Love That Imagines The Unimaginable

Seated with my sorrowing friend in the dimly-lit restaurant that mirrored the bitterness of life's darkest hour, our wearied hearts found inexplicable sweetness in rehearsing the faithfulness of our Father. Though nothing could erase the raw reality of our inability to make sense of the sudden and tragic loss of a beloved son, we were women who had both experienced the goodness of God in the midst of seemingly senseless suffering enough to know our thoughts were far too low to reach the height of his own. 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9

Not only did we find sweetness in rehearsing the faithfulness of our Father, we also found it in rehearsing the faithfulness of friends beautifully gifted at comforting the shattered heart. Precious friends who have a way of humbly picking up the pieces and patiently holding them as they wait for God's work of restoration. Priceless friends who don't rush the process or dictate its pace, but who hold onto hope for those too broken to hold on themselves.  

In that conversation there was something shared that I had never thought about before, but that I've thought much about since. At the time what I perceived to be a little thing has actually proven to be a big thing. My friend had no intention to instruct me as she poured out her heart, but in sharing her story she dished up much for me to learn. Sometimes a small change is able to make a large difference, and that's exactly what happened when I applied her wisdom of experience. And in this case, that wisdom involved my giving greater care to how I use the following three words:

I can't imagine. 

As a people gifted with imaginations as vivid as ours, it's strange that a popular phrase like this would fall so easily from our lips. And in light of how boldly we engage a wildly active imagination when it comes to success, it's surprising how brazenly we disengage a weirdly inactive imagination when it comes to suffering. But considering how hardwired we are with protective instincts that have us distancing ourselves from pain, it's actually neither strange nor surprising. Especially considering that those protections kick in without thoughtful intention. Protections that are powerful enough to prompt an emotional and mental distancing, even when a physical one is impossible.

When it comes to pain avoidance, emotional and mental distancing involves our establishing an invisible divide that separates us from those who are suffering. One of the most effective ways to do that is to disengage our best imagination, drawing a line in the sand between us and those who have been thrust into the pain of their worst imagination.  

Disengagement becomes the invisible line that distinguishes us from those living out relational trauma and suffering:  

I can't imagine being abused. I can't imagine being betrayed. I can't imagine being divorced. I can't imagine being widowed.

Disengagement serves as the invisible line that divides us from those living out deep parental sorrow: 

I can't imagine not being able to bear children. I can't imagine have a child fighting against cancer. I can't imagine having a child with a drug addiction. I can't imagine enduring the loss of a child to suicide. I can't imagine my child ever declaring unbelief in God. 

We don't declare the insufficiency of our imaginations because they are too weak to mentally step into the pain of others, we declare their insufficiency because our protections are too strong. It's not that we can't imagine, it's that we don't want to imagine. It incites too much fear and anxiety. Whether we do so intentionally or not, we disengage our imagination because the unimaginable is painful.  

But it's in the arena of the unimaginable where sufferers find themselves fighting against the darkness. So while our declarations that "we can't imagine" may not be spoken with intention to isolate, by default that's unfortunately what they often do. They're not words that offer support of our comforting presence, rather words that can sound to the hearer like a silent declaration that the sufferer is beyond our proven reach. And when spoken with an air of recoiling repulsion, like the sufferer is beneath our prideful reach. 

I can't imagine.  

I'm so grateful that this isn't true. I'm so thankful for the love that energizes me to at least try to imagine the suffering of others enough to stand with them in the arena of the unimaginable. That even when it's difficult, I have a love that enlivens me enough to enter into the raw realities of this fallen world. A love far greater than my own. A love freely given from my Savior who suffered the unimaginable. A love flowing from the blood of my merciful Redeemer who, in bringing me into fellowship of his unimaginable suffering, has set me free to humbly enter into the suffering of others. 

I can't imagine.

I'm so grateful that this isn't true. By grace I can imagine. But only if I'm willing to release my protective grip on the false hope that I'm somehow exempt from living out my worst nightmare. Only if I'm willing to loosen my prideful grip on temporal security, and instead bow my knee in humility and cling to an eternal hope. An eternal hope that comes with a light powerful enough to overwhelm the darkness in even the most unimaginable arena of suffering.

I can't imagine. 

No, this isn't true. Because of Christ I can imagine. And in being fearless to imagine the worst possibilities of earthly sorrow, I exercise my mind to imagine the best promises of eternal joy. 

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!" Ephesians 3:20-21

Understanding what I've written won't incite a needless defense of the good and proper use of an innocent phrase through categorical condemnation. That would be missing the heart of this message. Because this isn't about decrying a verbal expression as much as it's about encouraging the thoughtful engagement of the imagination in a way that doesn't unwittingly isolate those we desire to love. 

In a dimly-lit restaurant a sorrowing friend spoke truth into my life about the needs of the suffering, and ever since I've asked God to grace-stretch my best imagination to reach the darkest corners of a sorrower's worst imagination. I've experienced the sting of cold isolation that can come with standing in the middle of one my darkest nightmares, and shining the warm light of Christ inside the arena of suffering has become one of my brightest dreams. 

I can't imagine. 

Lord, help us to know that we can imagine. For your glory, give us the grace to release our grip on the prideful protection of a temporal falsehood so that we can cling to the humbling hope of an eternal reality. Father, please engage our imaginations with your love! 



I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes would see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine, I can only imagine

I can only imagine when that day comes
And I find myself standing in the sun
I can only imagine when all I will do
Is forever, forever worship you
I can only imagine, I can only imagine

Lyrics: Bart Millard