Use the gift of imagination to train your emotions and gain success in especially difficult areas of the Christian life using biblical imagery.
The quieting techniques discussed in chapter five are proven to be effective in calming physical anxiety. But to calm spiritual anxiety, you must still and quiet not only your body, but your whole being.
“I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalms 131:2).
One strategy for physical calming is visualization. Does that also have a role in calming the soul? Yes. Consider the imagery the psalmist employs in quieting his soul.
“I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalms 131:2).
The significance of the child being weaned is that it’s a healthy child. Because of the high rate of infant mortality, it was a significant milestone if a baby reached the age of weaning (around the third birthday). The ancient Israelites often had a celebration on that day to celebrate that the child had dodged the infant mortality bullet. So imagery employed by the psalmist is of a healthy, thriving little three-year-old being held by his mother, safe and at rest.
Why the word picture? Why not just state it plainly—“I have made myself calm”? It’s because imagining the child in his mother’s arms has a far greater impact on your soul than the bare abstract thought. God gives us beautiful imagery because he designed us to need imagery to quiet our anxiety.
Clinical studies have shown visualization to be highly effective in calming physical anxiety. It’s not surprising. It’s often negative visualization that makes us anxious to begin with. Isn’t that what worry is—visualizing future trouble?
Imagining trouble triggers the body’s anxiety response. Daydream about the death of a loved one for several minutes and tears will form in your eyes. If your teenager is late coming home, imagine him in a horrific car accident, and your stomach will be in knots. This is your body responding as if the event were really happening.
So is it any surprise that it would work in the opposite direction as well? Daydream about a delightful vacation, and your brain will release pleasure hormones. In both negative and positive ways, God designed the emotional brain to respond to imagery. The psalmist stilled and quieted his soul by imagining a healthy child in his mother’s arms.
We didn’t have to wait for 20th century neuroscience to discover the importance of imagination for calming anxiety. Think of all the amazing imagery in God’s Word.
Imagery in Scripture
- Instead of, “God will meet your needs”
- Scripture says, “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me beside quiet waters.”
- Instead of, “Divine providence will prevent unnecessary hardships from occurring”
- Scripture says, “The LORD is your shade at your right hand” (Psalm 121:5).
- Instead of “God expresses his goodwill toward you”
- Scripture says, “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11).
- Instead of telling the thief on the cross, “Soon you will be in a state devoid of suffering”
- Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
- Instead of “You will have good health and success”
- Scripture says you will be “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (Psalms 1:3).
- Instead of “God is everywhere”
- Scripture says, “If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalms 139:8-10).
- Instead of “I will meet your needs in an ongoing manner”
- Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
Why did God give us all those word pictures? So that we would imagine them. God didn’t give humanity the gift of imagination just to keep children amused. It’s a useful tool for steering our emotions and helping us believe what we can’t see. It’s a way to tap in to your emotional brain.
Train Your Emotions
God designed your nervous system and body to learn from experience. But your body doesn’t know the difference between what you actually experience and what you imagine. So you can use imagination to teach your body and nervous system and soul what’s really true.
The more focused you are on the external world, the more it seems like what you see defines reality. The more focused you are on your internal world, the more your thoughts and feelings seem to define reality. So when the external world isn’t telling the truth about reality, revert to the inner world of your imagination guided by the truth of Scripture.
So when you pray in times of anxiety, use your imagination. Transport yourself to the quiet waters. Feel your Shepherd carrying you. Smell the garden paradise. Hear the rippling brook that nourishes the thriving, fruitful tree. Experience the cool stream on your feet. Daydream about a spring of living water welling up inside you to eternal life. Close your eyes and place yourself in those settings, and your body will respond. It’s good for your body and healthy for your brain and it strengthens your faith.
Yet again, science catches up to Scripture. But has it caught all the way up? Will the world’s methods of visualization and guided imagery calm your troubled spirit? No.
For that, you need the biblical word pictures because it isn’t just the imagery. It’s also the meaning conveyed by the imagery. That’s what will get to the root of the spiritual causes of anxiety.
Suppose you have stress because of a stubborn refusal to accept hardships in your life. Imagining yourself swinging in a hammock on a Caribbean beach will do nothing about the spiritual dimension of the problem. In fact, it might make it worse. You’ll have even less tolerance of hardships because you’ll wish you were on that beach.
But contemplating the good Shepherd who leads you to quiet waters can inspire trust. And when you trust the Shepherd, you can accept those times when he leads you through the dark valley. That trust and humility will calm your spirit while imagining the green pastures and quiet waters calms your body.
Visualization that isn’t guided by Scripture can do more harm than good. Suppose you have anxiety because of a guilty conscience. Your blood pressure is through the roof, so your therapist tells you to breathe deeply and visualize yourself in a cozy, warm, mountain cabin. Now your body is relaxed. Your anxiety is gone.
The problem is, it was good anxiety. It was God-given anxiety designed to bring you to repentance. But now it’s gone. You feel better, but that sin in your life will destroy you.
Imagination moves your emotions. Imagination guided by Scripture moves your emotions in the right direction. It will calm unfounded fears and bad anxiety while at the same time increasing good anxiety.
And the comfort we receive from biblical imagery is deeper and more profound than our own ideas. If you imagine your “happy place,” it may be the same place every time, which will eventually become boring. But Scripture has endless variety. Streets of gold, drinking from God’s river of delights, eating from the tree of life, smoke, fire, thunder and awesome creatures surrounding God’s throne, a sea of glass, a lavish banquet, toddlers playing with cobras and being perfectly safe, rising on the wings of the dawn, a baby in her mother’s arms. Every one of those images, when studied in context, explodes with spiritual truth.
Only imagining your happy place won’t prepare you for hard places. Psalm 139:8 teaches us to imagine ourselves in a hopeless, dark pit, but still happy because God is with us even there.
In Psalm 23:4 we imagine ourselves in the terrifying dark valley. But we’re comforted because we know the Shepherd is only taking us through that valley to get us to the next green pasture. When you imagine yourself responding the right way to a hardship, you create a neural pathway that will activate when that hardship arrives.
Every time you come across a comforting word picture in Scripture, jot down the reference in the back of your Bible with a word or two about the image. In times of anxiety, you will probably only be able to call to mind a handful of them from memory. So it’s good to have a list recorded somewhere handy.
The Language of the Body
If your faith is in Christ, God promises he will be with you. He will be your shepherd, your father, your caretaker, and your protector. He will supply all the grace you need, and there’s nothing to fear. So why do we still have anxiety? Because we accept those truths intellectually, but our nervous system doesn’t get the memo.
So how do you convince your body? Speak to it in its own language. Thoughts are the language of the mind; feelings are the language of the body. Whenever you feel something, you’ve just logged in to your body’s operating system. Use imagination to generate feelings that align with the truth of God’s Word.
Your body will “believe” something is real when it experiences that thing—whether in reality or through imagination. To help yourself really believe truths you’re finding hard to believe, activate your emotional brain with biblical imagination. Imagine vivid scenes in which the truth you want to believe plays out dramatically.
And imagine yourself responding with strong emotion. It’s the thought processes combined with strong emotions that build neural pathways. And those pathways will be activated and strengthened each time those spiritual truths prove true in future experiences.
Stir Up Good Anxiety
The gift of imagination is also helpful for generating the good kind of anxiety where it is lacking. Use the negative imagery in Scripture to convince your soul that an unseen spiritual danger is real.
It should tell us something that our first introduction to Satan in Scripture portrays him as a snake. What fear is more hard-wired into the human amygdala than the fear of snakes? Instead of presenting evil as an abstraction, God gives us an image that, if we use our imagination for its intended purpose, can help us fear deadly threats as we should.
If you have thought deeply about biblical imagery, stumbling across a poisonous snake slithering through the weeds can teach you more about spiritual warfare than ten pages of doctrinal instruction from a theology text. The emotions stimulated by seeing the snake can move your soul to digest the biblical warnings about evil in way abstract principles can’t.
If you struggle with temptation in an area, a vivid daydream of a viper striking at you from your computer screen or refrigerator or wherever the temptation comes from might fortify you against temptation more than all the rational arguments you can think of.
Godliness Training Exercises
- Pick a place to keep your list of comforting biblical images. Get the list started with the images mentioned in this chapter. Meditate on Matthew 6:25-30 and add the images from that passage to your list.
- Each day this week, find a quiet place alone where you can use your imagination to daydream about some of those comforting images. Imagine yourself in the scene responding with strong emotions.
- Keep reviewing the verses you have memorized so far and add the next verse in Matthew 6.
For the video of this session, click here.
 See Genesis 21:8.
 Menzies V, Lyon DE, Elswick RK Jr, McCain NL, Gray DP. Effects of guided imagery on biobehavioral factors in women with fibromyalgia. J Behav Med. 2014 Feb;37(1):70-80. doi: 10.1007/s10865-012-9464-7. PMID: 23124538; PMCID: PMC3610859.