Too often we think of imagination as child’s play, something to be forgotten upon reaching adulthood. Yet God gave us our imagination as much as He gave us logic and reason. The Picture It method of Scripture engagement (also called the Ignatian method, Imaginative contemplation, imagination technique, “if-you-were-there,” or guided imagery meditation) gives you the opportunity to engage your imagination (both images and feelings) and connect with Scripture personally by placing yourself in the stories. This method can help you better empathize with the people of the Bible and understand their stories in a more experiential way. Rather than viewing the facts from afar, you use your imagination to “experience” the events.
God has given us the biblical stories so we can connect with him, learning more about who He is and what He cares about. James Wakefield in Sacred Listening describes the process this way, “With our imagination and reason, with our five bodily senses, and especially with our emotions, we become secondhand witnesses of the events of Scripture.” The idea is to place yourself in the biblical story, becoming a person in the crowd, a disciple following Jesus along dusty roads, or the boy with the loaves and fish. Imagine the sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes of the biblical world. You step into the story and let it enter your mind—not just as a series of facts, but as a story with real, living people. This method is especially helpful for those who tend to connect to Scripture on a purely cognitive (or intellectual) level; this method involves your emotions, enveloping your whole person.
A word of caution is needed. Some would argue that our imagination is fallen and that we should not come to Scripture using our imagination at all, only our intellect. It is true that our imagination is fallen and that it can lead us into sin and deception. We have probably all imagined that something bad has happened that didn’t actually happen; our imagination deceived us. But the truth is that our intellect is also fallen—it too can lead us into sin and deception. We must be careful with all aspects of our lives (thoughts, feelings, imagination, actions, relationships), measuring all against the truth of God’s Word. You very literally shouldn’t “let your imagination run away with you.” Stay true to what you’re reading in the Bible. You must be discerning during this practice; don’t suppose that everything you imagine is what actually happened or what a passage actually means. The goal is not to move toward fantasy or fiction, which would be irresponsible. Christianity is a faith rooted in history, and we should be on guard against inventing biblical meanings for ourselves.
Thus, the Picture It method is not a good tool to understand the meaning of a passage. To understand the meaning, you must study inductively following the rules of interpretation. Instead, use the Picture It method to penetrate a passage more holistically. That is, when you use your imagination to hear, smell, feel, taste, and see the scene as it is described in the Bible, you can better empathize with the people in the story. For example, when Peter steps out of the boat onto the moving sea, imagine feeling water slosh over your feet. Imagine being off balance as you walk on moving waves. Then, Peter’s fear that causes him to sink seems more understandable.
Suddenly those stories that you’ve known for years come alive. The more you’ve studied a passage, the better you’ll be able to picture what is going on in the story. With the Picture It method, you are no longer just reading a book—you are living a story.
Tips for Picture It
A suggested basic flow to the Picture It process could include the following steps:
1. Prepare: Prepare your heart to read God’s Word.
2. Read: Read the text slowly, taking time to understand what is happening in the story. Spend a few moments as soon as you’ve finished reading to recall what occurred in the passage.
3. Picture: Now, use your imagination to place yourself inside the story. Pretend that the author is speaking it to you, and try to imagine the tone of voice he might have used. See yourself as one of the main characters or as someone less important in the text. Specifically, you could:
4. Observe: Look around. What is happening around you? Where are you? Think about the sensory experience during this time. What does the place feel, sound, look, smell like? Try to really imagine it.
Gain a sense of who these people are. Why are they here, what are they doing, and what does that tell you about them? Remember to ground your imaginings in the text, but feel free to explore it. This takes practice but becomes easier with time.
5. Dialogue with the characters: Ask yourself: What are those around me saying to each other and to me? What do I say to them? What is our discussion like?
6. Notice what is going on inside you: Ask yourself what you’re feeling as you interact with the text in this way. Are you happy? Joyful? Full of sorrow? Peaceful? Confused? Full of love? Scared?
7. Pray: Turn your experience into a prayer to God.
8. Practice: Commit to obey what you’ve learned.
When you’ve finished this practice, review what you’ve experienced. Journaling is a great way to record your feelings and help you remember what you learned.
- Many people find it helpful to begin this practice with stories about Jesus from the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). You can do it with any biblical story, but the Gospels are a good place to start.
- If you get distracted during this process, don’t be frustrated. Ask God for help to focus, then set your mind back on the text. It takes practice to become good at the Picture It method of Scripture engagement.
- Remember to gain your facts from the text. Make sure that your imaginings line up with what the Bible actually says. Your imagination is a tool to help you experience God’s Word, and God’s Word must always be primary in this practice.
- Enjoy yourself. The imagination is a rich, wonderful vehicle or tool for exploration. Feel free to get lost in the beauty and truth of the biblical stories.
The Abide Bible: Engage Scripture, Engage God.
Do you yearn for life-giving, intimate communion with God? The Abide Bible is designed to help you experience the peace, hope, and growth that come from encountering the voice and presence of God in Scripture. Every feature in Abide is designed to teach and develop Scripture-engagement habits that help you know the power and spiritual nourishment of abiding in Christ.