I recently saw the movie, “I Can Only Imagine.” I encourage all Christians to see this movie at the theater. Don’t wait for the DVD, see it now! It’s amazing and powerful on the silver screen. The story will encourage you with grace and inspire you with hope.
The song, written by Bart Millard of Mercy Me, is about imagining what it will be like in Heaven (watch for Tuesday’s Got Questions? We answer: What Will Heaven be like?). The song was released in 1999 and it went on to win numerous awards, including #5 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary, #71 on the Hot 100 and Dove Awards for Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year and Song of the Year (2002). Bart Millard also won the Songwriter of the Year award in 2002.
The Story Behind the Song
“I Can Only Imagine,” has become the biggest-selling Christian single of all time, but the story behind the song is bigger than anyone can imagine. It’s a story of God’s grace and redemption and the transformative power of Jesus.
Bart Millard is quoted as having said he wrote the lyrics in only a few minutes, scribbling them in a journal as they readily came to his mind. But in reality, the joy this song imparts flows from a lifetime of pain.
Set in Greenville, TX, the movie begins in 1985 with young Bart Millard working in his grandmother’s yard, earning a few dollars, and riding his bike home. He appears to be a nice young boy with a carefree life, a sweet smile, and a great imagination. But appearances are not always true.
Bart’s mother, Adele, is caring, loving, and even encouraging, telling Bart, “You’re a dreamer, Bart. That’s good.” But his father, Arthur, is none of those things. Belt in hand, he responds to Bart with “I’m gonna teach you something, Bart. Dreams don’t pay the bills. Nothing good comes from it. All it does is keep you from all this…from knowing what’s real.” (he waves his hands to indicate their home and lifestyle).
Arthur’s anger and abusive behavior, we learn, is the result of a lifetime of broken dreams. He is a bitter man, an abusive husband, and father and has no desire to hear of any dreams that Bart might have. At one time he had dreamed of a football career, but now working as a mechanic, he takes out his anger and disappointments by abusing Adele and Bart. [Note: The abuse is handled very well, with very little obvious display of abuse. However, the message is clear. Arthur Millard is a very abusive husband and father.)
The story unfolds as Adele sends Bart to a summer church camp. There he meets a young girl named Shannon, who gives Bart a kiss on the cheek and tells him that someday they will marry. At the camp, Bart had experienced a spiritually transforming week, but when he returns home his father informs him that his mother is gone. She has left them, and she has left Bart alone with an angry and abusive father.
As a teenager, Bart is now dating Shannon (the girl from summer camp). Bart tries to earn his father’s approval by playing football, a sport in which he excels. His father shows some interest and he pushes Bart to play harder and to hit harder. When Bart plays more aggressively, he sadly sustains a career-ending injury. Laying in a hospital bed, with both legs broken, Bart is visited by his father who asks, “What’d they say?” When Bart tells him that he’s been told he can’t play football, Arthur responds coldly with, “For how long?” Bart’s answer: “Forever,” and then he adds, “Well, that’s disappointing.” To which Arthur responds, “Yeah, it is,” and walks out of the hospital room.
Having to replace football in his school schedule, Bart signs up for the only class available — glee club. He soon finds out that he can sing….really sing! Knowing he would be ridiculed by his father, Bart hides his new interest from him. Arthur eventually finds out and reminds Bart not to follow his dreams. But Bart did follow his dreams and his beautiful voice and singing talent set him on a course to pursue a career in music, which eventually led to the formation of the band, Mercy Me.
Touring the country, singing wherever they could, and trying to “make it big,” Mercy Me was moderately successful. No longer in a relationship with Shannon, Bart hit a crisis point in life and knew his past was now something he had to deal with. So, He takes a break from the band’s tour and returns home to confront his father and deal with “unfinished business,” but at home, he finds a very different man than the one he knew. He has become a man Bart could never have imagined, but a man who is also dying.
The rest of the story tells of the transformative change in Barts father, the struggle Bart had in forgiving his father, and the grace of God in working all things together for good. Bart says of his dad, “I saw God transform him from a man that I hated into the man I wanted to become.”
This movie is a “must see” for every Christian. In Arthur Millard, we see the broken spirit of a man without any joy, without any hope, without Jesus. He was a man being beaten down by the world and his own sins. We see the harmful effects of a dysfunctional childhood, and how a victim of abuse struggles to forgive, find peace, and be an overcomer by the power of Christ. We also learn about the history of “I Can Only Imagine” and how award-winning singer Amy Grant, who was originally scheduled to debut and record the song, turned it over to Bart, saying to him, “This is your story. This is your song.”
A Special Song, A More Special Story
Yes, the song is special. It was a “career maker” for Mercy Me. It is the best-selling Christian single of all time and has sold 2.5 million copies. It has been certified platinum three times by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). As of 2018, it is the only Christian song to achieve that honor.
But the story is even better. It is the best story ever told. It is a reminder that no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s grace and forgiveness. It is a real-life example of God’s ability to change and transform. It is a story of the grace of God the gives to us “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness….that He may be glorified.” (Isa 61:3).
And, the movie evokes an imagining about the hope of glory, our eternal destiny — Heaven. Yes, we can imagine right now, what it will be like. And, we can also reason about what awaits us. There are “glimpses” in the Bible of Heaven, and also answers to the questions Bart Millard poses in his song.
When we enter into glory:
- Will we dance for Jesus, or in awe be still?
- Will we stand in His presence, or to our knees will we fall?
- Will we sing hallelujah, or will we be able to speak at all?
Watch for Tuesday’s Got Questions? to find out how the Bible answers these questions. And go see the movie, “I Can Only Imagine.” You won’t be disappointed.
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