Fear and Imagination

We’ve all likely heard the phrase, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” The inherent meaning is that we shouldn’t imagine a problem to be a giant mountain but recognize that, in fact, we can step over it because it is only a molehill. This has been something I’ve noticed about my imagination throughout my life. I frequently have imagined that things are worse than they actually are. Have you?

What sparked this thought in me was a small dry twig with three brown leaves lying on the sidewalk in front of me as I was walking in the neighborhood. I was far enough away not to recognize it for what it was, and so my imagination began jumping up and down, hand raised in the air, ready to answer my question. “Ooh, me, me! I know! I know! It’s a dead mouse!” Upon arriving at the object, I observed that, it was not a member of the rodent family; it was just a twig with leaves on it. Has this ever happened to you?

While we were on vacation in Colorado Springs, we turned down a particular street on our way to Garden of the Gods. One of kids cried out, “Look at that poor squirrel stuck in the fence!” All eyes shifted to the driver’s side of the vehicle to peer out the windows at the sad fate of the squirrel. We neared and came to a stop at the stop sign. My husband realized it first, “That’s not a squirrel; it’s a trash bag.” My child’s imagination had taken over to fill-in-the-blanks.

I told my husband my thoughts about this phenomenon, and he concurred, “No one ever sees an object on the sidewalk and says, ‘Look, it’s a gold nugget!” Perhaps it is part of our design to protect us from potentially harmful things like dead mice or rabid squirrels. Scientifically, we know all about the limbic system and how fear helps us survive via the fight or flight response. It seems though, there is a point where our imaginations decided to have a play date with fear, and now we make mice out of leaves and squirrels out of trash bags. It’s weird!

I’ve seen imagination and fear collaborate in our perceptions of other people as well. We assume they don’t like us. We assume they’re too important for us. We assume they said/did something because they want to crush us, slight us, or leave us out. We assume that they’re mad at us because they didn’t reply to our text. We’re assigning motives without proof. We assume far more than is capable for most people to actually carry out (unless they’re a sociopath, and that’s different). It seems it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy; our perception of them becomes reality in our minds. When we assume the worst about another person, it forms how we think about them and what we expect from them. And sometimes, when they have a bad day, they fulfill that prophecy in our imaginations, and we say, “See?” And that, my friends, is confirmation bias. Dictionary.com defines confirmation bias this way, “bias that results from the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it supports one’s preexisting ideas and convictions.” You’ve already formed an idea in your mind about so-and-so, and when they behave in a certain way, you feel justified in your perceptions of them as a person. It’s all wrong.

The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:7, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (ESV). This is a hard verse. I understand love bearing all things, hoping all things and enduring all things, but what does “believes all things” mean? Heinrich Meyer says in his commentary that “believes all things” is the “opposite of a distrustful spirit.” Believing all things is not distrusting your neighbor’s intentions. Ouch. There it is. I do this. You do this. We all do this. We assign motives and distrust peoples’ intentions, and we find ourselves closing off to these people and making snap judgments about them. This is not love. We’ve made a mouse out of leaves and a squirrel out of a trashbag.

How do we change this? How do we bring our imagination into submission to Christ? When the Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Corinth for what we believe was the third time, he addressed some criticism he had received for being bold toward them when they were dealing with some serious sin issues in their church. Some criticized him and said he was walking according to the flesh because of the strong way in which he addressed their issues. He recognizes in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (ESV). Whether there are accusations flying back and forth, imagined slights and assigned motives to deal with, the solution for all of them is to take them captive to obey Christ. When that little niggling thought pops up, “She didn’t reply to my text; she must be mad at me,” take it captive. Tell yourself, “No! You do not know her motives. Believe the best about this person. Believe that she loves you. Believe that she has something more urgent to deal with right now than your text. Believe that she will get back to you. Believe that she’s not a monster. Believe that she even loves you! Trust her intentions. Believe all things.”

Our imaginations are a gift from God. A gift given to help us imagine things being better than they are right now so that we can be a part of His restoration for all things in heaven and on earth. We have the glorious freedom in Christ to bring our imaginations into submission to Christ’s love so that we can walk by faith, not by sight. In this way, we fulfill Jesus’ words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV).

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