Using Your Imagination in Prayer

"Thus far, nothing too controversial: Draw close to God, ask for help and give thanks, think about God, and lighten up. It all makes sense. But what will make prayer into this holy play? The answer is in [Agnes] Sanford's specific approaches that some find troubling: her use of imagination and visualization. Some find these practices troublingly similar to things in New Age and 'prosperity gospel' teachings. I can understand the similarities, but I am convinced that they are tangential rather than substantial. Wrongly understood or wrongly used, any tool is dangerous. A hammer can kill, but most people have no problem using one to drive a nail. Rightly understood, Sanford's imaginative tools do not contradict a biblical faith. In fact, they build that faith.

"Imagining the completion of healing. Sanford's most prominent imaginative tool is to visualize the person you are praying for in a healthy state. She once found herself unable to pray successfully for a particular person and sought advice from someone more experienced. The woman exclaimed, 'Oh my dear, you're seeing them sick.' Then the prescription: 'When you think of someone . . . you must learn to see him well.' Sanford learned that we should use our 'creative imagination' to make 'a definite and detailed picture' of the person strong and healthy, focusing hard on this until it comes up spontaneously when we pray. It replaces the picture of the sickness or injury. Then we can ask Jesus to come and bring about the new life we are picturing, even imagining Christ within the person.

"A man who had spent years in a New Age group before becoming a Christian reacted strongly against this. Sanford seemed to be teaching the secular spirituality in which visualizing changes is expected to bring them about. Yet Sanford herself does not teach that visualization causes healing. Her point is that 'harnessing the imagination and training the will, one can arouse and build his faith.' She uses imagination to change the person who is praying, increasing the faith that Scripture says is needed for prayer.

"How does visualizing the completed healing build faith? It reverses another of the faith-corroding things that often happen when we pray: focusing our minds on the illness puts all our attention on the problem, nurturing worry. In a group in which I was teaching on Sanford's approach, several objected to her use of visualization. One member had recently broken her leg, and others were praying for her. I said, 'Okay, try to pray for her but don't picture her broken leg.' It was impossible. We already employ visualization and imagination in our prayers. When we pray for someone, they pop up before our mind's eye. We automatically think about what needs healing — and soon we are thinking really, really hard about the infection or the cancer, or vividly picturing the tubes and monitors over their hospital bed and worrying.

"Sanford would have us substitute the hopeful picture of health restored. As we pray for the woman whose leg we know is broken, we imagine it strong. We can picture a depressed person joyful or see someone flattened by a fever conscious and clear-minded. Picturing the person whole and well prevents us from ruminating on the problem and directs our hearts toward hope and trust.

"It is also a way to be very clear and specific about what we are asking God to do — more clear than words. As Sanford put it to someone who wondered why he should use his imagination, 'No matter what you want to make, you first have to see it in your mind. Could you make a table if you didn't first see in your mind the kind of table you're going to make?' We do not cause a healing the way we make a table. But what our mind pictures is what we are really asking God for, just as we might take to a carpenter a scale drawing of a table we want built. Instead of being divided, with our mouths asking for health while our minds focus powerfully on illness, faith grows as we ask with our whole being."