Now we begin to wade into the more turbulent waters of conversation on the subject of signs within works. Often times I find that areas pertaining to imagination and impressions upon the imagination often result in some of the most confused and undiscerning guess work one could witness. Edward’s fourth point is found on page 109.
“It’s no argument that an operation that appears on the minds of a people, is not the work of the Spirit of God, that many that are the subjects of it, have great impressions on their imaginations.” (pg. 109)
I think that the elaboration that Edwards makes on this is fairly easy to read so I’m going to provide a large chunk of it before we explore it further. There is no way I could write this any better myself and I’m thankful it’s easy enough to understand so I don’t have to. Remember that the goal of this project is to introduce you to Edwards not to bring attention to myself.
“That persons may have many impressions on their imaginations, doesn’t prove that they have nothing else. It is easy to be accounted for, that there should be much of this nature amongst a people, where a great multitude of all kinds of constitutions, have their minds engaged with intense thought and strong affection about those things that are invisible; more than this, it would be strange if there should not. Such is our nature that we can’t think of things invisible, without a degree of imagination. I dare appeal to any man, of the greatest powers of the mind, whether or not he is able to fix his thoughts on God or Christ, or the things of another world, without imaginary ideas attending his meditations? And the more engaged the mind is, and the more intense the contemplation and affection, still the more lively and strong will the imaginary idea ordinarily be: especially when the contemplation and affection of the mind is attended with anything of surprise; as when the view a person has is very new, and takes strong hold of the passions, either fear or joy; and when the change of the state and views of the mind is sudden, from a contrary extreme, as from that which was extremely dreadful, to that which is extremely ravishing and delightful: And it is no wonder that many persons don’t well distinguish between that which is imaginary, and that which is intellectual and spiritual; and that they are apt to lay too much weight on the imaginary part, and are most ready to speak of that in the account they give of their experiences, especially persons of less understanding and capacity of distinction.”(pg. 109-110)
Our imaginative capabilities were gifted to us by God. This ability is always turned on, in fact it’s the one thing that doesn’t even seem to shut off when we sleep. Think about the many who suffer from chronic anxiety, always playing thru hypothetical scenarios of the future where things go wrong and dwelling on things outside of their ability to control. Our imagination is always engaged in the background of our thinking and because it is so deeply rooted and engrained in our humanity very rarely do we analyze the major role it plays in our emotional moods, mental health and decision-making abilities. Please take a second and conscientiously think something, anything, but do it without allowing a single image to appear in your mind. I often love the pink elephant illustration. All you have to do is mention a pink elephant and immediately some sort of pink elephant is impressed on your imagination. Because the imagination is so consistently constant in its operation in our daily lives we barely notice it, this is equally true in our spiritual lives. This is actually a subject that he explores in much more depth in his work “The Religious Affections” but we’re going to keep it simple for now as we warm up to it.
Very few of us have made it a point to attempt to question the relationship our affections can have on our imaginations. Our God given imaginations allow us to think of spiritual things that otherwise remain invisible. Edwards makes the point that the faculty of imagination is important and helpful to all other faculties of the mind when its used properly, but that when the product of someone’s imagination is much stronger than their other faculties it becomes overbearing and disruptive to their ability to draw right conclusions about the nature and importance of the imagining. I’m not sure what Edwards would list as the specific cognitive faculties men share but I assume they would be similar to perception, reason, memory, intuition, and human will, etc… These are all various instruments used by the mind to perform its tasks and it is important that all these things are in proper working order. When they are not in proper working order it leads to wrong conclusions and wrong thinking. Edwards was a man adept in the study and application of logic, something that most today know nothing about and it has inevitably led to an abundance of poor thinkers in the secular world as well as our churches.
Edwards understood that if someone’s imagination was powerfully disproportionate to their other faculties then it could lead to disastrous errors in their thinking. It seems men are prone to believe what they can see rather than what comes by way of higher criticism and more excruciating thought exercises. The media uses this technique as its primary method in crafting the opinions of the masses along a main stream narrative. We’re bombarded with an abundance of images and news blurbs in an endless cycle impressing upon our minds images that cause fear and anxiety. This next example is definitely extreme, but it serves a larger point. I went to high school with a guy who enjoyed recreational use of acid during the school day. One time he had a frightening ordeal in the cafeteria where something came out of his lunch box and attacked him. Despite the fact that his mind had been hijacked by hallucinations and an out of control imagination he was able to apply the power of reason to maintain his sense of calm understanding, logically, that his experiences were being caused by a purely natural source. I don’t discount the abundance of demonic activity in relationship to some drug use but this was not the case here. Not everyone is capable of this type of rational thought under extreme emotional and psychological distress, it was actually quite impressive. The extreme and overbearing impression on his imagination was held in restraint by his other cognitive faculties working properly. Although this is an ridiculous example, think about my larger point in the context of revival and spiritual workings. A work of God resulting in extreme and heightened affections that flood the body can be so intense that it causes bodily effects as we’ve already previously discussed. The type of affection one can experience as a result of the Spirit operating is not easily imagined but once experienced can result in extreme and heightened impressions on the imagination. The imaginings in this case would be a result of God affecting someone but that does not mean that the impression on the imagination is itself a direct work of God. It would be only natural as someone experienced these affections to have corresponding impressions appearing on their imagination as they experience them. But it is also true that God can use the power of one’s imagination to steer and direct them if they are ignorant. When God decides to impart knowledge and understanding of His Holiness and Glory our soul can be so pleasantly and overwhelmingly delighted with a such a high degree of Holy love and adoration that our imaginations may just give way to some of the most glorious and rapturous visions of spiritual things. This does not mean that these corresponding visions are special gifts of God. Human nature, according to Edwards, is quite capable of explaining the nature of these impressions on our imaginations and equally refutes any presumption that the devil is responsible in some way. Edwards does believe however that where a particular person may be subpar in the exercise of their faculties, God can subsequently use this overbearing effect of the imagination to help make up for what is not available to them. Edwards equates this type of work necessary for someone ignorant and in need of a kind of spiritual condescension. It does not seem to be how the Lord primarily prefers to work although He is perfectly justified in doing so if he chooses for a person that requires it. It would be an example of spiritually feeding a baby.
In this case, yet again, the fact that someone experiences sudden and strong impressions on their imagination does not affirm nor does it negate a work being performed by the Spirit of God. I think that this sets a foundation for some important thought and introspection as we analyze the ways in which we sense the Spirit of God working in our own lives. As I said earlier, there is much more to be said on this subject, but I’m just trying to get my feet wet with writing on Edwards while simultaneously getting your feet wet with thinking about some of these basic concepts. We must be discerning when we have impressions suddenly present on our imagination. If we understand how our imaginations are naturally supposed to operate then we are much better equipped to discern whether our affections preceded our imaginings or if our imaginings preceded our affections. This is a reason I have a problem with some modern worship music. I think we can agree that we all know of worship songs that are undoubtedly heretical yet when they are presented to the church congregation for the purpose of worship we see many singing along claiming to be moved by the true Spirit of God. God is not pleased to accept a form of worship that distorts His character and nature. It should be evident to a person who understands scripture that these claims of the Spirit actively raising the affections of those offering up heresy as simply not being a work consistent with the nature of God to perform. Where then do these affections so many feel while worshiping under similar circumstances come from? I believe that the lyrics, no matter how theologically inaccurate, can be beautiful and naturally effect impressions on our imaginations that lead to raised affections. This is an example of something wholly natural creating an experience that some would easily confuse for a work of God in their midst. This is one small example, nowhere near exhaustive to the subject, that must be considered for those that seek to understand the criteria available to us by which we can better distinguish evidence of the Lord working in and around us. Just because someone is suddenly overcome with strong impressions on their imagination is not evidence one way or the other as to whether or not God is working but we should be very careful not to accept any and all impressions without discernment because there is much that can go wrong with that, as we see true in some more modern circles of religion.