The Imagination in Healing Prayer

In 1987 I attended a small group where they were reading a book by Dr. David Seamands, a seminary professor who taught pastoral counseling. The book was titled Putting Away Childish Things. It was about dealing with emotional bonds or difficult memories that were blocks for many people, keeping them from growing to Christian maturity. I can’t say that I was very interested in the subject, or that I discerned that I had any emotional blocks that I needed to have removed. However, I was intrigued by one of the stories that Seamands told about Anne, a woman with whom Dr. Seamands had a counseling session of what he called “healing prayer:”

About a week after we prayed, she awoke very early in the morning. She couldn’t get back to sleep, so she lay in bed and began to pray. She said it was as if Christ Himself came into the bedroom, called her and said, “Come, Anne, take my hand. I want us to walk back through your life.”

“Lord, I couldn’t stand it again. It was so hard when I told the pastor.”

“Anne, this time is going to be different. I am going to be with you each step of the way.”

Anne then described that walk with Jesus in a most unusual fashion. The two of them were in a great art gallery where each painful incident was a picture on the wall. As Jesus led her they would stand before each vivid memory, like looking at a painting. And as she looked at them one by one, all the original emotions she had experienced swept over her. Once more she relived the fear, the pain, the shame, and the rage connected with those ghastly memories. Each time she would weep bitter tears and each time an inner voice would say, “My child, just turn it over to Me; forgive everyone involved and receive forgiveness for your own hate and rage.” As she surrendered each memory to the Lord, it was as if Jesus reached up and took down that particular picture.

This went on for several hours until finally, when she looked around, all the pictures had been taken down and the walls of her mind were clean and whole. The scalding bitterness and the poisonous fangs had been removed from those destructive memories.   Putting Away Childish Things, David A. Seamands, Victor Books, 1982

I was puzzled by this story. I had heard of guided imagery that was used therapeutically by some psychologists. I thought that this might be like guided imagery, except that there was no counselor present guiding her. The counselor seemed to be the Lord. As Anne told it, Jesus was guiding these pictures in her mind, and she was following as a willing but apprehensive observer. Was this possible? Was this desirable? Was this a Biblical encounter of some kind?

Does God really engage the imagination of people in this way, or was Anne making it up by means of auto-suggestion, guiding herself in a memory story? Was it even right to use imagination in prayer? I was puzzled by the story and only mildly interested because I didn’t see that Anne’s experience had much application for me. Her experience was certainly outside of anything that I had experienced, and quite naturally I was skeptical of any kind of prayer not precisely described in the Bible and outside of my experience.

A week later my wife, Sue, had a conversation with my grandmother. Sue had asked me how my mother had died and I told her that she had died during childbirth when I was two years old.

“But why, how did she die?”

“I don’t know, I never asked.”

“Why don’t you know anything about your mother? It isn’t right!”

I had learned at a very young age that it was taboo to ask questions about my mother’s death. I did not even know her name until I was eight, nor had I seen a picture of her. My maternal grandmother was assigned to tell me about her when I was eight and to take me to the gravesite, but I asked no questions and only retained a few foggy facts. My wife, however, was not content to let the past lie forgotten, and she went to my father’s mother and asked her all kinds of questions. They went upstairs to the cedar chest and out came all the pictures that had been put away the week of my mother’s death and many stories were told that I had never heard. Grandma told my wife that when I was four or five, I used to go out by the road at her house and stand by the mailbox and look across the fields at the vacant house on the next hill, where my dad and mom and I lived before mother died. Grandma said that she felt so sorry for me. I told my wife quite matter-of-factly that I had no memory of doing that, nor did the story move me in any way that I could discern. I couldn’t see how that story had anything to do with my life now − I was a stable pastor, an emotionally well-adjusted husband and a father of two. Let the past stay in the past. But my wife had noticed something else about me in our eight years of marriage − what I called emotionally stable could also be interpreted as aloof, living totally in my mind, emotionally cool, and not always present in the presence of other people.

This story that Grandma told me about the “young me” standing by the mailbox dogged me for about a week. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Then one night as I was praying all alone in my room, I began to have a “daydream.” I call it a daydream because it had that quality of playing out like a movie that I was watching. It was a picture of a four or five-year old boy standing by the mailbox. I recognized the boy in my mind’s picture; it was my son. I watched him as he looked off across the valley to the next hill to the vacant house. After a while, in my mind’s eye, Ryan changed, and I saw myself standing by the mailbox as a young boy. For a long time I watched myself stand alone at the edge of the gravel road looking intently. Then a man walked into the picture. I could only see his back but I knew it was Jesus. Then Jesus stood beside me looking with me across the fields to the house. Then he knelt beside me, still just looking. Then Jesus put his hand on my shoulder, and we looked across the fields together at the vacant house. I was waiting for him to say something to me, but he didn’t speak. All he did was just kneel beside me and look with me. At this point, something in me broke, and I started weeping. I had never really wept before. I had been choked up on occasion, I had swallowed back lumps in my throat during sad movies, but I was thirty years old and had never wept. Now I was weeping, and I couldn’t stop. I cried often for the next week; it was embarrassing. I remember that we had invited someone over for dinner, and he told a funny story. I started laughing at his story, and then I had to excuse myself from the table because my laughter had turned to tears. This was my first experience with a very common kind of prayer that we call inner healing that addressed unresolved grief in my life.

There were many more experiences of inner healing to come for me regarding abandonment by death, problems during conception to birth with my mother, and receiving a mother’s blessing that I missed.

Francis MacNutt has written this definition of inner healing:

  1. The basic idea of inner healing is simply this: that Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, can take the memories of our past and
  2. Heal them from the wounds that still remain and affect our present lives;
  3. Fill with his love all these places in us that have been empty so long, once they have been healed and drained of the poison of past hurts and resentment.  Healing, Francis MacNutt, Ave Maria Press, 1974

Often in inner healing the Lord will engage the imagination. Most people with whom we pray for inner healing at Christian Healing Ministries, have a picture in their mind of a traumatic personal memory. When we ask, “Can you remember what happened?” and they say, “Yes, I can remember it clearly,” it usually means that they can picture it. They have an image in their mind of where they were, what was happening, who was present, and how they felt. When we invite Jesus to come to the person in their memory in whatever way he may choose, often Jesus enters into the memory as an image of himself. They see Jesus. We are often surprised by what Jesus does – he may speak to them, or he may shine a light into the memory, or the recipient may be aware of his presence without seeing anything. After this experience with Jesus in prayer they tell us things such as, “I was a baby and we were playing with the bubbles in the bathtub,” or “Jesus was swinging me on a swing,” or “Jesus was walking with me and holding my hand and we were picking flowers in a meadow.” Sometimes it is more simple – “Jesus held me,” or “Jesus looked at me and smiled,” or “ Jesus took me out of that dark place.”  Often these experiences lead to forgiving people who hurt them, or the release of fear from the memory because Jesus is with them, or the destruction of a lie that they were at fault for what happened to them. In our prayer ministry, we do not practice guided imagery. This is not a judgment against the practice of guided meditations that lead to encounter with Jesus. We prefer to invite Jesus into the memory in whatever way he chooses, but not suggest how that might happen.

We try not to suggest what Jesus might do. Often, but not always, Jesus enters the memory visually and drains the memory of its debilitating poison by his presence.

Does Jesus engage the imagination in this way in the Bible? I used to be skeptical of any use of images in prayer, because I was influenced by a faith tradition that frowned upon those kinds of experiences. However, we have descriptions in the Bible of similar experiences with God that use imagery, where the recipient watches a sequence of events play out in their mind. In the Bible, dreams given by God have this same movie-like quality. For instance we read in Matthew 2 that “the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’” Joseph saw an image of the Lord in a dream, and the Lord spoke to Joseph and gave him meaningful direction. Joseph was asleep. Joseph was an observer and listener. Visions in the Bible also have that movie-like quality to them. In Acts 10, Peter has a vision that led him to be more open to the inclusion of Gentiles into the body of Christ. “About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on a roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down . . .” As this vision unfolds, we understand that the images that Peter sees are symbolic and not literal. The Lord is present in the vision to explain its meaning to Peter. Peter is awake and has a dream-like vision. We often have people who experience symbolic images in our times of prayer with them. Other times the images in visions recorded in the Bible are quite literal, like the vision that Paul had of a man of Macedonia pleading with him to come and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” This vision in Acts 16 leads to the opening of Christian witness in Europe. I would put God’s engagement of the imagination in inner healing in the same general category as dreams, visions, and trance-like daydreams because they share similar characteristics – meaningful visual images, both symbolic and literal pictures, a movie-like quality where the prayer recipient is attentive and watching but not guiding the story, and purposeful action where Jesus is the protagonist.

In a larger context, the Bible actually invites the use of the imagination in all kinds of individual and corporate prayer through the prayer book of Israel and the Church, the Psalms. For instance in Psalm 27, David says that he longs “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord in the temple.” We read and pray the Psalms and share that same longing. What is this experience of gazing for which David yearns?” Is it literal gazing on the Lord or spiritual? If it is spiritual, then it involves the imagination. Or consider the familiar verses that I treasure from Psalm 103, which includes a series of visual images. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love for those who fear him.” (Look at the stars and the vast spaces between them and you can imagine the immensity of God’s love for you filling the heavens.) “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Imagine all your sins being balled up and thrown westward over the horizon to disappear and never return.) “As a Father shows compassion to his children so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” (Imagine a good father doing kind deeds for his son and daughter, favoring and smiling upon his children, and say that is how the Lord is with me!) ”Almost every prayer in the Psalms invites us to use our imagination about how the Lord relates to us. They invite us to form meaningful pictures of God’s love and care and protection. God’s engagement with our imagination in prayer is very biblical.

It would be a strange thing if God did not engage our mind and imagination in prayer. Visualization is involved in almost every human endeavor. An artist has a vision for a painting. A golfer visualizes his next golf shot before he steps up to the ball. We rehearse in our minds beforehand how an interview might go. In almost every human endeavor we picture something and then we act. We do it so much that we rarely think about it. Many of us primarily think in pictures. It would be surprising if God did not engage in prayer, including healing prayer, that ubiquitous quality of visualization in our imagination that he created in us. It is part of the gentle and gracious way he renews our minds and hearts.

Ken Polsley  Ken is an ordained minister, CHM prayer minister and Assistant Librarian at the Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL.
 Winter 2015/16 Issue