After Bart Millard lost his father, he channeled his grief into the hit song I Can Only Imagine, which is Millard’s idea of what heaven is like.
Millard’s father died of cancer when the musician was just 19 years old. Not only is there an I Can Only Imagine movie on the horizon, but the song has also helped many others heal, even ten years after his father’s death.
Watch the I Can Only Imagine trailer and find out the inspiration behind the song.
The Story Behind the I Can Only Image Song
Mercy went on earn two Dove Awards for ‘Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year’ and ‘Song of the Year’. Millard also earned the Dove ‘Songwriter of the Year’ award at the same ceremony.
Since then, the song has been certified 2x platinum RIAA for sales of over two million digital downloads, and is the first (and only) Christian single to reach that milestone.
However, the original intent of the song wasn’t necessarily to help others work through their grief — it was a way for Millard to answer the questions he’d been asking himself.
Though the song became one that the Christian community now turns to, it didn’t start out that way. Instead, it was a way for a grieving son to answer the difficult questions he was asking about his father’s death.
Millard had been a practicing Christian since he was 13 years old and he knew, and believed, many of the fantastic stories about heaven. However, he found that, as a teenager, that didn’t help his grief after his father passed away.
The clichés he continued to hear, like that his father was in a better place, didn’t provide him with any comfort. People kept telling him that if his father could choose whether to stay in heaven or return to Earth, he’d choose to stay in heaven.
Again, though, this didn’t help Millard heal. He struggled with what he’d believed his whole life and what he felt in the moment, and he wondered why his father was taken from him when he was.
The Beginning of an Idea
Millard started to write the sentence “I can only imagine” on all sorts of items. This phrase meant two things to him.
First, it was a way for him to remind himself that whatever wonderful things he father was seeing and experiencing in heaven were beyond Millard’s grasp — he couldn’t even imagine what heaven was like.
The second meaning was something he wanted to dig into more: what is it that makes heaven so wonderful, a place where people would rather stay than leave?
A Second Chance
It wasn’t until a few years later that Millard came across that phrase in an old journal he once wrote song lyrics in. The phrase had been written multiple times in the journal, and Millard just couldn’t ignore it anymore.
He decided to think about that sentence even more and help the idea evolve. It happened quickly and Millard wrote the song in just five minutes. You could argue that it took ten years to write the song, though, since it sat in Millard’s heart (and journal) for a decade.
MercyMe, An Unexpected Success
Before the I Can Only Imagine movie was a possibility, the song had to be heard and loved by millions. First, it found its place on MercyMe’s debut album with INO Records in 2001, called Almost There.
It was quick to resonate with listeners and the band found that they had so much more of a response to the song than they’d expected. People turned to the song when they lost a loved one and even ended up playing it at funeral services.
People would even show the band pictures of loved ones they lost after concerts. Millard knew there was something more there, another, deeper way to connect with his audience, and he wanted to explore it.
The Touching Video
Now there’s an I Can Only Imagine trailer to watch, but before that was their official music video. The video featured regular, everyday people as well as famous musicians.
Each person held an empty picture frame, which stood for the loss of a loved one. Later on in the video, those picture frames aren’t empty anymore, but instead hold images of the loved ones. It’s a touching video that leaves most people drying their eyes afterwards.
One person who shows up in the video is Tammy Trent. She’s holding a picture of her husband, who died in a diving accident. The photograph was taken a mere half hour before the accident, making it even that much more poignant.
When Trent was contacted about helping out with the music video, she was honored, and immediately agreed. She feels that she’s carried the song with her ever since her husband passed away.
A Promise Kept
Aside from touching lives and launching a heartfelt movie, the song is also letting Millard’s keep a promise that he made to his sons not long before he passed away.
His father had set up an annuity fund for both of his sons that would pay them over the course of 10 years, as a way to make sure they were always taken care of instead of blowing through the money too quickly.
His father promised his sons that even after than 10 years was up, he’d still find a way to take care of them. With the major success of the song, it seems as though Millard’s father certainly found a way to keep his promise.
This didn’t hit Millard immediately, but instead he realized it mid-interview with a radio station. He remembered that promise his father had made and then realized that he had absolutely kept it.
The annuity finished in November of 2001, which is the same week that the song hit the number one spot on the radio charts.
Are You Ready to See This Movie?
You can also purchase Bart Millard’s new book, “I Can Only Imagine: A Memoir” that coincides with the movie.
Go behind the scenes of Bart’s life—and the movie based on it—to discover how God repaired a broken family, prepared Bart for ministry through music, and wrote the words on his heart that would change his life forever.
Are you excited to see this movie? I can’t listen to this song without shedding a few tears. How does it make you feel? Scroll down and let us know what you think in the comments below!