Your imagination has you covered

“He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.” (Acts 7:24-25) 

“However, as it is written:

‘What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)

Your imagination is a creative engine. Mine is good on gas. Apparently it can run on fumes.

I was reading the news online two days ago and happened upon a name that made me stop and look again. It was some (kind-of) prominent author and speaker, or at least that’s the way the article identified him. I stopped because I thought that I had seen the name on this blog, as a comment or a Like.

I looked, and it turned out I was wrong. But in the meantime, my imagination was starting the car, opening the garage door and getting ready to go to work.

On just about nothing: Two names might be the same. If it was the same person, and if he was in fact prominent, and if he happened to share a link to one of my posts on something he had written, and if people saw the link and discovered me, then . . . you get the gist. I don’t get a lot of traffic at this intersection. People find me from the WP Reader or Google deposits them here like Cary Grant at the rural intersection in North by Northwest.

If that’s too pedestrian an example, I’ll give you Othello. Iago takes Desdemona’s handkerchief from his wife Emilia and schemes to plant it “in Cassio’s lodging.” His plan is to use it to fan the flames of Othello’s jealousy and suspicions of his wife’s infidelity. (Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember the story. I had to look up a synopsis when I realized I hadn’t read it since I was a junior at Hopkins.)

“Trifles light as air/ Are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ,” he says (III.iii). The “trifle” in this instance is the handkerchief, but the broader meaning is the message: It doesn’t take much to get the imagination working overtime once the mind has been infected.

But there are other ways the imagination can be co-opted into ingenious fabrications. King Saul, for example, commanded to “totally destroy” the Amalekites for their treachery in waylaying Israel in the wilderness (1 Sam 15:1-35). Totally was not a careless redundancy, but Saul’s careless execution of this command proved to be disastrous. He spared the life of the Amalekite king and some sheep and cattle.

When the Lord sent Samuel looking for Saul because of his disobedience, he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal” (15:12). Set up a monument? What’s that about?

The monument removers you’ve been reading about in the news have gotten one thing right: monuments are about honoring someone and their accomplishments. (Whether doing good things but also some very bad things, judged by contemporary standards, disqualifies them from being honored is another issue.)

But where did Saul get the idea to honor himself for disobedience (not an inconsequential oversight or omission, by the way, because it cost him his crown)? His imagination.

He certainly couldn’t reconcile this impulse with reality. When Samuel arrived and heard Saul claim he had obeyed God, Samuel simply looked around. “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” he asked (15:14). Well?

What’s going on in Saul’s mind? Here’s a clue: fig leaves. He had made a monument to cover himself. The text doesn’t say what the monument was. It wouldn’t have to be a human likeness to (1) honor Saul for his exploits or (2) be a product mainly of his imagination.

But it was an image, a fabrication, make no mistake. You don’t have to read much history to recognize that “great” men and women can possess an image of themselves (yes, a self-image) at odds with reality. Moses made the same mistake in his initial stab—probably a poor choice of words—at delivering his people. “Moses thought [imagined] that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.”

The Shunammite woman put imagination to a different use (2 Ki 4:8-37). When the son she was promised died in her lap, she must have been absolutely shattered. But, strangely, there is no record in the text that she told her husband what had just happened. It was his son, too.

She asked for a servant and donkey to go to the man of God, Elisha. The husband, puzzled, asked, “Why go to him today? It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.” Did it occur to him to ask if something had happened to the sick son he had just sent back from the fields? This was a man with little imagination.

The Shunammite’s answer? “That’s all right” (v. 23). Wait, what?

No doubt the Shunammite’s husband was not very spiritual and she recognized some spiritual kinship with the prophet. Yet when he asks her about everyone’s welfare (“you,” “your husband,” “your son”) using her favorite phrase, “all right,” she bounces the phrase right back to him. “Everything is all right.”

When the Shunammite’s emotion finally escapes from this alabaster jar of stolid resignation, Elisha makes an interesting observation when he tells his servant Gehazi to never mind. “Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.”

Elisha was a prophet. God revealed things to him all the time. He revealed to him that this childless woman would have a son, who was duly born as promised. Since revelation means uncovering, the Lord could have uncovered the circumstances in an instant.

But he didn’t. Because the Shunammite, despite her distress, wanted it left covered.

Even at edge of her emotional limit, she answers the prophet in a roundabout way: “Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?” (v. 28).

Just as with the repetitive “all right,” this is a euphemism. We use euphemisms to conceal the plain unvarnished truth about something; unpleasant, embarrassing secrets; the plain, unfeigned expressions of our emotions.

We use euphemisms to cover ourselves emotionally. The phrases we use require imagination—a suspension of actual belief, really—because they are in fact fabrications like “Everything is all right,” when it clearly isn’t.

All the data—the distant husband, the dead son, the (apparently) shattered dream of mothering a child—point to everything being all wrong. To manufacture the illusion of well-being she has nothing left but “trifles,” insubstantial bits of self-respect, self-control, and rote affirmation (that’s what “Everything is all right” is, a mechanically repeated affirmation).

It remained for the man of God to restore her son, her hopes, her life. Her imagination brought her to the prophet’s door, but it wasn’t enough to cross the threshold to life. That had to come by revelation:

“‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ [i.e., beyond the creative power of the imagination]—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” More about that in the next post.

More about who I am and what the blog’s about:

The name, the photo and the reason I do this

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