A child’s imagination is akin to breathing; it just happens. Most of my childhood was fueled by it, shrouding my life in more fantasy than reality.
Out of my parents’ four children, I was the only son, which meant I naturally discovered ways to play alone. Fortunately, for the sake of my imagination, my family lived in a part of town that enabled me to wander freely in the surrounding wooded tracts. Countless hours were spent wandering in these irresistible environs as my imagination inevitably transformed them into different worlds.
As I grew up, the imagined world of my childhood faded into the mundanity of reality. Now, as an adult with a wife and son, reality has never been more pressing. Bills, appointments at the doctor, child-raising hurdles, jobs, vehicle maintenance and other responsibilities now occupy the greater part of my life.
But nothing in reality could ever erase the things formed in my childhood fantasies. It’s as if part of me will always relish those youthful reveries. It makes me wonder: must I abandon childhood to become an adult? After all, didn’t Paul say he left childish ways behind him when he became a man (1 Cor. 13:11)?
But then…didn’t Jesus associate the kingdom of heaven with childlikeness (Matthew 18:3-4; 19:14)?
So which is it? Abandon childishness or liken myself to a child? Where’s the balance?
I believe the answer is found in those years of childhood fantasy. As a child, I aspired to be something great, living a great adventure that was full of meaning and purpose; I desired to be needed in a Story that was bigger than myself. I wanted a life that was richer than what I saw in most adults. Was I selfish with these aspirations and desires? Was I ambitious? Certainly not; a desire for life is not selfish if the life desired aligns with what God offers.
And that’s the key: the desires that drive innocent, childhood imagination are the ones that enable us to trust the Story God’s writing for us. Imagination, when handled by God’s Spirit within us, creates a platform for the beauty and glory of God’s Kingdom to color our thoughts. This ultimately releases us from the narrow, self-serving outlook of life that inhibits worship.
When Paul said he left childish ways behind, he’s saying he left the “shell” of childhood behind. He abandoned everything that hindered him from applying his childhood desires to the weightier matters of adulthood; he left the “ways” of childhood behind, not the transcendental yearning that childhood had cultivated for adulthood, for Paul even says in the next verse: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully” (1 Cor. 13:12). Paul is simply saying we must take the logical step from childhood to adulthood–we saw “in part” as a child, and although we see more as an adult, that doesn’t mean we must abandon the transcendence we found as children.
We must not shy away from the desires that beckon us back to youth. We need not put on a facade of maturity and steeled self-sufficiency to mask our childish yearnings. If we do this, we miss out on what God offers, and that is having our childish yearnings satisfied in the Kingdom of God.
All that we longed for as children find their fruition and culmination in Christ. We simply don’t appreciate it as such until we are adults.
Therefore, my childish imagination is still with me today, but in a different form. The reveries of youth are evidence of our deepest thirst for God–they must not be abandoned. My childhood imagination acted as a hazy lens through which I first glimpsed Heaven (1 Cor. 13:12)–it’s where I first believed that our existence transcended mere flesh and blood, and it’s where I found myself in love with the Story of God, which continues to be written in the lives of believers everywhere.
Adulthood does not mean we must abandon childhood, but see childhood in its true light. It means to use imagination as it was meant to be used: as a way to worship God, and to honor him as the great Artist and Storywriter.
This is why imagination is not an attempt to escape from reality, but to see it more fully; to see it as God sees it. Don’t be ashamed to imagine because, in Christ, it only leads to good things.