May 3, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Genesis 6:5 (KJV)
And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Some Christians believe that the imagination is necessarily evil. They find support for this view in the King James Version of the Bible, which uses the word “imagination” in generally negative ways. But, in fact, Scripture does not single out the imagination as being corrupt. Rather, all human mental activity has been twisted by sin. Every part of us, including our imagination, needs to be redeemed and renewed by God.
This devotion is part of the series, Imagination: Redeemed and Redemptive.
The church in which I grew up never had much to say about the imagination. In fact, I can’t recall ever hearing it mentioned in a sermon or Bible study. We were neither encouraged nor discouraged to use our imaginations. We just didn’t talk about it.
But I know brothers and sisters in Christ who were taught from their early years that imagination was evil. I expect that their preachers and teachers meant well, given their particular beliefs and inclinations. Their denigration of the imagination was fueled by the biblical translation they used. The King James Version of the Bible employs the word “imagination” 20 times, 18 of which make a strong connection between imagination and evil. For example, Genesis 6:5 reads in the KJV, “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Now, if you were to take that verse literally and seriously, then you’d conclude that imagination was always evil, always something to be avoided. Then, as you read other passages of Scripture, like the prophecies of Jeremiah, you’d have found plenty of support for the “imagination = evil” position (see Jeremiah 13:10 for one example).
Now, I believe you can build a strong biblical case in favor of the imagination even if you chose the King James Version as your preferred translation. I’ll be making this case throughout the rest of this devotional series on the imagination (albeit from the New Revised Standard Version). In 2 Corinthians 4:18, for example, the Apostle Paul says, “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” This “looking” seems quite clearly to be an example of Spirit-inspired and divinely-approved imagination. Moreover, as you read the gospels, you find Jesus frequently using his imagination in his ministry. He was making up stories all the time—the stories we call parables. They were profoundly true, though not in a historical sense. If the sinless Son of God felt free to use his imagination, surely it can’t have been all bad.
Part of the problem with the King James Version is that it uses “imagination” in an antiquated way. Almost all contemporary translations avoid using “imagination” in verses like Genesis 6:5. Other options include: “inclination” (NRSV, NIV), “idea” (CEB), and “intention” (ESV). The Hebrew word behind these translations, yetzer, has as its dictionary definition “form, framing, purpose,” with “imagination” as a minor option. Yetzer is used in Genesis 6:5 to describe the “wickedness of humankind” that was so great God decided to wipe everyone out with a giant flood, except for Noah and his entourage. Yetzer had to do with much more than just what we would call the imagination.
If we were not familiar with the King James Version, we’d be disinclined to assume on the basis of Scripture that imagination is always evil. However, we’d also be disinclined to believe that the human imagination is naturally full of goodness. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, we learn that human beings, because they refused to honor God, “became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:21). (By the way, the KJV reads “became vain in their imaginations” instead of “became futile in their thinking.”) The Greek word translated as “imaginations” or “thinking” is dialogismos, which means “reasoning.” Paul’s point is not that our imaginations have become futile so much as that our whole minds have been corrupted because we rejected God.
So, those who demonize the imagination but exonerate the rest of our mental abilities are missing the point. Yes, we should be concerned about what our imaginations produce, but not because the imagination is the uniquely fallen part of our brains. Rather, we should acknowledge that every aspect of our thinking has become corrupted because of sin. Every mental capacity we have needs to be redeemed.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that our imaginations are always good, trustworthy, or God-honoring. I think all self-aware Christians realize that sin lurks in our imaginations. So, imagination doesn’t get a free pass. Yet, at the same time, I am saying that our imaginations are not more sinful than the rest of our mental capacities. Every part of us needs to be redeemed from the impact of sin. Every part of us needs to be renewed so that we might live fully for God.
If you did not grow up in a church that demonized the imagination, and if you don’t know Christians who grew up in such a community, this devotion may not have touched your heart. You can be grateful that you don’t carry some of the church baggage that can weigh down others. But this devotion does serve as a preview of coming attractions. It begins to lay out a biblical understanding of the imagination, and how our imaginations need to be redeemed so that they might become redemptive. More to follow. Stay tuned. . . .
As you think about your childhood, what did you learn about imagination? From your church? From your family? From your school?
Have you ever been inclined to think that imagination is mostly or completely evil? If so, why? If not, why not?
How do you respond to the idea that your entire mental capacity has been tainted by sin?
Talk with a wise friend or your small group about how they think about the imagination.
Gracious God, thank you for speaking to us through Scripture. This is such a gift! But sometimes, as you know, we misconstrue your meaning. We misunderstand the text or read into our own prejudices. Forgive me, Lord, for the times I make the Bible say what I want rather than what you want.
Help me, Lord, to rightly understand the imagination. Help me to see how my own thinking is corrupted by sin. By your grace, redeem me and renew me. Help me to think in ways that honor you. Help me to see and value the truth. Inspire my imagination so that I “see” ways to share in your redemptive work in the world. Amen.
Banner image by Al Butler on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: God Calls Noah and Creates a New World (Genesis 6:9-8:19).
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.