My preferred method of prayer in Centering Prayer, but in the following post by my friend Pastor Phil Vestal, we are made aware of an approach that is new to me and may be new to you. Let’s select a Biblical scene or story, apply this way of praying and see where it leads us. Perhaps we will eventually be as rewarded as Phil was. Please leave comment about your experience with it.
Throughout most of my faith journey, the main way I have been taught to pray was to speak to God. I was taught certain prayers to recite and invited to confess my sins, ask God for things, or intercede for other people. It is amazing that we are all invited to speak to the God of the universe, and this can be a powerful experience. As I have gotten older, however, I have come to see that prayer is just as much, if not more so, about listening. Of course, I still say things to God in prayer, but these days I find myself trying to listen more than I speak.
What is Imaginative Prayer?
One of my favorite ways to listen in prayer is known as imaginative prayer. In imaginative prayer, we use our mind’s eye to enter a Biblical story, our own story, or even other “realities” to encounter God. The fact that the term “imaginative” is in the title scares some people, making it sound like it’s something fictitious or completely made up in our minds. On the one hand, it is true in some cases that our imagination is a doorway to made-up worlds. On the other hand, the imagination is also one of the most important means for us to see the truth that lies beyond what we can only see with our physical eyes.
In imaginative prayer, we use our mind’s capacity to journey beyond the merely physical world to seek God in creative ways. Sometimes this means journeying back into a situation from our past, reliving it in our mind, and prayerfully looking for where God was in that situation and what God might desire to say to us about it. Other times our imagination can transport us into a Bible story as we explore it as if we were there. We imagine what the weather felt like on our skin and what the food from the market smelled like in our nostrils. We picture ourselves among the crowds, listening to the bustle of the day or enjoying the quiet of the night. On other occasions, we place ourselves into a totally different landscape or situation and simply allow the Holy Spirit to take us where the Spirit wills.
In each case, imaginative prayer is simply a space to allow us to experience God in new ways. Sometimes it will feel like our own mind is guiding the whole thing. Other times, we may choose the imaginative space to enter, but the experience takes on a life of its own and we are just along for the ride. In either case, my encouragement is to allow Scripture to be the guide. If what we are experiencing is in line with the teachings of Jesus, and leads us closer to loving God and loving others, how can that not be from God?
Whether we are making it all up or the Holy Spirit is taking us somewhere, if we are led closer to God, I think that’s a blessing. That is prayer.
It’s difficult sometimes to know if something is a thought we came up with or if it came from God.
I would simply say that I truly don’t think it matters where the thought comes from as long as it deepens our relationship with God, connects us deeper with the truth in our own lives, and is consistent with Scripture. If it does these things, it’s always an experience from and of God. Even if we are making it up!
The Throne of God
One of the spaces I love to engage in imaginative prayer is the throne room of God. I am blown away by the fact that Hebrews 4 tells us that because we have a great high priest, Jesus, who has experienced what we have yet did not sin, we are invited to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 NRSV). I can’t imagine being invited to simply walk into the Oval Office to boldly approach the President of the United States anytime I wish. Yet, I am invited to boldly approach the throne of the God of the universe anytime, discovering endless mercy and grace, because I am a beloved child of God.
So, I take this seriously! And I approach the throne in imaginative prayer. I have often found myself using the imagery of Revelation chapter 4 (see below) to picture this space. In these verses, John is transported in a vision into the throne room of God. Imaginative prayer anyone!?!? He described in detail what he saw and experienced in Revelation. I have often used his imaginative vision to inform my own imaginative prayer. Once I am in the throne room, sometimes I simply talk with God. Other times I just soak in the experience and listen. One time, the prayer took on a life of its own and I was blessed to simply experience it.
My Experience in God’s Throne Room
In this particular time of prayer, I recall entering the throne room as I frequently have. I used John’s images to picture myself literally standing in the throne room of God. I looked around, I listened, and I tried to become as fully present as I could. I saw creatures and people all around the throne. Some were worshipping. Others were just sitting or standing together talking. I don’t know why, but I stayed some distance back from the center, waiting to see what would happen. As I stood, I felt the desire to lay down right where I was. I don’t know why I felt that at this moment, but I do know that a posture of laying down represents humility. It represents the fact that I can rest before God. So, I did!
As I lay there, things started happening around me that I didn’t feel that I was in control of. I saw Jesus slowly walking toward me. As his feet came next to my sides, he knelt, and gently placed a hand on my shoulder. It felt like he was there to comfort me. To let me know that He was with me. After a moment or so, he picked me up like I would pick up one of my boys. One hand under my back, the other behind my knees. Then, he began slowly walking me closer to the throne. I had originally thought I wasn’t that far from the throne, but as Jesus began carrying me to it, it felt like the distance went on forever. He simply kept carrying me, closer and closer. I have no idea how long this went on for, but it was a beautiful experience. Ultimately, as we got right up to the throne, Jesus laid me down right at the foot of it. As if presenting me as his beloved brother. As a child of God who is seen and cared for.
During this experience, I FELT God’s love. I literally FELT God’s presence with me. While I know logically that God loves me and is with me, in this moment, these truths were real to me. At a time when I was facing a lot of external trials, wrestling with some difficult decisions, and totally burnt out on ministry, I needed something real from God. So instead of a hypothetical truth or a nice platitude, I was gifted with an actual experience.
Was it happening in my mind? Sure. Did that mean it was any less real? Absolutely not! I felt a little like Harry Potter asking Dumbledore in King’s Cross station after he had died, “Is this all real or is it just happening inside my head?” I find comfort in Dumbledore’s response, which I believe is what Jesus would say to me about this experience, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean that it’s not real?” Throughout Scripture, men and women of faith have significant experiences of God in dreams and visions. Just think about Ezekiel seeing God traveling out to the people in exile, Jacob seeing a ladder going up to heaven, or Peter seeing heaven open, and a sheet coming down to the earth. Far from experiences that were only given to our ancestors, I believe we can still encounter God in these ways today.
You can Experience Imaginative Prayer
If you have never tried imaginative prayer before, I encourage you to do so! Perhaps start with Revelation 4 and the throne room. Maybe pick a story from your past (I recommend avoiding experiences that were especially traumatic unless you have someone to process the experience with), and relive it, asking the Holy Spirit to help you see something new, understand where Jesus was in the room, or reveal a truth to you. Or picture yourself in your favorite spot in nature and invite Jesus to join you there so you can have a chat. See what happens! The options are infinite! It’s ok if nothing happens at first. It may take time. Keep showing up. I think the keys are inviting the Holy Spirit into the experience, weighing everything you experience against Scripture, and being open to experiencing God in new ways.
Blessings on the journey as you create space to encounter the living God!
Pastor Phil Vestal
More visions of Jesus are described in:
God Wouldn’t Want Someone Like Me
Stunning Vision Reveals Heaven’s Lobby
India Pilgrimage Yields Vision of Jesus
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits[a] of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”