Behind the Song: I Can Only Imagine

I recently heard someone publicly say they did not like the song, “I Can Only Imagine.”  Their reason was that they could not imagine dancing when we get to heaven.

The scriptures include several references to dancing before the Lord.  These include:will I dance for you Jesus

  • “And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.”
    2 Samuel 6:14 (KJV)
  • “Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.”
    Psalm 149:3 (KJV)
  • “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs”
    Psalm 150:4 (KJV)
  • “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
    Ecclesiastes 3:4 (KJV)

So apparently, God has no problem with dancing.  I don’t doubt that there will be those that are dancing before him in heaven, just as there will be those that are singing and making music.

But, how did “I Can Only Imagine,” become a hit for the group MercyMe?

i can only imagineThe song was written by band member, Bart Millard.  The origin of the song comes from one of the most difficult times in his life, the death of his father.

His father died when he was only 18 years old.  He says he heard the phrase “your Dad’s in a better place” so many times he didn’t know what to do or say.  He remembered, “When my father died of cancer in 1991, he left me with the assurance that he was headed to a better place. He used to always tell me that I was getting the raw end of the deal because I had to stick around here.”  As a Christian, he knew his father was in a better place, but struggled with the how and why of his Dad’s death.

He began to write the phrase, “I Can only imagine” on everything he could get his hands on and always felt peace when writing this phrase.  He explained this in an interview, saying “I did know he was in a better place and that would set me off thinking about what he was seeing. Getting strength he never had here and seeing things he couldn’t fathom here. And it really brought peace and hope to me. At the same time, I really wanted to know, ‘God, what’s so great about there that he would want to leave me or not come back?’ Call it selfish, but it’s just being human.”

Years passed and in 1999, Millard was working on lyrics for some songs.  He stumbled across the phrase he’d written so many times all those years to my knees fallbefore.  Millard explains, “So I decided to expound on what had been in my heart for so many years. It was one of those ‘God things’ where it was literally written in five minutes…It was written in five minutes, but at the same time it was something that was on my heart for 10 years.”

Millard also composed the music to the song. The song was originally meant to be fast, but later the melody was slowed down.

After being released on a previous project, “I Can Only Imagine” became the lead single on the 2001 album Almost There.  Two years later the song became a most requested song with radio stations and eventually broke into the secular market.

i can only imagine 2The song became the first single for any Christian artists to go platinum.

Millard says that “I just kept seeing all these people holding picture frames that are empty because we all carry these people with us in some way. I’ve had so many people after a show pull out a picture of someone they’ve lost. These people embrace these photos and I just thought how can we tap into that?”   This became the inspiration for the music video.

For me personally, the song was released shortly after my Dad’s death from cancer.   Although I missed him, it helped me to remember he’s in a better place, why he would never want to come back and that I’ll see him again one day.

What can you “only imagine” about heaven?   Who do you carry around with you that is now with Jesus?