Too often we think of imagination as child’s play, something to be forgotten upon reaching adulthood. Yet God gave us our imagination as much as he gave us logic and reason. The Picture It method of Scripture engagement (also called the Ignatian method, Imaginative contemplation, imagination technique, “if-you-were-there,” or guided imagery meditation) gives you the opportunity to engage your imagination (both images and feelings) and connect with Scripture personally by placing yourself in the stories. This method can help you better empathize with the people of the Bible and understand their stories in a more experiential way. Rather than viewing the facts from afar, you use your imagination to “experience” the events.
God has given us the biblical stories so we can connect with him, learning more about who he is and what he cares about. James Wakefield in Sacred Listening describes the process this way, “With our imagination and reason, with our five bodily senses, and especially with our emotions, we become secondhand witnesses of the events of Scripture.” The idea is to place yourself in the biblical story, becoming a person in the crowd, a disciple following Jesus along dusty roads, or the boy with the loaves and fish. Imagine the sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes of the biblical world. You step into the story and let it enter your mind—not just as a series of facts, but as a story with real, living people. This method is especially helpful for those who tend to connect to Scripture on a purely cognitive (or intellectual) level; this method involves your emotions, enveloping your whole person.
A word of caution is needed. Some would argue that our imagination is fallen and that we should not come to Scripture using our imagination at all, only our intellect. It is true that our imagination is fallen and that it can lead us into sin and deception. We have probably all imagined that something bad has happened that didn’t actually happen. But the truth is that our intellect is also fallen—it too can lead us into sin and deception. We must be careful with all aspects of our lives (thoughts, feelings, imagination, actions, relationships), measuring all against the truth of God’s Word. You very literally shouldn’t “let your imagination run away with you.” Stay true to what you’re reading in the Bible. You must be discerning during this practice; don’t suppose that everything you imagine is what actually happened or what a passage actually means. The goal is not to move toward fantasy or fiction, which would be irresponsible. Christianity is a faith rooted in history, and we should be on guard against inventing biblical meanings for ourselves.
Thus, the Picture It method is not a good tool to understand the meaning of a passage. To understand the meaning, you must study inductively following the rules of interpretation. Instead, use the Picture It method to penetrate a passage more holistically. That is, when you use your imagination to hear, smell, feel, taste, and see the scene as it is described in the Bible, you can better empathize with the people in the story. For example, when Peter steps out of the boat onto the moving sea, imagine feeling water slosh over your feet. Imagine being off balance as you walk on moving waves. Then, Peter’s fear that causes him to sink seems more understandable.
Suddenly those stories that you’ve known for years come alive. The more you’ve studied a passage, the better you’ll be able to picture what is going on in the story. With the Picture It method, you are no longer just reading a book—you are living a story.