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I have been learning some things about imagination lately, which have altered my appreciation for that word. In the past, I had thought of imagination as something to do with childhood fantasies, where you imagine that you are an astronaut or a fairy princess or something. It did not seem particularly practical, and it sounded like it could actually be dangerous (as in delusions of grandeur). However, I have come to see that imagination is something much bigger than that, and it really is a very necessary trait for a good Christian.

The Bible says, "Without a vision, the people perish." (Proverbs 29:18) "Vision" (i.e. what you see with your eyes) is quite different from a vision, as used in the quote above. A vision is something that you see through your imagination.

It takes imagination to think into the future, and to plan for it. Animals appear to have very little imagination. They are trapped in the present. But people are able to think in terms of days, weeks, months, years, and even to comprehend the fact that the world existed before we were born, and that it is going to continue to exist after we die. We are able to recognise that we are eventually going to die one day, whether we like it or not, even though our animal nature would rather not think about it.

Thoughts of God and heaven and hell and eternity are all part of our uniquely human experience, and they come from our imagination. That is not to say that they are fantasies, but rather that we are forced to think about them in advance, because they are not tangibly visible right here and now. This vision of eternity underlies all that is Christian, giving our life a dimension of meaning that nonbelievers can barely comprehend. And, as the verse that we quoted in the second paragraph said, without this vision, we perish spiritually.

But imagination relates to other more temporal experiences as well. For most of us, it takes effort on the part of our imagination to remember the suffering of the Third World. We have to think about what it must be like for them. And if we do not make the effort to imagine what it must be like for people who are less fortunate than ourselves, it is unlikely that we will ever do much about helping the truly needy people of the world.

Practising the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) is impossible without imagination; for it takes imagination to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and to imagine how you would feel if someone behaved toward you in the way that you behave toward them.

This doesn't just include people in the Third World, but it extends to everything we do and say in our day to day relations with other people. Such imagination needs to be habitual in a true Christian. We should be examining ourselves constantly, to be sure that whatever we do or say would be equally valid if done by, or used by, our opponents against us. Fair play is impossible without such imagination.

Even in those aspects of life which are not necessarily spiritual, imagination makes everything that we do more effective. It takes imagination to plan ahead and escape the present. A person without imagination does very little until they are forced to act... by other people, by circumstances, or by their hunger, tiredness, or emotions. With imagination, you can plan your day. Even while you are doing one job, you will be able to think about the next job. You will be considering problems which may arise, and working out ways to avoid or overcome them.

A person with imagination is able to visualise all sorts of activities and to visualise how they fit into a bigger plan. Such a person is often able to help others to visualise them as well. The imaginative person carries various charts or graphs around in their head, and each of these imaginary charts shows what progress is being made in some area of endeavour. A pie chart showing the breakdown of a budget, or a bar graph showing progressive sales turns boring activities into a measurable quest for improvement. The most boring activities can come alive, as games or competitions against yourself, and against the clock. But all of this takes imagination.

Once you have a picture in your own mind that brings to life the various activities that you are a part of, it will be easier to communicate that picture to others through such things as charts and graphs.

There is a concept called "delayed gratification", which is a trademark of successful people everywhere. What it means is that these people have been able to forego a smaller pleasure now, for the sake of a greater pleasure at some time in the future. This ability to delay the gratification for longer and longer requires imagination. You have to get by on "imagining" the reward (or gratification) for longer and longer periods of time, until it finally becomes a reality.

The ultimate reward (eternal life) often takes the longest period of unrewarded patience (i.e. a lifetime of faithful service to God and others). That takes maximum imagination, which is just another word for faith.

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. By it, our forefathers obtained a good report." Hebrews 11:1-2. May we also obtain a good report from God when he checks our report card and comes to the line marked: "Faithfulness, despite not having yet received the reward."

(See also Mental Graphs, and Learning to See.)

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