Imagination and Temptation

During this past year, I read through Alan Jacobs‘ book Original Sin: A Cultural History. Jacobs was a professor of mine at Wheaton College and is an astute cultural commentator and author.

In the midst of Jacobs’ comparison of the original innocence of Adam and Eve with our own original sinfulness, he makes an interesting point about the importance of imagination. Drawing on Milton’s Paradise Lost and C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra, Jacobs points out that Adam and Eve could not even conceive of disobedience to God on their own. They were too pure in their minds to conceive of disobedience. The tempter had to cast into their imaginations a picture

of what disobedience to God would look like. Even more, the tempter had to slowly bring their thoughts around to grasp reasons for why they would even want to pursue the route of disobedience to God.

Jacobs writes:

What is especially interesting here is Lewis’s suggestion that before the rational mind can be convinced by argument, the imagination must be shaped and formed so that the person responds in a certain way – with certain feelings – to an argument. Only after he has told many, many stories does the tempter return to direct persuasion (42).

For me, this sparks the idea that for temptation in general to be successful, the tempter must conjure a picture or concept in our minds of how disobedience to God would be a better choice than obedience to God. Clearly, we do not come to the table with the same purity of mind and heart that Adam and Eve had in their original state. Still, the tempter readily applies his wiles to the powerful tool of our imagination. He often does not begin with direct persuasion for us to succumb to temptation. Instead, he may slowly cast into our imagination a picture of what giving in to temptation would look like and feel like. He convinces us through our mental images and the growing desires of our hearts to reach out, pluck, and eat. Like Adam and Eve, we also act on the imaginative power of our internal stories.

Our imagination is a powerful gift from God. But the evil one will do his best to bend it toward his evil intents.

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