In his bestselling novel Sphere, author Michael Crichton puts an interesting observation in the climactic dialogue between his protagonist, psychologist Norman Johnson, and the alien power that he and his colleagues encounter. In that conversation, the alien being or consciousness remarks upon what is distinctive about human beings.
On your planet you have an animal called a bear. It is a large animal, sometimes larger than you, and it is clever and has ingenuity, and it has a brain as large as yours. But the bear differs from you in one important way. It cannot perform the activity you call imagining. It cannot make mental pictures of how reality might be. It cannot envision what you call the past and what you call the future. The special ability of imagination is what has made your species as great as it is… Your greatness lies in imagination… This is the gift of your species and this is the danger, because you do not choose to control your imaginings. You imagine wonderful things and you imagine terrible things, and you take no responsibility for the choice…
There is a grain of truth in this fictional, alien assessment of what distinguishes us from mere beasts; as humans we do seem to be uniquely capable of imagining alternative realities. And, to borrow from our literary alien, it may be the fact that at best we take a token responsibility for the things that we imagine.
It is often the case that our tendency to imagine the worst of situations, of other people, and even of ourselves, does quite a lot of harm. Consider the spouse who fears her partner is unfaithful whenever he or she is late. Or the little boy who believes that so-and-so no longer wants to be his friend since he didn’t come to his birthday party. In these cases, we are making mental pictures of what might be the case – and all too often, our hearts are responding as if our imagination is infallible. And in twenty-five years of various types of ministry (not to mention living) I have found that when someone says, “You’re just imagining things,” they are not helping!
I believe that the Bible, in several places, offers a wonderful alternative to runaway imaginations. In 1 Corinthians 13: 7 we are told that “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” If you will commit to protecting your relationships, trusting others, hoping the best, and continually doing those first three things, you will find that this kind of love directs your imagination into better places than self-defense, skepticism, and fear will take ever you. In Philippians 4:8 we are told, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” This too would be a blessed antidote to the troubles caused by a runaway imagination!
Sometimes it is the case that spouses are unfaithful and it is true that both childhood and adult friends often fade into casual acquaintances. The Bible nowhere urges Christians to be naïve in the matter of living. But it does, in its own way, call us to take responsibility for the things we choose to think about and dwell on. Let’s be “smarter than the average bear” by choosing to exercise sanctified imaginations that are grounded in God’s power and his love. Try thinking the best of others and treating them as if they are.