The Christian Imagination: Depression, Hope, and a Better Reality (by Jeremy Pierre)

Clouds and Rays

Occasionally I share resources I’ve found helpful. These are my personal notes from a session with Dr. Jeremy Pierre at Southern Seminary’s recent Counsel the Word conference. These are not the speaker’s notes, nor are they a manuscript or transcript of the lecture, although I recorded the main points verbatim.

The Christian Imagination: Depression, Hope, and a Better Reality

Dr. Jeremy Pierre

Introduction: Job 38:4-7 (ESV)

4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

At the end of the book of Job, God challenges Job in the midst of his suffering. God calls upon Job’s imagination. He fills up Job’s limited perspective with a God-sized view of things. God is deliberately appealing to the imagination as he paints a vivid picture of his creation activity. What is he doing, and why?

There are many factors that may influence a person’s depression. But in this session my focused goal is to connect the purpose of the imagination to the challenge of depression. I’ll seek to make these connections through ten developing points.

1. God has given each of us a limited perspective (Genesis 2:8).

Humans are located beings. We’re can only be in one place at one time. We only have access to so many data points in a given situation. Our senses can only take in the circumstances that directly surround us, and we can’t directly experience something that’s not in front of us.

Now, even though people’s perspective is limited, their situations and circumstances are real. So you must pay attention to the circumstances in which a depressed person finds himself. His context will shape and influence how he responds. So we shouldn’t deny the circumstances that people are experiencing or the perspective they have, because people are living with a perspective guided by their present circumstances. We need to ask what the landscape of their life looks like. But we also must recognize that their perspective is limited.

2. God has given each of us an imagination to see beyond that limited perspective.

What is the imagination? The ability to imagine possibilities that are not present to the senses. These “possibilities” are often realities that are different than what you presently see. In other words, the full picture of reality contains parts that you can’t currently see but are no less real. The capacity to imagine helps us function beyond the limitations of our situation. And this capacity is more advantageous than just good day-dreaming. It’s the ability to fill in reality with a meaning that goes beyond what we presently see. Now, when people are depressed, the imagination is activated, in a negative way. What we imagine is true about our lives is cast in the negative.

3. God gave each of us an imagination to worship him.

Faith utilizes the imagination for better purposes. Every capacity you have was custom-designed with one purpose: to worship God and love him. Every faculty you have is meant to be employed in the worship of God. In Job, God is triggering Job’s imagination to recognize who God is. In Job 42:5-6, Job testifies that he had heard rumors of God, but now he sees God, and he repents in dust and ashes. The imagination functions to worship God by envisioning what he’s revealed himself to be in the Word.

4. The possibilities our imaginations construct reveal our beliefs and values.

The shape and condition of the imagination is an important gauge for the health of the soul. Our imaginings, our daydreams, our fantasies—they tell us what we conceive of as ideal. What we use our imaginations to dream about shows what we most desire. We can construct imaginary visions that conform to God’s vision or rival God’s vision. Our imaginations can operate by faith or by the flesh.

The building materials your imagination uses to construct your personalized reality are the beliefs and values that abide deep within you. The heart is expressing itself by painting a world that suits it, that matches its preferences. So, what do you daydream about? And what does those daydreams say about your beliefs and values?

Here are some different kinds of imaginates (products of the imagination) that we might construct in our minds.

  • Fearful imaginates. We envision a scenario that threatens us in some fear-inducing way, and we’re anxious about it or we do what we can to avoid it.
  • Angry imaginates. We envision situations or relationships where we exact some kind of revenge, like an imaginary conversation where we’re launching zingers to win the argument before dropping the mic.
  • Depressed imaginates. We envision some object of value that we’ll never have, and we despair of ever having it.

When helping people through depression, do the daydream test. Ask them what they imagine life ought to be like. Ask them to describe, in detail, a life free of depression. Don’t guide them; see where they go. Ask them, “How would you feel? Where would you be? What would your relationships look like?” How would the world they envision differ from their present world?

5. Our imaginations are shaped by the beliefs and values we see displayed around us.

The shape and condition of the imagination is an important gauge for the health of the soul. But the imagination is shaped and conditioned by what it takes in from around it. What we tend to think is ideal is often determined by what everyone else around us thinks is ideal. We take on the beliefs and the values and the commitments of the culture and the people and the relationships around us. 

Think about the concept of the American Dream for a moment. You were never argued into the American Dream. No lecturer stood up and gave you a three-point talk about why the American Dream is what you should pursue. Culture exerts its influence by capturing the imagination. It’s not primarily an intellectual dialogue. We dream the American Dream because we’ve absorbed the beliefs and desires of the people we see on TV or social media or elsewhere.

Our imaginations are captured by constructed realities creatively displayed. Depressed people’s depression is in large part their interpretation of the world that’s been conditioned into them by the world around them. For example, in American, our rights are a big deal to us. We grow up used to hearing about our rights. So our imaginations are shaped by a rights-based mentality.

6. But God designed our imaginations to be shaped by him (so our beliefs and values match his).

This is why I asked you to do the daydream test. If you do the daydream test and extract the beliefs and values from those daydreams, how would those beliefs and values align with God’s? The problem with the American Dream are not its values — wealth, comfort, security, pleasure. The problem is the prioritization of those values. The American Dream makes those values top priorities. But for the Christian, my priority should be the kingdom. So we should use the equipment of our imaginations to envision realities that maximize the glory of God.

7. Scripture was written in various genres to shape the imagination.

We do not need information only. I don’t want to minimize true information. I don’t want to minimize good theology. But we also need our imaginations shaped by this truth. And this truth comes to us in different genres or forms which each have their own effect on us.

  • The law: The law awakens the conscience and shows that right and wrong exist. It creates a dissonance between what I am and what I ought to be.
  • History: History shows the most important events in people’s lives. It gives generational witness to God’s lively activity in the experience of people. Read through the life of David or Joseph. Don’t you find yourself sometimes setting down your Bible and saying, “God, you are a faithful God”?
  • Wisdom and poetry: These genres stir the heart to love what is lovely in God’s eyes. Wisdom is aesthetic. It’s beautiful. It’s appealing. It’s constantly dressed in feminine robes in Proverbs. It’s seen as something beautiful; life functions appropriately and well when we walk in wisdom.
  • Prophecy: Prophecy creates a sense of dread regarding some future dystopia if we ignore what God says, or some future or joy or hope in a utopia—a heaven—for those who’ve entrusted themselves to that same God.
  • Gospel: This genre packs history into a story—a close picture of this mysterious man Jesus saying mysterious things. I have to go back to gospels on a regular basis. We see Jesus in all of Scripture, but I want to hear him speaking to his disciples, or watch him ignoring all kinds of irrelevant questions like the ones I have.
  • Letters: These speak with universal truths to specific situations and specific people and specific problems.

8. The imagination, having been shaped by Scripture, is activated by suffering.

Suffering is the realization that the reality that I can see falls short of what God designed me to experience. Suffering triggers my imagination for something better. Once again, our perspective is limited by the five senses we use to take in the world around us. And what we take in with our senses are often painful experiences that strike a dissonant chord within us.

We were designed to live our entire lives in a garden in the happy presence of a loving God, untouched by sin and all of its results. But that’s not where we live, and our senses know it. We do have our imagination, which is our ability to imagine possibilities that are not present to our senses. But only when our senses are miserable are we inclined to imagine a reality that’s better. For example, in 1 Peter 1:6-9, Peter acknowledges that his readers are suffering, and although they don’t see God, they still love him.

Depression is at least in part an imaginative longing for something better. And therefore it’s an opportunity to worship. Understanding how the imagination works helps us to see how Christian hope doesn’t just mean ceasing from the negative feelings of our limited perspective. The negative feelings are goads that spur us on to dive into deeper realities that we can’t see. Depression isn’t something we solve, simply moving people to a state of feeling better, though obviously we want to help with that. God is not for suffering, but for now he’s designed it in such a way that it’s the trigger of hope.

9. Using the imagination to worship God in suffering requires the discipline of shaping it over the long-term and exercising it in the short-term.

Shaping the imagination outside suffering is essential for exercising it within suffering. You must be regularly in-taking the Word of God, which is how God shapes everything, including your imagination. It’s amazing how much we take in imaginatively that shapes us and shapes us and shapes us, and then we open our Bibles and we find it boring. But when you’re regularly in the Word, your imagination starts to take on its categories and its values. Depression can sometimes be heaviest when we don’t have an imagination strong enough to get out of it. We have to condition it, strengthen it, make it fit for the tough road ahead. We have to help people have a plan for long-term Scripture intake which will shape their imaginations. They can’t just read the Bible and feel better, because it takes time to condition the imagination.

But depressed individuals will also need their imagination stirred in the short-term. So use metaphor and story and poetry when counseling depressed individuals. Don’t just give them a lecture and five points to consider and intellectual points to mull over. Students often have this teaching-heavy tendency when they counsel—“I have to teach the person I’m counseling in order to create the categories they need.” Yes, they need instruction, but they also need their imaginations stirred. So use the Bible in full color.

10. The reality of the new creation will far exceed anything we can imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9).

In 1 Corinthians 2:9, the apostle Paul writes,

But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him . . .”

You don’t have the capacity to imagine a single moment in the presence of your God. So no matter how well we imagine the future world we’ll enjoy in God’s presence, the reality when we experience it will be far better.

NOTE: These are my own personal, lightly edited notes from Dr. Jeremy Pierre’s talk. They are not a manuscript or transcript, and they should not be viewed as any kind of authorized, official, or final content from the speaker.


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