Have you ever watched a small child at play? For most of us, it brings a smile to our face. We sense this is something beautiful, and healthy. And so it is… for the most part. Unfortunately, for some children, growing up in dysfunction and abuse, fantasy is not a healthy addition to their life wherein they simply work out problems and minor negative emotions, grow creativity and resilience, and even connect with God and his unseen, “better than we could ask or imagine” world beyond the material. For some children imagination functions as a survival mechanism where they get fed just enough truth – by fantasy characters – about their own value, desirability, power and significance to get by (psychologically).
Unfortunately, the survival methods of childhood are too frequently brought into adulthood… to a time in life when we are (often) no longer having to fight to “survive.” Here, a survival tactic, like fantasy, may actually impede our ability to get our needs met.
Imagination and adulthood
I think it’s important to take a moment to distinguish healthy imagination and unhealthy fantasy. C.S. Lewis wrote about the connection between our imagination and faith and said that he himself had come to faith because of his imagination being sparked by the children’s fiction of George MacDonald. Jesus’ teachings were uniquely powerful, probably in part because of his constant use of parables – what we might today call short stories. These stories relied heavily on analogy and metaphor to make spiritual truths memorable and impactful. They worked so well because they engaged our imagination. It is probably because of our imagination that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20).
Avoiding and venting
However, this same imagination which can connect us to God and his truth can get highjacked. For example, if as a child we learned to avoid negative emotions (e.g. when I’m neglected or bullied) by creating fantasies in which we are desired and powerful, this may continue into adulthood, even when we have others who affirm our significance and desirability, e.g., God, a spouse. This is most likely to happen when we are triggered into feeling insignificant, incompetent, undesirable, etc.
Sometimes our fantasy world comes to the fore when we have strong negative emotions, like anger, to process. As children we often punish our enemies in our fantasy world by exerting our power over them. But how does this work in the adult world when God has told us to “love our enemies” and “do good to those who hate us”? (Luke 6:27).
Using fantasy to avoid discomfort or to create revenge scenarios might of course create temporary “good feelings” where there were bad ones. However, the ultimate result is to create disconnection from reality – thus delaying a resolution to the issues before us – and from others (including God): the source of truth about ourselves.
Fantasy and SA
In “Unwanted” Jay Stringer writes,
The fantasy world created in pornography or prostitution requires a woman to be reduced to an object or commodity. In pornography, a woman’s rank as a co-revealer of the image of God is reduced to a gender that exists to submissively serve the errant longings of men… Evil seduces us to degradation to eclipse the greater God-given longings in our hearts. Pornography offers us an imitation version of the justice and rest found in Jesus alone...We can see, then, the effective idolatry taking place in ponography use. Rather than accepting the willing self-sacrifice of a God who offers to atone for our sins, we seek out an alternative sacrifice – a victim both unwilling and inadequate – and bring our lust and anger there instead. Rather than submit ourselves to a loving God, we have submitted ourselves to (and implicated ourselves in) evil.
Intimacy: the way out
Of course connection with God and others is risky. Real “others” are not as controllable and predictable as our fantasy characters, or porn mistresses. They may give us feedback about ourselves that is painful to hear. However, it is only others who know us who can fill our desire for love in a way that actually builds up our identity. Psychologist, Jim Wilder put it this way in his book The Pandora Problem:
Neuroscience helps us understand how the brain knows ‘I am special.’ Feeling special is a gift from our brains’ attachment (hesed) circuit indicating that we are securely loved by the people who know us best. Being special is generated by who loves us and not by what we do. The brain cannot achieve ‘special,’ rather it is a gift from those who see and know us.
There is no amount of fantasy, sexual or other, that is going to fill our deepest longings. This will come about through grace-filled connection with others: first and foremost our God. Of course grasping God's delight in us — so that we know He has made us special, powerful and acceptable — will require the proper use of our imagination.
So, I will borrow Paul's prayer for the Ephesians (1:17-19) and offer it up on behalf of all the sex addicts and all betrayed wives:
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
If you haven't already done so, please consisder participating in my Masters of Counselling study on partners of sex addicts and domestic violence.