Oswald Chambers on the Religious Imagination

The test of spiritual concentration is bringing the imagination into captivity. Is your imagination looking on the face of an idol? Is the idol yourself? Your work? Your conception of what a worker should be? Your experience of salvation and sanctification? Then your imagination of God is starved, and when you are up against difficulties you have no power, you can only endure in darkness. If your imagination is starved, do not look back to your own experience; it is God Whom you need. Go right out of yourself, away from the face of your idols, away from everything that has been starving your imagination. Rouse yourself, take the gibe that Isaiah gave the people, and deliberately turn your imagination to God.

One of the reasons of stultification in prayer is that there is no imagination, no power of putting ourselves deliberately before God.

                                                 – Oswald Chambers 
        My Utmost For His Highest, February 10 

Chambers is right. No one can pray without imagination – not for long, at least. Now, we might want to qualify the meaning of Chambers’ use of imagination. Chambers would be horrified by the New Agers’ ‘visualise Jesus’ prayer so popular today, or by the return of mystical contemplative prayer. These perversions of prayer are not what it means to pray with the religious imagination.

Chambers was referring to the ability to grapple with unseen realities. In prayer, imagination is critical. Perhaps like in no other endeavour, prayer must deal solely with what cannot be seen – hence the closed eyes.

Consider all that occurs in prayer.

One must have some idea of whom we are speaking to. One must have a picture in one’s mind of what prayer is accomplishing, of what it is to speak to God and be in His presence. One must correctly view oneself before Him, not using the sight of the eyes to judge who and what one is before God. An image of how He responds to prayer, what His attributes are, His nature and His works must be present in our minds or our prayer will not be prayed in faith, and it will aimlessly wander into distractedness of mind.

Since God must never be depicted in a graven image (for He cannot be), God has filled His Word with word pictures – metaphors, similes, graphic language, parables, comparisons- that enable the mind to grasp something of the truth of Him with whom we have to do, and who we are before Him. As we speak to the Invisible, Unseen One, we must necessarily be thinking on the truth portrayed in these word pictures of what He is like, what is happening when we pray, who we are, what promises are made to us and so forth.

These similes, metaphors and word-pictures portray God as Father, Son, Spirit, King, Maker, Vine, Door, Light, Bread, Fire, Shepherd, Bridegroom, and so forth.

Prayer is depicted as incense rising, subjects appearing before a throne, children asking their father for needs, supplicants appearing before a judge, victorious ones hailing their conqueror, slaves listening to their master.

The access is pictured as a veil opened up, a golden sceptre lowered, a gracious reception at the throne.

We are portrayed as pardoned criminals, favoured children, glorified saints, brothers and sisters under Father God, heirs, priests.

The point is, we must stock our minds with biblical images to pray with strength and concentration. We must do our best to purify such images of shallow associations. And when coming to prayer, we must not try to speak into the emptiness and nothingness, but rather speak to the One who has revealed Himself to our imaginations through countless word-pictures.

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