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My wife and I are trying to help our children become more empathetic. Practically speaking, this means we’re raising them to put their vivid imaginations to good use when considering what someone else is going through. Step into their shoes; imagine what things look like from their perspective. By doing this, we are not merely trying to reduce the number of sibling fights in our home (though we are most certainly trying to do that). Our hope is that they will grow in charity, patience, and compassion for all people—in short, that they will learn to love others well.
In addition to the relational benefits, we’re hoping for another payoff as well. Bookish people that we are, we believe that a vibrant and empathetic imagination will make them better readers. Rather than approaching a story with an air of detachment, we encourage our kids to dive in and engage the characters on a deeper level. Imagine what it would be like to walk through a scene, to see what they see and feel what they feel.
When stepping into a scene like this, our natural tendency may be to simply read ourselves into the story, imposing our personality, beliefs, and motives onto the characters and then judging them harshly when they veer off our preferred course. Rather than turning every book into some kind of “choose your own ending” exercise, I’m trying to help my children see the wisdom in approaching a story on its own terms.
For instance, when my oldest son reads one of our favorite book series, The Wingfeather Saga, I’m hoping he encounters the eldest Igiby sibling, Janner, in a meaningful way. At surface level, my son may immediately think, “Well, I’m an older brother too and if I were in this situation I would….” What I’m encouraging him to do, however, is to make an honest effort to get to know Janner and the world in which he lives. What does he hold most dear? What pressures does he face? What drives him to act the way he does? What is he willing to sacrifice? By employing his imagination to help him consider things from Janner’s perspective, I think my son will end up learning a lot about himself. But he has to let Janner live the story first.
That’s what empathy does—in seeking to understand what others are going through, we end up learning more about ourselves. True in our relationships; true in our reading. When we strive to be empathetic readers it opens up new avenues of personal application and understanding, but first we have to let the story speak.
While I am very concerned that my children develop healthy reading habits, I also have to confess that I have a weightier endgame in mind. I’m praying that these habits of imaginative and empathetic reading will translate into deep, reflective Bible reading as well. I want them to approach the Bible’s storyline with imaginations ablaze and a hunger to know its Author. I pray that they come to Scripture, not as the arbiter of truth and sense, but as a communicant: humble and open and ready to receive.
Michael Card spoke of this posture when he said,
“[Imagination] is a bridge between the heart and mind. It seeks to re-integrate and reconnect them, since they were fragmented by the Fall. The imagination that has been surrendered to God for this process of listening to the Scriptures, I call the ‘biblical imagination.’”
An important component of Card’s definition of biblical imagination is that it listens to the Scriptures, rather than imposing its own will on it. We meet the story on its own terms, letting it define the appropriate context and meaning. We remind ourselves again and again of our tendency to insert ourselves into the text in ways that merely serve to feed our own prejudices and presuppositions. And we ask the Spirit to speak to us through the text, to fuel and inform our imaginations in a God-honoring way.
So, what does this look like as we read the Bible with our kids?Usually, it starts with a simple question:
Can you imagine what that would have been like?
No matter what Bible story we’re reading, that magical question helps us step into the scene and develop our biblical imaginations. Instead of helicoptering over a passage analytically, we immerse ourselves in it, seeking to understand what the people were going through. We step into their shoes, imagine what things look like from their perspective, and we make an honest effort to get to know them and the world in which they live. By doing so, we get to learn from them and we get to know God—and ourselves—better.
When God made us in His image, He gave us creative, imaginative, and empathetic minds. The beauty of these God-given traits is that we can use them to know Him better. Helping our children foster a biblical imagination is one of the greatest gifts we can give them as we point them to Christ.
God’s Word is vivid and deep; take your children by the hand and step into the story. As you walk through the scenes of God’s unfolding redemptive plan, you and your children just might find that it is your story as well.
Scott serves as an Elder at The Church at Brook Hills, and is the author of The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent, Mission Accomplished: A Two-Week Family Easter Devotional, and the illustrated children’s book, The Littlest Watchman.