Renewing the Gate: Richard Sibbes on the Imagination

April 26, 2012

More From

Todd Hardin

Renewing the Gate - Richard Sibbes on the Imagination

In biblical times, city gates provided protection and passageways into the hearts of cities. If one could capture the gate, he could capture the city (Gen 22:17; 24:60).[i] In the same way, the gate of the human heart both protects and provides a passageway into the inner person. If one captures the heart’s gate, he captures the heart, and if he captures the heart, he captures the person.

This post helps counselors understand, enter, and renew the heart gates of those to whom they minister. In accomplishing this task, we will draw upon Scripture, learn from of one of the Puritans’ most insightful soul physicians, and apply his theory to a real life example. But before we can apply, we must understand what we mean by the gate of the heart.

Understanding the Gate

The Bible’s term for the gate to the human heart is known by the Hebrew term yetser. The Old Testament uses this term ten times and it generally means “framing, purpose, or imagination.”[ii] Primarily, yetser focuses on the intentions of the heart or mind (Gen. 6:5, 8:21; Deut. 31:21, 1 Chron. 28:9, 28:9, Isa. 26:3), but it can refer to our frame, form (Ps. 103:14; 104:26, Isa. 29:16), or even an idol maker’s creative handiwork (Hab. 2:18).

To simplify our discussion, I will refer to yetser as the imagination. By imagination I am strictly referring to the soul’s ability to think in powerful images or pictures.

Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes gives a framework that demonstrates the role of the imagination in the functioning of the human heart. In his classic work, The Soul’s Conflict, Sibbes explains the role of the imagination in moving the person:

Things work upon the soul in this order: 1. Some object is presented. 2. Then it is apprehended by imagination as good and pleasing, or as evil and hurtful. 3. If good, the desire is carried to it with delight; if evil, it is rejected with distaste, and so our affections are stirred up suitably to our apprehension of the object. 4. Affections stir up the spirits. 5. The spirits raise the humors, and so the whole man becomes moved, and oftentimes distempered.[iii]

According to Sibbes, the imagination serves as the heart’s entry gate. Passing through this gate triggers an internal process that concludes in a particular behavior.

Understood this way, it seems that the imagination captures snapshots of experiences presented by the five senses. Although powerful and compelling, these pictures are more like a collage than a comic strip storyboard. The affections[iv] (relational desires and cravings) amplify the vividness of these pictures by painting them with either fleshly or spiritual brush strokes before sending them to the mind. The mind receives these colored pictures and tries to interpret them by sorting them into a logical order that resembles a comic strip. This storyboard helps the mind make sense of these images. Once the mind determines the meaning of the story, the emotions react, the body responds, and the person takes action. The following figure depicts this process:

Hardon Diagram

Entering the Gate

What does this process look like in the real world? Consider a young woman that I will call Wendy.[v] Wendy is a sexual abuse survivor who came to counseling for help with a recent panic attack that left her scared and confused.

As part of Wendy’s background, her counselor learned that Wendy’s biological father had molested her from the ages of ten to sixteen. The abuse ended when Wendy’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Now a woman of thirty-five, Wendy is a portrait of God’s grace. She is happily married, has two children, and is devoted to Christ and her church. Wendy wanted the counselor to help her make sense of a recent experience she had at church.

Wendy had attended her church’s annual chili supper where she won a ribbon for the best chili. Her pastor, wanting to congratulate Wendy, gave her an innocent hug. After receiving this hug, Wendy became anxious and immediately left the fellowship hall.

Noticing that something seemed amiss, the pastor followed Wendy to see if she was okay. As the pastor approached, Wendy found herself feeling uneasy in his presence. As he came up to her, she made a “lame” excuse, abruptly left, and hadn’t returned.

As she sat in the counselor’s office, Wendy was at a loss as to why she had reacted so strangely. She asked, “How could I be so scared of my own pastor? This is the man who led me to Christ, married me and my husband, and baptized my kids.”

As they talked, the counselor learned an interesting fact about Wendy’s story. During one conversation, Wendy revealed that her father always wore a specific brand of aftershave. As they discussed the story of her panic attack, Wendy made the connection that on that evening the pastor had worn her father’s cologne.[vi]

When Wendy smelled the cologne (object presented), she became bombarded with pictures of her prior abuse (imagination). Since the imagination does not anchor its pictures in the proper time sequence (the past), Wendy re-experienced these images in the present. Wendy had not remembered her abuse; she had relived it.

These pictures generated a deep fear within Wendy’s heart (affections stirred up) and she thought that she was in severe danger (apprehension of the object). This danger signal incited panic (spirits stirred up) and her pulse skyrocketed (humors raised) in preparation for flight. As the pastor came near, Wendy fled (whole person moved).

Renewing the Gate

How can we use our understanding of the imagination’s role in helping a person like Wendy? Before mentioning specific principles, I have to state that Wendy’s issue was a complex one that was not corrected in a few sessions. In fact, the process of reconnecting her with Christ took more than two years. Here are some of the principles that Wendy’s counselor consistently used in renewing her gate:

The Counselor Helped Wendy Feel Safe in His Presence

It was crucial that the counselor not make things worse for Wendy as she sought help. He needed to reflect the love of Christ by offering her a safe refuge that helped her make sense of her experience. He did this by not wearing cologne, keeping the door open to the counseling room and by making sure that he never blocked Wendy’s exit from the room.

The Counselor Helped Wendy Stay Grounded in the Present

In working with Wendy, the counselor strove to stay connected and assisted her whenever she felt like “escaping into herself.” Wendy and the counselor found it helpful to make sure that she kept both of her feet on the floor and when he sensed she was starting to “hide in her head,” he would quietly call her back by gently asking her to feel the floor under her feet and remind her of Christ’s presence and love for her.

The Counselor Helped Wendy Put Words on the Troubling Images

Initially, Wendy was too scared to share the specifics of her troubling story. The counselor assured her that this hesitation was perfectly normal and he took those opportunities to simply listen to “safe” things that bothered her. As she learned to trust him, he gained entry into her imagination.

The Counselor Helped Wendy Tie the Troubling Images to the Troubling Affections Experienced in Her Heart

Once Wendy felt safe with her counselor, she began to open up and express fear, anger, and shame associated with her abuse. As Wendy brought these subjects up, she and the counselor explored how these troubling affections had broken her communion with Christ. They specifically looked at ways that Christ had sustained her during and after this troubling chapter in her life.

The Counselor Helped Wendy Apply the Gospel to the Affections of Her Heart

After some time, Wendy and her counselor began examining specific situations that tended to trigger her past abuse. Wendy committed to memory Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind (yetser) is set on you, because he trusts in you.”

When triggered, Wendy would recite this verse and then ask herself, “In whom am I trusting?” Wendy learned to confess her sin whenever the answer to that question was not Christ. She also learned to confess her faith for his grace and goodness in sustaining her through the triggering event.

The Counselor Helped Wendy Craft a New Self-Identity That Glorified God through Her Suffering

Over the next two years, Wendy made tremendous progress and by the time she graduated from counseling, she had started holding Bible studies in her home for women who had been sexually abused. By God’s grace, and through the patient help of a persistent counselor, Wendy’s self-identity changed from vanquished to victor (Rom. 8:37).

Join the Conversation

Wendy’s case serves as an example of how one can apply the gospel more effectively if he or she understands how to enter through the gate (yetser) of the person’s heart. As you think about those to whom you minister, how can you make use of the imagination’s role in inner heart dynamics to help them grow in grace?

[i] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 321.

[ii] Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 2003), 465-466.

[iii] Richard Sibbes, Light From Heaven (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace, 2001), 121-122.

[iv] Here I distinguish the affections from the emotions. Affections include the deep-seated desires and cravings that move a person to or away from something. Emotions are primarily reactive in that they surface in response to certain mindsets. For an interesting treatment of this topic, see Robert Kellemen, Soul Physicians (Winona Lake, IL: BMH, 2007), 164-165.

[v] Wendy is a real person. I have changed her name and some of the elements of her story to protect her identity.

[vi] The pastor had received this cologne as a Christmas gift and it was the first time he had worn it.


3 thoughts on “Renewing the Gate: Richard Sibbes on the Imagination

  1. Pingback: How to Use the Puritans in Counseling « Standing on Shoulders

  2. Thank you for this blog, Todd. I enjoyed seeing how Puritan theology can impact ministry today. You helped me understand better how troubling images in the mind impact our heart. I also thought your material on how the counselor can make counselees comfortable. Blessings to your ministry, Adam. 

  3. Todd, the progression that is triggered as an object enters the ‘heart’s gate’ is described here in a way that I found very helpful; and even though the counselor reveals that applying this understanding in practice doesn’t provide a “quick fix”, it certainly offers the counselor insight into how to proceed with compassion and understanding as he/she journeys toward solutions with the hurting person. Thanks also for showing practical applications through the case study.

Comments are closed.