“Did Bart Millard ever talk to his mother again after she left?”
That’s the question I asked myself after watching the film, I Can Only Imagine. When you’ve only got a minute of screen time to tell a years-long story, details can often be hard to find. Thankfully, Bart’s memoir fills in some of the gaps.
When Adele (Bart’s mom) left Greenville for San Antonio, she and her 8-year boy soon drifted apart. She would keep in touch and visit on the occasional holiday, but the 6-hour drive inevitably took a toll on their relationship.
Distance Isn’t Always Healing
One summer, Bart stayed with his mom and her husband, Lawrence, but the whole thing turned out to be a disaster. Bart loved his mom but hated Lawrence. He decided he preferred his abusive dad in Greenville to his annoying stepdad in San Antonio.
When Arthur (Bart’s dad) learned of his cancer diagnosis, Adele drifted back into Bart’s life. She often came home to Greenville to care for Arthur and the boys.
After his father’s death, Bart came across an old pile of letters his parents had written to one another during that time. Neither one was satisfied with how their marriage ended. Pain and regret existed, but there was also reconciliation.
Adele had forgiven Arthur for his anger; Arthur had forgiven Adele for leaving. Still, Bart couldn’t bring himself to forgive his mother for walking out of his life.
How Should We Forgive?
It turns out; forgiveness isn’t easy.
In Matthew 18, Peter comes to Jesus and asks him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him” (Matt 18:21)? Per the usual, Jesus’ answer is wrapped up in a challenge: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (18:22).
To illustrate this, Jesus tells a parable of a king and two servants. The first owed the king a fantastic sum of money (18:24). But, out of pity, the king forgave his debt (v. 27).
Surprisingly, the servant’s next move was to go out and shake down a fellow servant for a comparatively minuscule amount of cash (v. 28). Unaffected by the king’s generosity, this servant was merciless: ‘throw him in jail until I get my money’ (v. 30).
The king didn’t appreciate that very much.
Incensed at this servant’s inability to reflect and extend his mercy (vv. 31-33), the king recalled the debt and ordered him locked up until he could repay (v. 34).
Jesus closes the parable with a summary word of warning, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).
Must We Forgive To Be Forgiven?
You could imagine a confused Peter asking, “Are you trying to say God will withdraw His forgiveness if we don’t forgive others?” You’ve probably got a similar question.
Well, breathe easy. I don’t think Jesus told this story to make us wonder whether God’s forgiveness is as fickle as we are. No, He is faithful to forgive even when we are faithless (2 Tim 2:13; cf. 1 John 1:9).
What Jesus is saying here—much like when he teaches us to pray “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12)—is that the forgiveness we receive from God is intimately bound up with the forgiveness we extend to others.
If we fail to grasp the extent to which we’re forgiven, then we’ll only forgive the people we deem worthy. On the flip side, if we withhold forgiveness from others, then we show just how little we think of what God has done for us.
If we find ourselves in either place, we need to fall on our knees and pray.
The Weight of Unforgiveness
In some ways, Adele’s leaving hurt Bart more than any of the beatings he’d received from his dad. Burdened by the weight of childhood abandonment and rejection, he refused to forgive his mother and held on to that bitterness for years.
If we fail to grasp the extent to which we’re forgiven, then we’ll only forgive the people we deem worthy.
Even when she moved back to Greenville after Lawrence’s death in 1992, Bart remained distant. It was only through counseling and much wrestling with the Lord that he realized how badly he needed to forgive his mom.
As Bart attests, the crushing burden of unforgiveness will squeeze all the life out of your walk with Jesus. We need to pray that God would give us the grace to forgive those who’ve hurt us in the past—whether they deserve it or not.
Today, Adele is an integral part of Bart’s family life. She’s also MercyMe’s #1 fan.
If you’re struggling to grasp the depths of what God has done for you in Christ, or if you want to know how better to forgive just as Jesus forgave (Col. 3:13), then take a look at our I Can Only Imagine Journal and video series. There, you’ll learn more about what God did for Bart and what He wants to do for you as well.
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