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God-Honoring Imagination

I teach physics and engineering and I coach high school robotics. While I teach very different kinds of courses at MPCS, they all have one thing in common. I am always trying to teach students how to solve problems. So, my interest was piqued when I ran across a quote this weekend, made by the esteemed twentieth-century mathematician Howard Eves:

"An expert problem-solver must be endowed with two incompatible qualities: a restless imagination and a patient pertinacity."



The Definition

Perhaps the word pertinacity is not counted among your daily vocabulary list. Pertinacity is a quality of sticking with something, no matter what. It's a type of persistent determination. People who have pertinacity won't give up, and they stick with things doggedly. Pursuing a difficult career requires pertinacity. Starting a business requires pertinacity. Doing quality science or engineering or mathematics requires pertinacity. And patient pertinacity is an unmistakable mark of a Christian’s walk. Pertinacity is a mix of courage, conviction, and a little stubbornness.




The Core of Imagination

The essential part of the statement is that great math, science, and engineering are only achieved when pertinacity AND imagination are present. The fact of the matter is that this statement not only applies to good science, mathematics, and engineering, but also to the way humans must engage with God and the scriptures. Beloved theologian and pastor William L. Lane was known to say:

“We engage with scripture at the level of the informed imagination.”



The imagination is the bridge between our hearts and our minds. Because of man’s fall into sin, our hearts and our minds are fragmented; broken away from one another in a dysfunctional way. They very often don’t work well together.


Some people engage God and his Word with their minds. This is good. God gave us our minds and they should be used to engage Him. However, those who focus exclusively on this feature can tend to be theological, argumentative, and like to make sure that they are “right” in any discussion. Others engage God and his Word with their hearts.  This also is good, for God gave us our hearts and we should engage Him with them. Those who exclusively focus on engaging God and Scripture with their hearts are very interested in feeling and experience, but are often guilty of not “doing their homework.” If we examine scripture closely, we will see that it targets not just our hearts or our minds, but that bridge between our hearts and minds: our imaginations. The narratives, the poetry, the parables, and the apocalyptic passages all appeal to our imaginations, and the exercise of an informed imagination allows us to worship God “in Spirit and in truth” as we’re commanded to do in John 4:24. If we fail to unite heart and mind in Spirit and in truth in our worship, we inevitably rob it of one of its essential ingredients, and instead of it being a vibrant part of our life it becomes dangerously stale and boring, and poorly grounded. If our worship of God begins to seem stale and boring, it is but a small step to begin thinking that God Himself is stale and boring. And even if we don’t think He’s boring, we project to everyone else that He must be. We may continue to worship out of pertinacity, but we’re no longer interested or engaged, much less overwhelmed or awestruck by Him. 




The Heart and Mind

One of the great duties of the Christian mind and heart is imagination. The mind observes. The mind analyzes and organizes. The mind memorizes. The heart yearns. But imagination is different. It does not observe or analyze what's there; it imagines what is not seen but might be there and might explain what is there (as in the case of most scientific discoveries). Or it imagines a new way of saying what is there that no one has said before (as in the case of creative writing and music and art). 



The Christian Call for Imagination

Imagination is a Christian duty for two reasons.

  1. You can't apply Jesus' golden rule without it. He said, "Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matthew 7:12). We must imagine ourselves in their place and imagine what we would like done to us. Compassionate, sympathetic, helpful love hangs much on the imagination of the lover. Let us be reminded of this as we ponder our own service to those in need on Family Serve Day.
  1. When a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin. The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed with exactness, scrutinized with precision, but communicated boringly. Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God's world - all of it - rings with wonders. “Great are the works of the LORD; They are studied by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new discoveries, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to refresh the way we say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the bridge between the heart and mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.


The Hardest Work

Imagination may be the hardest work of the human mind. And perhaps the most God-like. It is the closest we get to creation out of nothing. When we speak of beautiful truth, we must think of a pattern of words, perhaps a poem. We must conceive something that has never existed before and does not now exist in any human mind. We must think of an analogy, or metaphor, or illustration, or design which currently has no existence. The imagination must exert itself to see it in our mind, when it is not there. We must create word combinations, music, art, and inventions that have never existed before. All of this we do, because we are created in the image of God and because he is infinitely worthy of ever-new words and songs and art and designs. A school committed to the supremacy of God in the life of its mind will cultivate many fertile, and a few great, imaginations. The world needs God-obsessed minds that can say the great things of God and sing the great things of God and play the great things of God and design the great things of God in ways that have never been said or sung or played or discovered or invented before.



The Drive to Use Imagination

Imagination is like a muscle. It grows stronger when you flex it. And you must flex it. It does not usually put itself into action. It awaits the will. Imagination is also contagious. When you are around someone who uses it a lot, you tend to catch it. So I suggest that you hang out with some people (many who are alive, but even the writings of some dead ones) who are full of imagination, and that you exert yourself to think up a new way to say an old truth. God is worthy. "Oh sing to the LORD a new song" - or prepare a new picture, or frame a new poem, or coin a new figure of speech, or reveal a heretofore hidden discovery of his greatness. And let us flee at all costs the sin of turning others away from God by our boring portrayals of Him. May we reignite our admiration for God, and recapture our imagination, awe, and love for him as we live out, in new ways, our faith in the presence of one another and our community. 

Large excerpts from: , , Howard Eves quotation from In Mathematical Circles (1969).


Brad Smith serves as the STEM/STEAM Coordinator and Eagle Robotics Head Coach at Mount Paran Christian School.



MPCS uses imaginative and innovative ways to teach our students. Click here to learn how academic excellence is achieved in a Christ-centered environment.



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