When I was young—maybe five years old?—I saw green, luminescent spiders crawling up my arm and gliding down webs from the ceiling. I watched giant ones follow me down the stairs. I believed they were real.
Our imaginations are powerful. When we are children, we are encouraged to use our imaginations to play and learn. Our imaginations could summon both unicorns and dragons— both hope and fear. I could imagine things under my bed, or in the closet, or living in the forest at the end of the cul-de-sac. But, most of the time, our childhood fears turn out to be “silly.” There was nothing under the bed, after all.
As we grow older, our fears may be more realistic, but we haven’t stopped using our imaginations to fuel them.
In my book, The Redeemed Imagination, I write about the power of imagination. I have come to believe that overcoming fear requires training our imaginations and letting them be redeemed.
While I go more deeply into this idea in my book, I want to expound on a few ideas about imagination here:
1. That fear is unhealthy imagination; 2. That despair is a lack of imagination, and 3: That hope is redeemed imagination.
Fear is unhealthy imagination
Imagination is the ability to “image” something in our minds. It is to see what isn’t there. This is how worry takes shape in our minds. We envision the future, and— probably because of our need to prepare and protect ourselves—that future is often unhappy or dangerous.
I sometimes believe using my imagination this way will protect me from disappointment or keep me from being unprepared. What it really does is make me afraid and cautious, not seeing the full potential of what could really happen. This is the deception of our minds. We think that a bad outcome is more realistic, and so that’s what we believe will happen.
We don’t always “believe” what we imagine, but I do think that we tend to imagine what we believe.
When I was in cognitive behavioral therapy, my therapist helped me understand the importance of our core beliefs. Our core beliefs shape our thoughts and choices, even if we don’t know we believe them.
If our core beliefs are centered around fear, then our imagination—our “imaging” of the future—will also focus on fear.
If I believe that I am incapable on my own, then I might imagine a future where I am alone and can’t function. Or if I believe that a certain place is going to trigger anxiety because I had a panic attack there once, then I will imagine having a panic attack there even the anxiety had nothing to do with the place.
Core beliefs can go deeper as well. Do we believe life is meaningless, that everything happens for a reason, or something in between? Do we believe in the redemption of all things, or that evil will prevail?
What we believe matters. I have had to remove many unhealthy beliefs that I didn’t even know I had.
When we have unhealthy beliefs, we will have an unhealthy imagination about the future. This is a little different from knowing that bad things can happen. It is believing that bad things will happen, or that, if they happen, we will be irrecoverably devastated by them.
It is also an obsessive worry. Most of us think about the future with some concern about what might happen. But unhealthy imagination obsesses over these possibilities, replaying them over and over again in our heads. When we do this, our worry becomes anxiety.
While we can’t know the future, and we can’t necessarily stop thinking about the future altogether, we can be aware of when our imaginations are being unfair to us.
Despair is a lack of imagination
When I was a senior in college, I couldn’t imagine what was next for me. The future wasn’t just scary—it was blank. If you have ever been overwhelmed by a blank page, not knowing what to draw or write because your mind is blank, you can imagine the feeling. Often, we get stuck on a blank page because we have too many ideas. But that wasn’t the problem. I had no ideas, and when I could imagine anything, it was always bad.
I have been reading through the Old Testament lately, and it is always surprising how small the imaginations of the Israelites were. God had done incredible things for them, but when God promised something else, the Israelites couldn’t imagine how that could possibly happen, and so they doubted.
It’s easier to imagine the worst instead of the best. Do we do this to protect ourselves from disappointment? Do we do it because we truly believe the worst is always going to happen, or because we have had bad luck before? Either way, we are not using our imaginations to their full capacity.
I think this is why so many new writers write sad stories. It is harder to imagine a happy ending after placing your characters in a tough situation. To get them out of it, you have to be more creative. This is hard. It can take many days and editing to figure out what your characters should do next.
When we imagine our futures, we tend to lack creativity and stop at the part where things go wrong.
This is the lie of the Tragedy. We believe that things don’t go on after grief. We see the tragic ending as the true ending rather than as just a part of a larger story.
Hope is redeemed imagination
We have to learn how to use our imaginations in a healthy way. There are as many positive outcomes as negative ones, but we tend to focus on the negative ones. When we focus our imaginations on the positive, we are practicing hope.
But I believe this goes deeper. It wouldn’t be helpful to hope if we lived in a hopeless world. This is where our core beliefs matter. Do we believe that the foundations of our hope will hold up?
If our hope rests on a belief that nothing bad will ever happen to us, then our hope is on an unsteady foundation. But if our hope is built on the belief that everything will be redeemed, then we can sleep soundly on that foundation.
The Apostle Paul describes “faith” as “being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
This kind of hope can only come when our imaginations are redeemed. We have to receive the gift of faith and then continue to receive that faith day by day.
What do we hope for?
We hope that, no matter what happens, God will be working to redeem us. We hope that our weaknesses will reveal God’s strength. We hope that death isn’t the end, and that tragedy is just a moment that comes before the greatest love story.
This is why I believe stories— both fictional and factual— are so important. Even stories as different as The Lord of the Rings and Anne of Green Gables remind us that goodness and love will triumph. Read the account of Corrie Ten Boom’s powerful faith during her time in a concentration camp in The Hiding Place. Read how Elisabeth Elliot resisted despair when her husband was killed and instead redeemed his death by serving the very people who killed him.
But it was also Elisabeth Elliot who wrote about the limits of our imaginations. In her book, Loneliness, she shares how others would tell her that imagining what she had been through with the loss of two husbands made them despair. I don’t have the book with me, but I still remember, after six years since reading it, that she wrote something like this:
“They couldn’t possibly imagine what I had been through, because they couldn’t imagine the grace.”
We can’t imagine exactly how God will show up with His grace until we are going through our own suffering.
This may seem like a huge limitation to our imaginations, but the real problem is that we usually don’t even imagine that God will show up at all.
I think this is why I have so much fear about the future. I haven’t been through anything I would call true suffering other than the suffering inflicted by my own mind. Even though I have experienced God’s grace in my own kind of suffering, I catch myself believing He won’t show up in the same way again. This was the problem with the Israelites. They doubted God’s capacity to keep being God. They lacked imagination.
Even if we can’t imagine the way God will show up, we can still believe that He will, and that it will be better than we ever could have foreseen.
What if we started doing this today? What if, every time we catch ourselves imagining our worst fears, we took a moment to imagine that God would be with us?
This isn’t blind hope or passive positivity. It is hope built on the assurance that Jesus has already done the work of salvation in our lives. Even what Christ did on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is enough for us to shake off our fear of death.
We may not be able to stop ourselves from worrying forever, but my hope for myself is to spend even more energy in hoping. If my mind has the capacity to fear, it has the capacity to hope, too.
When we have spent so much of our lives using our minds to worry, it can take time and mental work to reshape our thoughts. But that is exactly what we have to do.
We have to exercise our faith and choose to hope every day.
You can read more about the power imagination in The Redeemed Imagination, an essay that blends memoir and poetry to explore how imagination can free us from despair.