Is it Right to Use Visualization?
By Mark Sandford
There are those who think that any use of mental imagery is a wrongful New Age practice. But Scripture teaches that there are right and wrong ways to use mental imagery.
WRONG USES OF MENTAL IMAGERY:
One wrong use is to create our own picture of something and then expect God to fulfill it. For instance, suppose that a boy’s father never told him he was proud of him, but only criticized him. He grew up believing he was a “bad boy.” Now, as an adult, he tries to overcome low self-esteem through boasting. In order to let go of the need to puff himself up, this man needs to know he is OK with God. It is alright for us to tell him that Jesus is proud of him. Biblically we know that God praises His children who obey Him (“Well done, good and faithful servant” — Matthew 5:23, NIV). And there is nothing wrong with asking the man to share how he might feel if Jesus said this to him. It is even alright for us to share a vision God has given in which Jesus says He is proud of him. In a vision, Jesus directed John to tell the church in Ephesus that Jesus appreciated their hard work and perseverance (Revelation 2:2). And God might directly give this man such a vision. But if we create our own picture of Jesus speaking to this man, and then expect him to experience that image as if it is really happening, we are planting thoughts that God did not inspire, creating a “Jesus” we are manipulating as a tool for our purposes.
Another wrong way to visualize is to change history. For instance, telling a man who suffered child abuse to imagine that instead of beating him, his father really held and comforted him. Or telling a woman to imagine that instead of calling her “ugly,” her father told her she was “beautiful.” In reality, these two fathers did no such thing, so these are lies.
To use mental pictures in these ways is a kind of visualization that is fleshly manipulation, which is a form of magic.
RIGHT USES OF MENTAL IMAGERY:
The Bible does not say we should never picture anything. If it did, Jesus would not have taught in parables, which invite listeners to picture the story as it is being told. In one-on-one ministry it is alright to tell a story and expect the seeker to imagine it and draw conclusions from it. For instance, suppose you are ministering to a man who calls his children names, and he doesn’t see the harm this is causing. It’s alright to ask him to imagine himself as if he were one of his own children being called a name, and then have him describe what that might feel like. You have done for him what Jesus did when He asked, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” (Luke 11:11, NIV). Jesus’ audience imagined this, and drew truthful conclusions about fathers and about God the Father.
A vision is another biblical use of imagery through which God might give a healing word. There was a woman who, as a child, had been used sexually by men, and she felt very impure. A prayer counselor told her that he “saw” Jesus admiring her like a bouquet of white roses. This had much meaning for her, for she replied that, in a still small voice, she had often heard God call her a “pure white rose.” The prayer counselor didn't manufacture this image. He was prompted by God, and this raised her self-esteem tremendously, drawing her closer to God’s loving heart.
God may prompt us to ask where Jesus was during a traumatic event (God is omnipresent — everywhere at once; He was there when the event occurred). One woman whose father had beaten her as a child answered, "I see Jesus taking the pain into Himself so I didn’t have to feel all of it alone." This is biblical. Isaiah 53:4 says that He “carries our sorrows.”
Another right way to use imagery is to have a person simply picture a memory, and let him draw his own conclusions about it. For instance, long ago a boy decided to shut down the pain of the neglect he suffered as a child. When he grew up he remained out of touch with his feelings, and so he neglected his wife emotionally. A prayer counselor asked him to picture a childhood memory in which no one was there to listen to him, and to describe that memory in detail. He answered, “I remember a time when I was the only boy at Boy Scouts whose father didn’t come to the father-son banquet. Until this moment, I never realized how lonely I felt. And for the first time, I understand how lonely my wife must feel when I’m not with her on special occasions.” Picturing that memory released pent up feelings, and helped this man embrace the Holy Spirit as a comforter who weeps with those who weep. Because of this, he was able to pass on to his wife what he received; he was enabled to feel with her.
In such a case, we should not offer suggestions about how the person we are ministering to should interpret what he sees. We should not manipulate or change the memory or create our own picture of what Jesus was supposedly doing at the time. If this man had not recalled how he had felt or reacted, the prayer counselor could have listed several possibilities and asked him to consider whether any of them fit, but it would be wrong for him to suggest one of them or share a preference. We should let people draw their own conclusions.
In short, a person who wrongly uses mental imagery creates a false picture and tells the seeker to experience it as if it is real. Or he may attempt to change history, thus planting lies. In contrast, one who rightly uses mental imagery may share visions or promptings that God has inspired, but he checks their veracity against Scriptural principles and sound discernment. He does not make up his own imagery and invite the seeker to experience it as if it is real. And when he leads a seeker to imagine a memory or an imaginary scenario, he lets him draw his own conclusions about what he remembers.
© Mark Sandford 2018