By Hunter Greene
We can become only what we can imagine.
I learned this lesson as a young kid when I realized why my parents wouldn’t let me watch R-rated movies. These movies were alarming to my parents as they offered a visual representation of the type of person I was not to be. Their fear was centered around the assumption that if I consumed models of behavior that contradicted what they were teaching me at home, I would end up imitating the very people they didn’t want me to become. In other words, they believed that we become what we behold.
Whether it worked or not (they would have to attest to that), I do find much wisdom in the sentiment that representation matters. What we find represented to us in the world ultimately provides the fuel that powers our imaginations. Consequently, a deprived imagination limits our behavior and worldview by reinforcing the world as it is. On the other hand, a vibrant imagination opens our minds and hearts to the possibility that we and the world can be different.
For Christians whose vocation is to become “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” what, or more specifically who, we can imagine matters a great deal (1 Peter 2:9).
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:19 that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another…” Paul isn’t describing an immediate transformation. Rather, he is describing the continuous action of seeing Jesus, the “glory of the Lord” and, through our continuous gaze upon Christ, we gradually become like him as we imagine his life taking form and shape in our own.
As the body of Christ, perhaps it should concern us when our lives are not resembling the life of Jesus. In light of the rapid exodus of Americans from the Church, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the American church is in crisis. However, this crisis is not the result of American Christians loving God with less passion and zeal. No. This crisis is the result of the inability of American Christians to imagine who God is in the person of Jesus. This is an important distinction to make because we often mistake our cultural and political allegiance with the love of God.
I suspect we’ve fallen into idolatrous worship of a God who is not Jesus. When we don’t take seriously the claim that God has revealed God’s self in Jesus Christ, we free ourselves to create God in our own image. Without the person of Jesus informing our imaginations as to who God is and what God does, we naturally take our notions, experiences, and definitions of the Good and Perfect and project them onto our new God.
Herein lies the main problem. Our construction of God, who represents the fullness of all that is good, is a direct response to what we have already defined as evil. We have created our own divine ally that will abolish our enemies and eradicate all evil, both of which we define in our own terms. Tragically, this means we aren’t all that interested in the spirit of Christ Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Instead, we’ve become infatuated with a vague, faceless God to whom we have given unquestioned authority for our own self-righteous crusades.
But this God is not Jesus. Putting God’s name on our idols, whether we name them Baal or not, is offensive to the God who is revealed in the life of Jesus. We cannot imitate a God we cannot imagine, which seems to be the reason that God became flesh to love enemies, live with the poor, oppose injustice, create community, and multiply love. To confess that “Jesus is Lord” is to submit to the humble, self-emptying, loving and just ways of Jesus.
We no longer get to imagine who God is, for God is Jesus – Love incarnate. In essence, any expression of faith that is anything less than unconditional love for our neighbors forfeits the right to claim companionship with Christ, who rules and reigns the world from the very margins we are so quick to neglect and ignore.
Hunter Greene serves as the Student Associate Pastor at Jubilee Baptist Church, an affiliate of CBFNC. He is originally from Elizabethton, TN and is currently pursuing his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC.