who plans to clean the house in great detail but doesn't actually get around to do it has achieved nothing. The man who daydreams about wooing a woman he is attracted to but never makes an effort to meet her will never win her heart.
Images are but the first step of a process that leads to concrete action or manifestation on the physical plane. If we bottle these images up in our heads and never bring them to fruition we are just dreaming and achieving nothing.
We learn in Paul's epistle to the Romans that we, as Christians, have as our calling to "be conformed to the image of [Christ]" (Rom.8:29, NKJV). What this means is that Yahweh wishes us to live the kind of life that Christ did. He tells the Corinthians that we are not only actual physical images of God but that our spirits have not yet attained to the image they are supposed to be - for by our actions or deeds on earth we gradually become transformed into "the image of the heavenly Man", Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) (1 Cor.15:49). We are, he explains, "being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor 3:18, NKJV). And what is that image he speaks of? It is, we are told, the image of Christ such as one might behold in a mirror.
Yah'shua (Jesus), says Paul, is the image of God (2 Cor.4:4). He is the image of the invisible God (Col.1:15), a reflection of the attributes of God in a physical, human body. Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) is the closest thing we will ever have of seeing God as He really is. Christ is the ultimate image - the image we are to reproduce in our lives.
Now in order to reproduce the life of Christ in our lives we must use the faculty called our imagination. To imitate Christ means to look at His life as recorded in the Bible and to imitate the kind of behaviour He used. We read, for example, of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:25-37). As we read Yah'shua's (Jesus') parable we picture in our mind's eye, using the faculty called imagination, the events described. As we view this mental image, our understanding of the kind of life God wants us to live is made clear. But were we to do only that, the whole purpose of the parable would be pointless. Even if we were to take the next step and say, "Oh, I want to be like that good Samaritan!" we really won't have achieved the purpose of the parable until we actually live like that Good Samaritan on a daily basis.
A parable is an image - the raw material for our imagination that is supposed to lead to good deeds. The Christian, who has exercised the power of his imagination, should next start doing deeds of charity - not necessarily the same deeds (for how many times are you likely to meet a the victim of a robbery?) But any deed that shows care, concern, and love for your neighbour. And who is our neighbour? Anyone and everyone within our reach whom we can practically help, starting at home and working outwards.
The human imagination is a gift from God. It gives us the ability to translate ideas into pictures, and from picture into action. The gift is itself morally neutral but it can be used for good or for evil.
The trouble is man is fallen. Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, little good has come of this power he has to exercise creative thought and image-production. Immediately following the flood, when Yahweh was forced to destroy the earth because of wickedness, the Lord said: "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21, NKJV).
I want you to note these words carefully: "although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" - not some men and women, but all men and women. This faculty called the imagination, which God gave to us as a gift to glorify Him in works of righteousness, is as corrupt as the very soul of man of which it is a part.
This truth is underlined again and again in the Scriptures. Man is so vain and self-conceited, that Yahweh said of him: "he blesses himself in his heart, saying, 'I shall have peace, even though I walk in the imagination of my heart'" (Dt. 29:19, NKJV). Man praises himself to the highest heavens, saying how wonderful and good he is. And how does he do so? By the faculty of his imagination, which stems from his heart, which is corrupt because of the Fall of Adam.
Like the conscience of man, which we learn is also defiled by sin (Tit.1:15; 1 Cor.8:7), so too is the power of the imagination. And God does not think very highly of it. Indeed, Christ says of His Heavenly Father: "He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts" (Luke 1:51, NKJV). Yes, brethren and sisters, it is from the IMAGINATION that PRIDE stems - that murderous devil which persuades us that we are greater than we really are. It was from the imagination that Lucifer fell - he imagined himself as being greater than God. It was IMAGINATION that let the inhabitants of Babylon to build the Tower of Babel, and through the same faculty they imagined they could ascend into heaven.
If our imagination is so unruly, how is it supposed to serve God? To begin with, if our imagination produces no deeds, it is useless whether is it pure or impure. If our imagination is vain, then obviously we need to repent of the images we have created, because these images - even though they aren't physical objects of worships - are nevertheless MENTAL objects of worship and are every bit as idolatrous as the physical things the ancients used to worship.
There are many who pray to images of God in their head and believe they are worshipping God. But even this is a delusion, for in truth they are only worshipping an image - and since they are the creator of this image, they actually worshipping themselves. True religion - true worship of God - is immensely practical.
Let me give you a simple example. Let us say that I do something nasty to my neighbour. I know it is wrong. I sit and meditate about it, create an image of my neighbour in my mind and create a scene like in a film and go through the motions of apologising to him in my mind and asking for his forgiveness. Using my imagination, I go through a "preview" of what I intend to do, and perhaps even experience the emotions of godly sorrow that are associated with repentance. But just because I have gone through a mental run of repentance, and felt feelings of remorse, doesn't mean I have repented until I have actually done the physical deed itself. Until I have done that, I haven't repented at all! It's just in my mind! I have created an image of reality - a fantasy - which I have mistakenly supposed was reality. But it isn't. And that, if I leave it at that, is vanity.
People avoid actually "doing the deed" of Christian living for many reasons, of course, all of which are sinful and reflect an impure heart. The commonest reason for not repenting - of feeling godly sorrow for doing wrong and going and apologising to the person wronged - is pride. They are afraid to lose face - to lose their dignity. But this is almost as bad a sin as the bad deed they did in the first place. Yahweh says: "I, the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud. Only those who live by faith are acceptable to Me" (Hab.2:4, CEV).
And what kind of faith is that? Not any old sort of faith, of course. And certainly not passive faith. The only faith that counts - the only faith that matters to God - is godly faith, which the Bible says is faith that is accompanied by good works: "Faith without works is dead", said the apostle James (Jas.2:26). In other words, faith without deeds - without action on the physical plain - is dead ... It's utterly useless.
Man is made in the image of God. He is a twofold image: (1) an image of God's mind; and (2) a physical image. It begins as a thought pattern which is made visible as a picture, and then that image - which is rather like a plan or a blueprint - is translated into something tangible and real. If it doesn't manifest as something concrete, then it is of no use at all.
The whole of creation was planned by Yahweh in advance. He did it meticulously by the power of His divine imagination, which was pure and perfect, unlike man's. He even planned the death and resurrection of His Son, Yah'shua (Jesus), long before man even came into being, because He foreknew what we would do. But those plans didn't remain as plans: they were carefully executed from the very first day of creation until today. Everything is unfolding according to His great cosmic genius.
Unfortunately, we are not God. Since our imagination is corrupt from our youth onwards, how are we to handle it? How can we be sure we're not out of God's will? How can we know that we're not on some wild goose chase? What should we do with our gift of imagination?
The first thing we have to do is get a grounding in REALITY. What that means is that we must look around us, both locally at home, in our neighbourhood, and in the wider world, and find out what is actually going on. If we are ignorant of our circumstances, then nothing we do is going to be of much use to us or anyone else.
If I am locked in prison and decide that I am, in fact, free, and start planning to go out to the cinema, then I am not living in reality - I am living a delusion. The prophet Zechariah tells us that "idols speak delusion" (Zec.10:2, NKJV), and although he was speaking of physical idols, the idols of our own imagination - the fantasy images we may believe are real - are just delusion. They aren't real, because they have nothing to do with the world around us. God would not place us in a world, no matter how bad it may be, if He didn't want us to be aware of what was going on around us.
The second thing we have to do is have a proper perspective of who WE ARE. If I believe I am something I am not, then I am living a delusion - a fantasy - an idle image created from my imagination. An athlete would be utterly foolish is he believed he was winning a race when the race hadn't even started. If he proceeded on the basis of such an illusion, he wouldn't get anywhere. To be successful in anything we do requires that we have a realistic grasp on what is happening around us as well as having a realistic grasp on ourselves.
When I was young I had all sorts of foolish and vain dreams about what I wanted to be and do. They were mostly bunkum - sheer nonsense. But the reality around me /which I did not deny), and my responsibility to provide for myself as an adult, soon put pay to those dreams.
God's Name tells us how we should be. When Moses asked Yahweh by what Name He should be known to the children of Israel, He replied: ""I AM WHO I AM." And He said, "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.' "(Ex 3:14, NKJV).
Now this very strange statement isn't actually strange at all. All Yahweh was saying was that God is the Ultimate Reality. He was saying that He was what He was, not what he imagined, or what other people imagined. If a Christian is to understand himself, he must similarly have a grip on reality - and what he is today - and accept that is what he is. Knowing who you are is what you are today, at this very moment in time, not what you would like to be, or what you believe you will be, but what you are. Yah'shua (Jesus) said exactly the same thing of Himself too (Jn.8:58).
Our personal reality is our circumstances and the person we are in this moment of time. I am at location X, doing Y, with Z, etc.. This is reality. The fact that I intend to build a orphanage in the future, or to become an evangelist, or a husband, or a wife is not reality: reality is NOW. To live in any other condition is, the Bible says, to be living in idle imagination and in delusion. Those who dream and fantasise God categorises alongside the wicked, saying: "these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries" (Jude 8, NKJV). In other words, they aren't doing with their bodies what they are supposed to be doing, they set themselves up as authorities in everything, and slander those who are in proper authority.
Having been honest about who we are and our present circumstances, and having found out what is going on around about us, we need to know what to do. That requires our imagination again. We need to sit down and think things out, forming mental pictures of what we plan to do. The Bible calls this "meditation" - not oriental meditation, which requires that you empty your mind, but meditation on Yahweh and His Word.
The first thing we are to meditate on is God's Law (Josh.1:8), the standards of behaviour that Yahweh expects of us. That means searching out His commandments and doing them. King David was a great meditator - his Psalms are full of what he meditated on - Yahweh's precepts, His works, His Word, and His majesty. Malachi meditated on His very Name Yahweh (Mal.3:16). Paul said we should mediate on the words of Christ and His apostles. But perhaps Paul's greatest gift to us is in his own specific meditation, which surely us the cornerstone of what Christian reality is all about, for he said:
"Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy -- meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil 4:8-9, NKJV).
This is the food we are supposed to be supplying to our imagination when we meditate. And yet, be honest, what is it we usually dream about when we let our minds wander? It's mostly about self. But self, the New Testament says, ought to be dead in Christ. Self is the problem that keeps spoiling our lives.
Christ knew that there was a tendency of man to be too involved in his thoughts and imaginings - that such activity could, if over done, become unhealthy. It is for this reason, from Genesis to Revelation, that practical religion is stressed. Indeed, we should be so busy in doing good works that we shouldn't have that much time for idle imagining.
Speaking of how to deal with persecution, Yah'shua (Jesus) said: "Settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist" (Lk.21:14-16, NKJV), meaning that a person who is walking close to the Spirit will know what to say and do the very moment a situational problem arises, without the need for lengthy meditation.
The life of a Christian is not that of a monk or a hermit, a tradition that belongs to oriental religions such as Buddhism, which attempts to deal with problems by denying they exist altogether. They claim suffering is all in the mind - it is maya - or illusion. But it isn't.
Christianity is the most down-to-earth religion there is. It is the ultimate religion of reality. It is less concerned with the mystical as it is with the needs all around us. That is why God went to all the trouble to incarnate as Yah'shua (Jesus) and to suffer a hideous death on our behalf. That is why we, as Christians, are called to suffer with Him by interacting with this world to bring the message of salvation. And to do that you have to confront reality in all its glory and terror.
I have said this many times - and I will keep on repeating it - and it's that Christianity is the ultimate reality. Christianity is coming to grips with people around you and serving them whilst forgetting yourself. The moment we have found, and are trusting in, Yah'shua (Jesus) as Lord and Saviour, we are immediately called to go out and serve people no matter what our present circumstances. We can do this in tens of thousands of different ways, starting by performing our basic duties at home, in church, and in the community, and thereafter, of our own free will going the extra mile. Even the prophets, who are given access to Yahweh through prophecies, dreams and visions, are never to be found loitering - all, without exception, were men of action, not closet mystics. The incarnation is the very antithesis of the closet mystic, for if God sent His image Yah'shua (Jesus) to be a worker out in the field of humanity, then so men, as images of Yah'shua (Jesus), and women as images of men, are called to do no less ... without exception.
I conclude with this word of Christ to the Christians at Ephesus so that you may gain a vision of just what our Lord is looking for:
"I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary" (Rev 2:2-3, NKJV).
Three words stand out to challenge the closet solo-Christian and they are WORKS, LABOUR and PATIENCE. The redeemed are a body of hardworking souls throwing their energy into their stewardships as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, bread-earners, homemakers, and Kingdom-builders. May we, when we are called up before the pleasing judgement of Yahweh, not be found to have been idle, lost in our vain imagination, but diligent hardworking servants toiling in a real world with real people for the glory of the Most High. Amen.
This page was created on 15 July 2001
Last updated on 15 July 2001
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