Biblical Counseling and Imagination

imaginationAnxiety makes the world around us shrink. We can see so few things except what is causing us, at that moment, to be anxious. I have often thought that what folks struggling with anxiety need is to be captured by a bigger vision of life. This is true not just of anxiety, but of all sin, temptation, and struggle. To help folks catch that vision, however, requires more than just information. It requires engaging their imagination. Effective counsel connects with people at the level of their imaginations.

Most of the folks I counsel know what their problem is, and even what they need to do about it. There are, of course, exceptions, but most Christians who study the Bible regularly and attend weekly worship are well aware of what they should be doing about their sin and temptation. The problem with most of us is not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of passion. Like the Bible college graduate who was cheating on his wife, we know truth but we don’t love it. Michael Emlet has keenly observed:

Remember why your counselee struggles to change. The issue usually isn’t an information gap, but a desire/practice gap…Mere insight never changes anyone. People don’t change, not because they lack information, but because they lack imagination that leads to action. Their desires are misdirected and stunted. (“Practice Makes Perfect?”)

Right beliefs are important, but apart from right passion they won’t amount to change. We need to engage the imagination.

In practice this means helping people to renew their passions for God, not simply to hate their sin. This is why worship is such a necessary part of Biblical Counsel. People who are not regularly engaged in worship, both individually and corporately with the church, will not find the strength to change. As we participate in looking beyond our small lives to the glory of God and His Kingdom our vision for something bigger than our experience emboldens us to new life. The Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers spoke of the “expulsive power of a new affection,” by which he meant the power of renewed love for Christ to drive out a desire for sin. One love squeezes out the other. Jesus tells us plainly, “you cannot love God and money” (Matt. 6:24). So how do we fight the temptation to be greedy? By cultivating a greater desire for God. It works this way with all sin.

I have seen this work particularly with young men who struggle with pornography. It is not enough simply to give young men strategies for saying no to porn. Computer software may prove helpful to cutting off access, but if the heart does not desire Jesus more than sexual pleasure, men will find a way around the best software. Furthermore, if we only ever focus on fighting the temptation to look at porn, we may end up, inadvertently, focusing a whole lot on porn. Men who try to fight porn by thinking constantly about not looking at porn don’t often succeed. But men who fight porn by focusing their hearts on worshipping Christ have greater strength to say no to temptation.

And worship is particularly powerful at cultivating new imaginations. Take for example, music. We don’t just sing of Christ’s death, we picture it. We don’t just repeat the words, “My God is mighty to save,” we proclaim them with joy! Worship is a great means to changing heart desire. As a counselor I want to utilize worship, both corporate and private, to help my counselee make progress. Michael Emlet quotes James K.A. Smith when he says:

Worship stokes the imagination through its earthy, bodily practices – kneeling, standing, singing, head bowing, clapping, and tasting bread and wine. In short, “worship forms us and aims us because its concrete, material practices catch hold of our imagination. This is why worship is more like art than science, more like literature than logic. Worship is fundamentally aesthetic, not didactic.”

As a counselor, then, I don’t want to simply give instruction: fill out this worksheet, read these verses, journal your temptations. I want to cultivate an imagination for God. This means I want my counselee to experience God, to be captured by His vision of the world. To that end I might have my counselee sing. I might urge her to write out a prayer to God. I might instruct her to do a specific act of service which takes her out of her own mind and her own anxieties and opens her to see the world of God’s Kingdom beyond herself.

Counselors can engage imaginations in a number of tangible ways. One of the best might be storytelling, but there are surely other ways. I witnessed a gifted counselor even this last week communicate truth through a very simple and crude drawing. It was a helpful illustration that fueled me and captured my attention, I suspect it was helpful to the counselees too. Todd Hardin provides a specific case study here that illustrates the value and importance of the imagination in counseling. However we do it the key to remember is that counselors cannot simply give information and think this will promote change.

Change comes as we are captured by a passion for God and His Kingdom. To be the most help that we can be, then, Biblical Counselors must engage the imagination. Our worlds are too small, being captured by a bigger more glorious vision is what we need to change.

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