Consider the following scenario.
A man is out of work and needs to support his family. However, there are few jobs available in his field, and great pressure is being put on him by his friends and relatives to accept just “any job”, meaning a minimum wage job working the graveyard shift at a quick store. His wife is working, so the family still has a little money. She resists the idea of her husband taking just “any job”, as it is just a dead-end (perhaps literally–he could be killed). The family does not need him to take just “any job”: It needs him to find a job which he will be happy at, which will be secure, and which will provide for the family more than just a minimum wage. She knows that this may take a while to find.
One night, as the man is lying in bed worrying, he has an idea for a business. Since the business would depend upon insights and skills that he has already developed, it would require minimal investment. However, he would have to work full-time at the business for more than a year in order to succeed. He talks about his idea with his wife, and she is willing to support him in it. However, they both decide to take it to the elders in his church and get prayer.
The next Sunday, he steps forward at the altar call, and he asks one of the elders for prayer for his new business idea. Without even inquiring as to what the idea is, the elder lays hands on him and begins praying, rebuking unclean spirits, and casting down “vain imaginations”.
The man goes home disheartened, and takes the job at the convenience store for a minimum wage.
An unlikely scenario? Not really. I have seen it happen many, many times. In the name of casting down “vain imaginations”, dreams have been shattered and visions destroyed in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. It is perverse and it is wrong.
It is also unbiblical.
There is only one passage in the Bible which says anything about “vain imaginations”. It is Romans 1: 21, which says in the King James Version, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”
Before applying such a verse, it is good to ask what it means. Neither “vain” nor “imagination” means the same today as in King James’s day. Today, “vain” most often means “having an excessively high opinion of one’s appearance, abilities, or worth.” In King James’s day, it meant “devoid of real value, worth, or significance.” Today, “imagination” most often means “an idea, with the implication that the idea does not correspond to the reality of things.” In King James’s day, “imagination” was most often used with the meaning “the inner operations of the mind in general, thinking; thought, opinion.”
Without knowing how the meaning has changed, people in churches today most often use the words “vain imaginations” to talk about dreams or ideas which do not correspond to reality, and which are a manifestation of a person’s overly high opinion of himself. Thus, if someone has a dream that does not conform to an elder, deacon, or pastor’s opinion of his or her capabilities, the church leadership will often see it as their duty to knock the person down one or two pegs, to bring them back to “reality”.
This is certainly not what Romans 1: 21 means, nor is it how it was understood in King James’s day. Here is the verse in context, as it is rendered in the NIV (the words formerly translated “vain imaginations” are in bold):
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
This passage does not describe faithful Christians or average churchgoers: It describes the lost.
Today, more than ever, the church–indeed, the world–needs Esthers and Josephs. It needs people who have dreams, and who have the ability to rise above their current station in life so that they can save and provide for others. If a Christian has a dream or an idea as to how he or she can rise above the morass of daily life, to fly with the eagles, they should be encouraged, and not rebuked. The idea might be wrong and maybe nothing will come of it. On the other hand, it might well be from God, and it may contain seeds for the salvation and provision not just for the person’s family, but for the church itself. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29: 18).
Let’s stop being so eager to tear other Christians down and destroy their visions. And let’s retire the phrase “vain imaginations”, unless it is to refer to empty philosophies and religious beliefs.