How Imagination and Fantasy Help our Spiritual Growth

This post is an edited version of part of a reply I wrote to a comment by a reader named Boluwade Kujero on the article, “Is Masturbation Always Sinful? Does it Always Come from Lust?” My full comment responds to a few more of Mr. Kujero’s points, and applies the ideas presented here specifically to the issue of fantasizing while masturbating.

Imagination

Imagination

In this material world we are often hindered from acting on our goals and intentions by many external circumstances. We can therefore fool ourselves into thinking that we are morally clean when in fact it is only social pressures or practical concerns that keep us from acting in very immoral ways.

But according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), after we die, when we are living in the spiritual world, those social bonds and external hindrances are gradually taken away. When this happens, unlike in the material world, whatever we think and intend, that is exactly what we say and do. If we think something, we just go ahead and say it. If we want to do something, we just go ahead and do it.

Our intention is the reality behind our actions

That’s because the inner reality and source of our actions is our intention or will to act. And though our intentions and actions often get separated here on earth, in the spiritual world that separation is erased. There, our intentions flow seamlessly into our actions, and our thoughts flow seamlessly into our words. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Luke 12:2–3)

That’s how it would be here on earth, too, if all social rules and practical restrictions were removed. Everything hidden inside of us would be out in the open. We would all act upon everything we intended or desired.

But that is not the case here on earth. And the reason it’s not the case is to make it possible for us to go through the process of spiritual rebirth that Jesus spoke about in his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1–21, in which he said:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)

And because in the end—in the spiritual world if not here on earth—we will act upon whatever we desire and intend, it is our inner intention to act upon a particular thought or desire that is critical.

When we are merely fantasizing, we have no such intention.

But when we have the sort of burning lust or “coveting” that the Bible condemns in the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:17), we do have the intention to act upon those wrong thoughts and desires. And we will act upon them if we think we can get away with it. That’s why the Bible forbids coveting: because coveting is the sort of desire and intention that leads us to do things that are evil and wrong.

Imagination and fantasy are necessary for our spiritual growth

But as I just said, when we are merely fantasizing or engaging our imagination, we have no intention of actually doing what’s running through our mind.

And we need this ability to imagine, think about, and fantasize things that would be evil if we acted upon them.

This ability is necessary so that we can mull over in our mind the moral rights and wrongs, and the likely effects, of actually saying or doing particular things. This is part of our spiritual rebirth or “regeneration” process. God gave us a thinking, discerning mind and an active, creative imagination so that we would have the ability to consider and evaluate within ourselves various things we might say, and various courses of action we might take, before we actually say or do them.

  • The ideal is for us to recognize in our mind and imagination that something is wrong so that we don’t have to learn the hard way by acting upon it and reaping the painful consequences.
  • And the ideal is for us to recognize in our mind and imagination that something is right so that we can direct ourselves to speak and act based on it.

That’s why the idea that every fantasy about something that would be evil and damaging if we acted upon it is bad as a fantasy is mistaken and counterproductive.

God gave us the ability to imagine and fantasize both good and evil situations and behaviors so that we could turn these things over in our mind, evaluate them in our head and in our heart, and decide within ourselves what we believe to be good and evil, and what we will and won’t speak and act upon.

It takes time to change our desires, thoughts, and actions

This is not a simple process of fantasizing about killing our boss or about having sex with a married man or woman, saying, “That’s bad,” and then never thinking about it again. Rather, it is an ongoing process in which our inner desires, both good and bad, continually present themselves for view in our thoughts and fantasies, and we evaluate them over an extended period of time.

We humans do not change instantly. Our process of being spiritually born again is an extended one. It takes place over our entire lifetime.

It is unrealistic to think that we are going to quickly overcome and defeat every unworthy thought and desire, and become instantly pure and clean. We must face our true thoughts and desires over and over again, examine them multiple times from every angle, and yes, sometimes go ahead and act upon them in order to fully comprehend why some thoughts, desires, words, and actions are evil, and why some thoughts, desires, words, and actions are good—and then make an informed choice for the good over the evil.

Fantasy is where we face our inner self

Attempting to suppress every illicit fantasy the moment it occurs to us is not merely unrealistic. It is actually damaging to our spiritual health and our emotional life.

Our fantasies don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They come from deeply held thoughts and desires that are part of our unreformed, unregenerate self. And we can never face and deal with those parts of ourselves if we continually suppress any awareness of them, and pretend that they are not there.

Facing them in our minds in the form of imagination and fantasy is how we let them out far enough for us to see them for what they are and evaluate them without actually saying or doing them.

We choose good or evil within our mind and heart

The inner life of our imagination and fantasy is precisely where we make the decisions that determine the direction of our life.

  • If we condone our illicit fantasies and foster the intention to actually act upon them, we have made our choice to go in an evil direction. Sooner or later we will go ahead and do the evil and destructive things we have fantasized about.
  • If recognize within our mind and heart that acting upon them would be wrong, and forbid ourselves from acting upon them, we have made our choice to go in a good direction. If we stick with that resolve, those fantasies will gradually lose their appeal for us, and will fade toward the periphery of our mind.

These are the greater issues involved in our fantasy life.

Acting something out in fantasy or imagination within our minds simply is not the same as acting upon it in real life. One is theoretical. The other is actual. One has effects only within our mind. The other can have far-reaching and highly damaging consequences for the rest of our life, and even to eternity.

The bridge between the two—if we build that bridge—is our intention to act.

If we intend to act upon some imagination or fantasy if and when the opportunity arises, then spiritually it is tantamount to actually acting upon it, even if the opportunity never does arise. That’s because in the spiritual world, there will be no disconnect between our intentions and our actions as there often is here on earth. There, whatever we intend, we do.

That is precisely why coveting and lust are condemned in the Bible as evil. They are condemned because they are an intention to act upon the evil things we desire. Coveting and lust are not mere fantasy. They are a burning desire to do the evil things that we desire in our heart.

God’s gift of imagination and fantasy

But fantasy and imagination by themselves, without any intention to act upon them, are a good and healthy way for us to see and recognize the desires of our heart, both good and bad, spin out scenarios of what they would lead to and result in, and make a choice and a decision not to act upon the evil ones, and to act upon the good ones.

At least, that’s what God wants us to do.

And if that is what we do, then even our illicit and wrong imaginations and fantasies have done their job. That job is to show us what is truly inside us, and give us the opportunity to progressively reject and root out those parts of ourselves without the damage and destruction that would result from actually saying and doing them.

This, in a nutshell, is why God has created us with the ability to imagine and fantasize about all sorts of things, both good and bad.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Spiritual Growth
16 comments on “How Imagination and Fantasy Help our Spiritual Growth
  1. Alex says:

    This is very interesting because I have experienced it myself. As a kid I used to have power and domination fantasies, but I was afraid to act on those because somehow I knew it to be very wrong, so they remained in my head.
    Fast forward a decade and my opinion on power and the abuse thereof has devolved into ‘Why would I ever want to do that? That is dumb and wholly unnecessary.’ and I had no such impulses in recent memory.

    Thanks for the good read, Lee 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for telling your story. I’m glad this article helped to put it all in perspective for you! And thanks for your kind words.

  2. Tony says:

    Hi lee
    “The other can have far-reaching and highly damaging consequences for the rest of our life, and even to eternity” so what highly damaging consequences does make it to eternity and not merely for the rest of our lives here on earth?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tony,

      If a married man or woman fantasizes about committing adultery, but doesn’t act on it, the effects are limited. But if he or she actually does commit adultery, it’s likely to destroy his or her marriage. And if he or she does not repent of the adultery, it will put him or her in violation of God’s will and God’s commandments internally in the mind and heart. And that is what causes us to spend eternity in hell rather than in heaven.

  3. Rob says:

    Is 70 years or so really enough time for a human to determine his eternal destiny? What if a person was given infinite time to change and embrace the good, seeing its wisdom and how the good gives the greatest and lasting human satisfaction and happiness? Is there any justification for the average number of years allotted to a person as a measure of character?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Good question.

      My general response is that the particular time frame really doesn’t matter that much. Some species of insects go through their entire life cycle in a few hours or days. And if they were morally aware beings, presumably they’d be able to make their moral decisions within that time frame.

      Sure, God could have stretched it out to millions of years. But what more would that really have gained us? We humans go through our natural life cycle in six, eight, or ten decades. And during that time we go through the various changes from infancy to childhood to adolescence to young adulthood to middle age to our elder years. Through those changes, and in those decades, we have plenty of time to gain knowledge and experience, evaluate ourselves and our situation in the larger scheme of things, and make choices about what sort of person we want to be. And that’s the important thing.

      Personally, I would not want it to be stretched out to millions of years. It would only prolong the process unnecessarily without giving any particular advantage in the decision-making process.

      God could have designed the time frame on any scale. The one God chose seems appropriate to our nature as human beings.

  4. Rob says:

    I think “choice” is overplayed. We’re born with a propensity to “sin”, in a world that is stuffed with sorrows of every kind. What kind of test is this? I think anyone who makes it through even a few years in this world with their sanity intact deserves everlasting bliss. The whole idea of “hell” is obscene; punishing people for their choices in the short span of their existence.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Yes, there is much pain, suffering, and sin in this world. But there is also much joy, camaraderie, and love in the world. Life can be a struggle. But there is also great beauty, if we look for it.

      And hell is not a punishment. Rather, it is the best God can do for those who get their pleasure out of evil instead of out of good. They didn’t have to make that choice. And choosing evil over good does inevitably bring pain. But God allows hell not to punish these people, but so that they can get at least some of the kind of pleasure they enjoy, even if it is inevitably laced with pain. For more on this, see: Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

      • Rob says:

        No. Nobody deserves any pain or suffering after experiencing life on earth. If anything they deserve medals for making it through this life with their sanity intact. People deserve eternal bliss for the suffering in this world. If God was good he’d allow people to be annihilated. Instead he gives them eternal existence in hell. He loves suffering. God loves his creature’s suffering. Why else is there so much of it? Suffering is a sweet savor unto the Lord.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rob,

          I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t agree at all. God takes no pleasure in our suffering. Nor does God give anyone an eternal existence in hell. People give that to themselves. If it were up to God, all of us would spend eternity in heaven. But God gives us humanity and freedom, and if some of us use that to choose evil over good, that is our choice, not God’s. God sends no one to hell. Anyone who is there is there because he or she insisted upon it, against God’s wishes.

  5. Frankly Frank says:

    “Hell is not a punishment”………

    I dunno there, Lee. Not re-interpreting Rob’s thoughts for only he can subjectively do so, but if I would venture what he’s getting at here is the notion that hell is indeed a “punishment” anyway you slice it. Basically if one is forced to continue to exclusively exist in a certain crappy environment (hell) then in this context “choice” and “love” make about as much sense as “joy” and “pain”.

    Perhaps another way to look at it is if God’s love (joy) even extends to allowing souls to “enjoy” their wallowing in the evil pleasures of hell for eternity then indirectly God thus (vicariously) also “enjoys” whatever “joys” they experience in hell. The painful part of hell we can probably agree is enjoyed by no one except maybe for Marquis de Sade type sadists.

    Well, it’s sure one helluva a (damn) motivational mystery, eh? lol(?)

    Frank

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      What I’m saying is that no one is forced “to exclusively exist in a certain crappy environment (hell).” Rather, it is a choice on the part of those who exist there. And they continue to choose that state of being after they die. This doesn’t mean they like everything about their existence. Rather, it means that of the available choices, that particular one is their preference. More on this in response to your second related comment.

      And no, God’s joy does not extend to enjoying evil spirits’ wallowing in their evils. This is something God permits or tolerates for the sake of those evil spirits, not something God enjoys.

      Oh, and don’t forget about masochists! They enjoy pain! So don’t impose your pain-averse bias on everyone else, thank you very much! 😛

  6. Frankly Frank says:

    “And hell is not a punishment”…….

    I dunno about that one, Lee.

    There are vivid accounts from Swedenborg where in one example he describes IIRC two angels holding a hell detainee off the ground by the head and feet and then “twirling” them back and forth repeatedly in opposite directions so that their spine felt like it was being torn apart. Yeah, I think that could be called “punishment” but if it isn’t I’d hate to see what qualifies. (lol?).

    I don’t see how a spade here isn’t a spade. And I don’t see how one honestly could interpret that it’s actually God’s love and not punishment in that particular scenario as an easy way out to explain it either. Bottomline hell is inherently a PRISON. Aren’t prisons defacto punishment?

    Frankly Frank

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      I presume you’re referring to Spiritual Experiences #1696.

      First, it’s necessary to understand that Spiritual Experiences is more of a journal of experiences than a finished work. It was not something Swedenborg planned to publish, though he did draw on the material in it for his published works. And the earlier parts of Spiritual Experiences were written while he was still getting his bearings in the spiritual world, and did not fully grasp and understand what he was seeing.

      Spiritual Experiences has to be read with these things in mind, and with some caution about drawing hard-and-fast conclusions based on what is written there. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of fantastic material in Spiritual Experiences! It just needs to be read in light of his later, published works, where Swedenborg writes with more experience under his belt, and a better understanding of what it all means.

      Now about that particular description in Spiritual Experiences #1696, though angels are mentioned in the previous section, they are not mentioned in connection with the punishment itself; and the following section makes it pretty clear that it is spirits, not angels, who are doing the monitoring and punishing. “Spirits” could mean relatively recent arrivals in the spiritual world who are still living in the “world of spirits” (the intermediate region between heaven and hell) and have not yet gone to their final homes in heaven or hell. Or it could mean evil spirits.

      Once again, in the earlier parts of Spiritual Experiences, Swedenborg had not completely gotten his bearings in the spiritual world, so it’s not always clear exactly what he’s talking about. In his later works he usually (but not always) identifies punishing spirits as evil spirits. He does, however, sometimes mention good but strict spirits who punish wrongdoers in the world of spirits. The punishers in Spiritual Experiences #1696 could have been this sort of spirits, also.

      Angels are capable of inflicting pain upon evil spirits who manage to venture up into heaven for less than noble purposes. But it is more to protect themselves and scare the evil spirits away than it is for punishment. Angels have no desire to punish or inflict pain on anyone. And in general, the pain is the result of the heavenly aura of love and truth that surrounds angels hitting and grating against the hellish aura of hatred and falsity that surrounds evil spirits, and inflicting pain due to the extreme dissonance of the collision of opposites. This is how angels protect themselves from the evil intentions and actions of evil spirits.

      In hell itself, punishments are not meted out by angels, but rather by other evil spirits in hell, who enjoy inflicting pain on their fellow evil spirits, and are always looking for an opportunity to do so. They get that opportunity when someone does something evil, which opens them up to retribution and punishment. And since evil spirits in hell love doing evil, and are always doing it whenever they can, there are indeed many punishments in hell.

      So yes, there are punishments in hell. It’s not that the evil spirits in hell like everything about their existence. What criminal wouldn’t love being able to continue in a life of crime without having to ever get arrested and imprisoned, or suffer any negative consequences whatsoever?

      Unfortunately, that’s just not how life works. And even though criminals may not think of themselves as choosing to be in prison, when they get out of prison, re-commit the same crimes, and land themselves back in prison, what would you call it? In effect, they are choosing the punishment by choosing the crime.

      There is no reality in which people could commit all sorts of evil actions with no consequences. When we choose the evil, we are by the very same choice also choosing the consequences of that evil.

      Today, every time a smoker in the United States buys a pack of cigarettes, he or she sees the Surgeon General’s Warning on the side of the packet, warning of dire health risks and likely death from smoking.

      Does it stop them from smoking?

      Nope.

      They just ignore the warnings, and go ahead anyway, even though they know very well that smoking is likely to lead to a long and painful death.

      The reality is that you cannot do damaging and destructive things without causing damage and destruction. Evil is evil precisely because it is damaging and destructive. So when we choose evil, we are choosing also the consequences of evil, which is pain, suffering, punishment, and misery. These consequences may come right away, or they may many years later. But they will come. And we know it—even if may try to fool ourselves and deny it.

      So there’s really no excuse for the evil spirits in hell. You don’t get to hell unless you consciously, intentionally choose evil over good knowing full well that it is evil, and knowing very well that bad things will happen as a result of this sort of behavior.

      No criminal is stupid enough not to realize that if he or she gets caught, there will be very unpleasant consequences such as prison, serious physical injury, or death. In fact, in countries with a humane justice system, getting caught by the police and imprisoned is generally preferable to getting caught and brutalized and/or killed by the wrong victim. Criminals make their choices knowing the risks. And the reality is, if you continue to act in an evil and criminal way, sooner or later those risks are going to become a reality. It’s just a matter of time.

      So we can cry for the evil spirits in hell if we want to. But nobody goes to hell without having chosen that life. Unlike in the material world with its often faulty and corrupt governments and judicial systems, there are no miscarriages of justice in the spiritual world. No one goes to hell through a divine clerical error. The only people who go to hell are those who knowingly and intentionally choose an evil life, being well aware of the implications and consequences of their choices, and having the ability to make a better choice if they wished.

      And the fact of the matter is that although there are some people who veer into a destructive and criminal life due to a completely screwed-up childhood, there are others who could very well have done something else, but who chose a life of crime because they liked that idea better than working for an honest living. There are some criminals who truly enjoy their life of crime, not due to some mental illness or shockingly bad childhood, but because . . . they truly enjoy wrecking other people’s lives in order to gain money, power, and pleasure for themselves at others’ expense.

      Ever heard of a rapist who enjoys raping women (or men)?

      Ever heard of a thief who enjoys stealing?

      Ever heard of a murderer who enjoys killing people?

      Ever heard of an embezzler who enjoys skimming off as much money as possible?

      These are the people who end out in hell.

      And once they have made those choices and hardened themselves into a life in which they enjoy gaining pleasure through inflicting pain and loss on others, there is no turning back. It’s not that they’re not allowed to leave hell. It’s that they have no desire whatsoever to do so. They laugh and sneer at good-hearted spirits and angels who try to remonstrate with them. And then, if they could, they would beat them to a bloody pulp and rob them blind. Because that’s what they enjoy doing.

      So are there punishments in hell?

      Yes there are.

      But is punishment the purpose of hell?

      No it isn’t.

      The punishments in hell are simply an unavoidable consequence of the evil choices and actions of the people who live there. And those punishments are not inflicted upon them by angels, still less by God, but by their fellow evil spirits.

      Could evil spirits get out of hell?

      Theoretically, yes. No one is forcing them to be there. Not in an ultimate sense.

      But in order to get out, they would have to make a different choice. They would have to choose to live from love, truth, and goodness rather than from hatred, falsity, and evil. And they have exactly zero interest in making such a change in themselves.

      Technically speaking, they don’t “choose” to be in “prison” in hell any more than technically speaking, criminals on earth “choose” to be in prison.

      But practically speaking, both criminals on earth and evil spirits in the spiritual world do choose to be in prison, or hell. They choose to live in such a way that prison, or the prison of hell, is the only possible place they can live long-term.

      Yes, prisons are de facto punishment. But the primary function of prisons actually isn’t punishment. That is a secondary purpose. Prisons exist primarily to protect the innocent from the guilty. We cannot let murderers, rapists, thieves, embezzlers, and so on wander around scot-free. If we do, they will kill, rape, steal, and embezzle away, and cause massive damage to many innocent people.

      In some societies, people who engage in terribly damaging behavior receive the death penalty not only as punishment and as a deterrent to others, but to ensure that they never harm another innocent person again. Other societies have decided that the death penalty is not allowable. So how can they prevent hardened criminals from hurting more innocent people? Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is the only other foolproof option. Because as soon as you let a hardened criminal out of prison, he or she is going to start right away looking for opportunities to get back into the life of crime, and victimize innocent people. It’s what they do.

      That’s how it is for the people in hell. If they were willing to live in such a way that they did not endanger and victimize innocent people, they could walk right out of hell. In fact, many of them are allowed to walk right out of hell, especially in the early stages. But as soon as they do, they start victimizing people. This brings the inevitable consequences of excruciating punishment and pain, as described in Spiritual Experiences #1696 and elsewhere in Swedenborg’s writings. And then they throw themselves back into hell to escape that pain and get back into an atmosphere where they can breathe freely.

      So do evil spirits choose to be in prison?

      In a word, yes.

      They choose to be in prison by their actions, just as criminals on earth choose to be in prison by their actions. They know the law. They know that if they’re caught they’ll end out in prison, or worse. And they go ahead and do it anyway.

      Isn’t that, in all practical reality, choosing to be punished, and choosing to be in prison?

  7. Frankly Frank says:

    Whew! Hell’s a lot more complex after you describe all the intricate nuances! Anyhow it sounds like real hell to me however one cuts it.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      Yes, hell is very complex—just as complex as the whole complex of human evil.

      Meanwhile, I’ve posted an edited and expanded version of that already long comment as a new post: Pain, Punishment, Prison, and Hell.

      I’d say “Enjoy!” but somehow I don’t think that’s quite the right word! :-/

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