I’ll never forget the first time I heard I Can Only Imagine. Our church’s youth group had just returned from a Texas youth event where a new band had sung their debut song. It so impacted our youth and workers that they came back and played the song for us.
Now, the story behind the song has become a major motion picture. Bart Millard, lead vocals for MercyMe, was abandoned by his mom and left with his abusive father—a monster, in Bart’s own words. After years of abuse, Bart left home with plans never to return, to run as far from his father as he possibly could.
But God was at work.
As only God can do, He transformed Bart’s dad into a new creation, the father Bart had always wanted, the man Bart wanted to become. He was able to experience first-hand the redemptive work of God in His father.
As I watched the movie, I was overwhelmed with God’s grace. We always love the encouraging stories where God shows up, answers our prayers, and does a mighty work. It’s a true testament to God’s ability to change lives when nothing else can.
But sometimes we don’t get the story that makes a good movie. Sometimes we get the unanswered prayers. Sometimes we experience the abusive dad who dies before he changes, before we get to reconcile. Sometimes the marriage doesn’t survive. Sometimes the sick child isn’t healed.
Life isn’t always as tidy as the movies.
While I am overwhelmed with gratitude that Bart opened his life to us and encouraged us with his story, I also find myself grieving with those who didn’t experience the happy ending. I weep with the child who buried his father and the hope of a changed life and reconciled relationship. I mourn with the child whose mom never came home. I ache with the wife whose husband never returns. I’ve walked that path. I continue to walk that path with my children in many ways as we live in a non-Hollywood ending life.
But God is still good. Even if you don’t get the made-for-movies ending, there is still redemption. Even if God doesn’t change that person who hurt you, He has the ability to change you through the pain. Maybe your redemption isn’t about reconciling you as you expected, but maybe your redemption is about the mighty work God does in you and through you because of the pain and disappointment in this life.
For those of us who didn’t get the Hollywood ending we dreamed of, we can still learn much from Bart’s life. Here are three lessons I gleaned through the movie:
Face your pain. Bart spent all of his childhood hiding from the pain inflicted on him by his father. He wore a mask, pretending everything was fine. But it wasn’t until he returned home after months away, faced his dad, and chose to deal with the injustices dealt him in this life that he was able to heal and be used mightily by God.
So many people choose to hide behind masks. They carefully craft their story so others only see the highlights, the moments they want others to see. They act as if their home is happy when their marriage is hanging on by threads. They pretend their kids are perfect when in reality the cops were recently called because the teenager was out of control. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.
You know what Jesus called people who pretended everything was perfect when it was really falling apart? Hypocrites. Play-actors. God doesn’t want us hiding behind masks. He wants us to be real. Authentic. Honest. Open. It’s only when we are honest with ourselves and with others that we begin to find healing.
Therefore confess your sins [your pains, your disappointments, your hurts] to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16
Forgive. Years before Bart reconciled with his dad, he was challenged to forgive, to name one person and offer forgiveness. It was not until he learned of his dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis that he was ready to let go of the past and choose to walk in obedience. The decision to forgive set him free to become all God wanted him to be.
Forgiveness is not an option for the Christian. In the Lord ’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to pray that we would be forgiven just as we forgive others’ sins against us (Matthew 6:12). Honestly, I don’t want God to forgive me as I forgive others. I want Him to be far more generous with me…and we know how lavishly He loves and forgives us.
Forgiveness is a force far greater than you can imagine unless you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s also something I’m not sure we can do on our own; instead, it’s something God does through us when we choose to surrender, to ask Him to give us the strength to let go of our hurts, decide to take that step of obedience. And, the freedom we experience when forgiveness flows through us is inexplicable.
Forgiveness is far less about the person you are forgiving and far more about setting yourself free from a prison of anger and bitterness.
Let God use your story. Most of us don’t have a nice little story that wraps up with a neat little bow. Instead, we all experience hurts and pains, disappointments and losses.
But God intends for us to use our stories. He tells us to comfort others with the comfort we have received (2 Corinthians 1:4). He wants to raise us from the death and destruction to show that He is the God of new life, the God who redeems all things. He wants us to use our stories to show His faithfulness to bring beauty from ashes, to prove His word true when He says all things work for good to those who love Him.
You can be assured that Bart has a heart of compassion for children who come from abused families. My heart is drawn to others who have walked through the pain of adultery and divorce. My children have hearts for other kids who have lost a parent or watched their parents divorce.
Our stories are what make us who we are. It’s through our stories that we come to know God, experience His healing. It’s in the trials of this life we find His goodness and grace lavished upon us. It’s in the wilderness of pain and despair we see Him faithfully provide for our needs each and every day. It’s our stories where others see hope and joy and overwhelming peace that draw them to the Father. It’s our stories where God gets to show up and show off, pointing the world back to Him.
I don’t know your story. But I do know my story. I know my family’s stories. I know the pain of loss and rejection. I know what it is to not get the Hollywood ending.
I also know redemption, a new story that has only come about after years of clinging to my Father. My story isn’t like Bart’s where I received the gift of reconciliation. My story is different—but it’s still a story of God’s redemption, of His faithfulness to walk me through untold pain. It’s still a story of a life changed by God’s grace—my life forever altered by the love of a Savior who has given me a story of redemption. It might not have been the story I wanted or expected, but it is beautiful nonetheless.
And if you haven’t experienced His redemption in your story? Don’t give up because He isn’t finished. It may not look anything like what you expected. It may not be a story with a Hollywood ending. But you can be assured He is still at work and it will be the perfect portrait of a life redeemed.