The NeverEnding Story is a children’s fantasy film in which a boy goes from reading a fairy tale to being sucked into the tale itself. This is as good a picture as I know of for how we are to read the Bible. It is the greatest story of all time, and we are to be pulled into it, so that we become a part of its story. We do this through daily trust in God’s love and an obedience to His will.
But we can also do it another way. When we read the Bible with our imagination, we allow ourselves to be pulled into the Bible so that we experience it first-hand. A easy place to start is the gospel stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This type of Bible reading has been around for a long time and is at the heart of what is known as the Ignatian Exercises. How do you do it? Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
Some Helpful Guidelines
- Take one story of Jesus from the gospels and read it slowly through twice.
- Put the Bible down and try to imagine the story. You will first need to decide who you are in it. Are you yourself or one of the disciples? Are you participating in the story or watching it as an observer? Don’t spend a lot of time here. Just go with what seems most natural.
- Then try to imagine the scene. Notice not only what you see, but what you hear and smell and feel. What is the weather like? What clothes are people wearing? What can you touch near you? What sounds are you aware of?
- Now let the story run from beginning to end in your imagination. Notice what Jesus does and says. Does He have anything to say to you? Notice how you feel and respond.
- When you are done, spend some time in prayer speaking to Jesus about what has happened in your imagination.
- Finally, journal your experience. Note important feelings, thoughts, and desires.
My Experience of This
My experience of reading the gospel stories this way has been profoundly transforming. Jesus went from being a historical character to a living reality. There were moments when He approached me in my imagination with words and gestures that shifted things deep in my soul. He literally walked out of the pages of the New Testament and into my story. Here is one example:
One day I imagined the story of Jesus clearing the temple (see Mark 11:15-17), and I was one of the disciples. I have a clear image of Him slowly winding the cords together to make the whip. Then I was stunned by His passion as He overturned the tables of the money-changes and drove out the cattle. It was complete chaos everywhere. When He had finished and came back to us, I remember feeling very afraid. I wanted to leave the temple grounds and go hide. I knew we were in trouble. Jesus had just broken custom and perhaps the law. There would be repercussions. I would be caught up in it.
As I brought all of this to Jesus in prayer, I realized that I have been a rule-follower all of my life, starting in the 7th grade. I didn’t want to upset the teacher because I knew it meant being shamed in front of the class. I wanted to stay out of trouble and everyone like me. It was that fear of shame and rejection that got pulled up as I imagined Jesus clearing the temple. I then realized that I didn’t want to be that fearful 7th grade boy anymore. It was a prison of fear. I wanted to live with a deeper calling, even if it meant getting in trouble. I wanted to be a man who followed Jesus whatever that meant.
Not every time I have imagined a gospel story has been a watershed experience. But all of them have drawn me closer to the Jesus who is the same today as He was in those stories. I have also seen Him to the same thing in the lives of many men with whom I have worked. He is alive and always at work around us and in us.
A Christmas Suggestion
Since this is the Advent season, a good place to start imagining the gospel story is the narrative of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2: 1-20. You can easily break this up into 3 different stories to imagine: Jesus being born (vs. 1-8), the shepherds in the fields (vs. 8-15), and then the shepherds going to see Jesus (vs. 16-20). Use this as a part of your Advent preparation in any way that feels appropriate.
Feel free to respond back with questions you may have. But more than anything, just try it. Reading the Bible with our imagination can help us connect to the living God in new and surprising ways.