It doesn’t take long as a Christian to realize there’s a wide and ugly gap between the bare-walled reality we feel captive to and the joy Jesus offers. But I have realized the tension of this dilemma is something Jesus acknowledged in His Sermon on the Mount—and in it, we find we already possess one of the most useful tools in this journey toward real and lasting joy.
Jesus makes a series of declarations in His mission statement called the Beatitudes that sound impossible and unattainable. Each proclamation has one foot firmly planted in a colorless, hopeless reality and the other firmly established in a vibrant “fairy tale” world.
“Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, “for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who mourn”—a statement grounded in the certainty of the moment, and I always imagine there is a long pause in between these words before He delivers the punch line—“for they will be comforted.” Are you sure? When? How?
It’s almost as if Jesus has invited us into this great adventure only to be faced with a bridgeless cavern that appears, by our standards, impassable. If we are honest about our lives, about the condition of the world around us, then Jesus’ words seem an outright call to suspend our disbelief.
And perhaps that is the point. The key to liberating ourselves from the oppressive tension between this world and the next, Jesus seems to say, is imagination.
Yet today’s people of faith are a little suspicious when they hear about the “power of imagination.” It’s a curious reaction for followers of the God who fed 5,000 people with several fish and a loaf of bread or two. And yet Jesus was constantly pushing the boundaries of possibility. Resurrection spawned revolution and imaginative transformation. For example, Christians are believed to be some of the first to begin adopting orphaned children. The early Church was the first to view children as having rights. For centuries, it has been the people of faith who were the innovators, the writers, the painters and the learners.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Frederick Buechner compared the Good News to a fairy tale. I often wonder if they weren’t both referencing the truth that following Jesus is an imaginative journey—one that takes seeing beyond what is immediately present and tangible.
Imagination is the groundwork of progress. It is the blueprint of joy. Before we climb a mountain, we must be able to imagine ourselves at the peak. Before we write a book, we imagine seeing our name printed on the cover. Before we break an addiction, lose weight or get out of debt, we imagine that change as reality. God has given us imagination so that we can envision the possibilities in between who we are today and who we were made to be, between the world in its fallen condition and a world where all inhabit life to the fullest.
In the 90s classic movie Jerry Maguire, it is this imaginative vision that keeps Tom Cruise’s character up at night and ultimately causes him to abandon his prestigious job at the firm and set out with nothing but his conviction and the company goldfish. His life-altering moment of clarity kindles a dream of how his profession can be transformed into a practice of integrity, compassion and genuine concern for his clients. He calls it “the memo.”
These “Jerry Maguire moments” grow out of the place in our soul that perceives the glaring divide Jesus refers to in the Beatitudes between the way of the world and the way of God. And it is our imagination that can build the bridge.
My 9-year-old son and I were standing in the checkout line at the grocery store during the holidays. He reached up and pulled off a food bank donation ticket and placed it on the counter with our groceries. I silently paid the bill, and we carried our bags of groceries to the car. As we drove home, he told me about the sign he read that explained purchasing the ticket would feed one family dinner for an entire week. He said he imagined how hungry he would be if he didn’t have dinner and just couldn’t bear the idea of a family somewhere not eating. The power of imagination is what moved him into action.
When terrible earthquakes ripped through Haiti, my friend Matt was busy imagining how he could reach out to victims of poverty across the world. He had five kids to care for and no financial support to start up a nonprofit. Yet because he had a vision, he helped transform a local ministry into a missional outreach organization. Years later, his nonprofit, SafeWorld, is busy building a birthing center to help those very Haitians that spurred him to action in the first place. What began in Matt’s imagination is now a source of hope and substance for people in need across the Third World.
It is our God-given imagination that gives us the essential tools—the hammer, nails, ropes and ladders—that enable us to bridge the great divide between harsh reality and Kingdom reality.
I think we bury ourselves deeper in joyless captivity and the world grows a bit darker each time we let these moments, realizations and imaginative revelations slip by without acting on them. On the other hand, people who live lives of meaning and fulfillment and real joy are those who are willing to take action when they notice something about their world that misses the mark. They are those with the resolve to carry out their “Jerry Maguire moment”—to first imagine their “mission statement” and then set out down its path, even when the only one who will go with them is the goldfish.
As people of faith, our very calling is grounded in our ability to imagine: What do redemption and justice really look like? How will the hungry be fed, the poor be cared for, the grieving be comforted? God has already given us the key to bringing His Kingdom to earth. It’s time to imagine the first step in bridging this divide.
Matt Litton is the author of Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy. A writer, educator and speaker, he is also author of The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives Through the Power of Story and has written articles on faith and culture for numerous national publications. Matt lives with his wife, Kristy, and four children in Cincinnati, Ohio, and his website is mattlitton.com.