Friday, March 18, 2016

THE USE OF THE IMAGINATION IN WORSHIP



Mystics often claim that if we imagine that we are in contact with God, then we will be. In Celebration of Disciple, mystic Richard Foster insists that:

  • As with meditation, the imagination is a powerful tool in the work of prayer. We may be reticent to pray with the imagination, feeling that it is slightly beneath us. Children have no such reticence. (172)
  • Since we know that Jesus is always with us, let’s imagine that he is sitting over in the chair across from us. He is waiting patiently for us to centre our attention on him. When we see him, we start thinking more about His love than how sick Julie is. He smiles, gets up, and comes over to us. Then, let’s put both our hands on Julie and when we do, Jesus will put His hands on top of ours. We’ll watch the light from Jesus flow into your little sister and make her well. (173)
Do we have scriptural permission to imagine and channel Jesus in this manner? According to the renowned theologian, J.I. Packer, we do not:

  • How should we form our thoughts about God? Not only can we not imagine Him adequately, since he is at every point greater than we can grasp; we dare not trust anything our imagination suggests about him, for the built-in habit of fallen minds is to scale God down. (Growing in Christ; 243)
Although the imagination can be used profitably in other areas, Scripture never gives us the freedom to use imagination in worship, as Jeremiah warned:

  • This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts [“walketh after the imagination of his own heart;” KJV] they say, 'No harm will come to you.'” (Jeremiah 23:16-17; Ezek 13:2; Luke 1:51)
Packer points out that the prohibition against the use of imagination is actually inscribed in the Ten Commandments:

  • Hence, the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything.” This forbids… imagining the true God as like yourself or something lower. God’s real attack is on mental images… If imagination leads out thoughts about God, we too shall go astray. No statement starting, “This is how I like to think of God” should ever be trusted. An imagined God will always be more or less imaginary and unreal. (244)
How strange the theology that insists that we shouldn’t worship material images but then encourages us to worship the images of our imagination! Consequently, we are not free to worship our God in any manner that feels right to us. Instead, worship must be grounded in scriptural truth, as Jesus insisted:

  • But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24 (ESV)
We must worship God in truth, according to who he is. This is not optional; it’s a requirement. There is no room to imagine the God we would like to have. Likewise, I am not free to love my wife using the mental images of my first flame. Instead, I must love her for who she is!

Packer redirects the reader back to the second commandment for another look:

  • “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.) (Exodus 20:4-6)
Ours is not a comfortable God but a jealous and chastening one who demands our complete allegiance:

  • And how should we keep this one [commandment]? By reining in our disordered imaginations and reverently accepting that God is as he says he is. How unready and slow we are to do that! Yet we must learn to do it; for it is only as rose-colored fantasy is abandoned, and realism takes its place, that true worship – worship, that is, in truth – can begin. (245)
We might not like such a God in every respect, but there is no other Creator and Redeemer.

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