Fighting Sin with the Imagination

Last week’s sermon focused on the importance of our words. The tongue is a small flame which sets our whole lives on fire.  It’s a restless evil, full of poison. So uncontrollable is the tongue that James tells us that it is impossible for any human to tame it. Which means that God must tame it. In order to put out the fire, in order to bring the tongue to heel, God must act. One of the ways that God does this is by helping us to gain control of our imaginations. Words and actions are the overflow of our thoughts, imaginations, and emotions. Words and actions are what wreck our lives, since it’s our words and actions that harm other people. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks and the body acts, and it is our words and actions that do the damage. The tongue is a fire, but it’s our thoughts and imaginations that are the fuel for the fire. 

So when God begins his taming work, he works in us to gain control of our imagination. So let’s talk for a moment about the imagination. Think of the imagination as a kind of interface between body and soul. It’s soulish, because it’s internal, in the mind, but it’s bodily, since it can receive sense impressions of things that aren’t physically present. It’s like a big projector screen in your mind, and your soul views what’s on the screen.

You can’t always control what goes up on the screen. Your environment projects things onto that screen. The devils project things onto that screen. The old sinful self projects things onto that screen. The question is not what gets put on the screen (that’s what I’d call temptation). The question is what stays on the screen. What video do you allow to play on that screen? What audio do you listen to again and again? Do you allow yourself to indulge immoral fantasies? Do you choose to watch those films?

But it’s not just sexual temptation that plays on the screen. Your imagination can play all kinds of tapes. The conversation where your spouse or coworker was incredibly rude to you. The injury from the past that still wounds you today. The gifts, blessings, and opportunities of others can play on a loop, stoking envy and rivalry and malice. Future fears and obligations are displayed on the screen so that you feel the anxious weight of them today rather than trusting God with them for tomorrow. In all of these cases, we can refuse to fight at the level of imagination. We can allow lust or bitterness or envy or malice or anger or anxiety to build and build internally until it finally overflows from our heart in our words and deeds and we witness the pain and devastation that sin can cause. 

My exhortation then is this: with God’s help, resist sin at the imagination. Make the main fight against sin be the fight over the remote control of your imagination. May you seek God’s grace in changing the channel and switching the soundtrack that plays on a loop in your head. Where you choose to fight is where the battle will be fought.

This reminds us of our need to confess our sins.


Prayer of Confession

Our Father and God, you have given us imaginations in order to fuel our love for you and our love for people. Imagination enables us to see your goodness and glory reflected in the things that you have been made. And it enables us to treat others the way that we want to be treated, to envision words of grace and acts of love so that we may do them. Imagination is a gift from you.

But we confess that not only are we a people of unclean lips, we are a people of corrupt imagination. We allow envy and anxiety and anger and bitterness and lust to burrow into our imaginations and make a home there. We are passive in the face of our imaginations. We hand control of it over to our passions, and we are carried along by dark, painful, bitter, and anxious images. We turn the fresh spring of our minds into a salt pond, and then watch as bitter water flows forth in our words and deeds. 

More than that, Father, we also deliberately sin with our imaginations. It’s not just that we allow corrupt and distorted images to be projected into our minds; often we’re the ones doing the projecting. We make provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. These are great evils. Forgive us, we pray, for how we have corrupted your gift of imagination.

We know, Father, that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst, our prayers will be ineffectual. So we confess our individual sins to you now.

Father, we thank you that the blood of Jesus covers the sins of our imaginations. What’s more, we thank you that your grace purifies our imagination and turns the salt pond back into a fresh spring. Grant us the grace to resist sin at the level of imagination. Make our consciences tender and lead us regularly to repent of indulging mental sins. By your Holy Spirit, renew our hearts so that our thoughts, desires, loves, words, and deeds align with your own. Through Christ we pray, Amen.