The Theology of the Shack

Many of us have been fascinated with the images and the message of The Shack, by Paul Young. Some have reacted badly to it, saying it does not match up with their theology. Others find it both biblical and liberating. And still others are left simply bewildered by it.

The Shack is, to me, a Christian allegory like The Chronicles of Narnia, Pilgrim’s Progress, etc. (Eugene Peterson, according to his endorsement on the cover of the book, seems to agree.) As with all allegories, it is helpful, even necessary, to understand the meaning of the images and the ideas if one is to properly enjoy it. I was fortunate to have spent some time around Paul Young personally and I find him to be thoughtful, insightful, sincere and biblical in his thinking and very relational with God and his neighbor. What he is NOT is traditional. And therein, I think, lies his great benefit to us.

He challenges many of our religious notions and makes us re-evaluate many of the ways we have seen things, some of which need to be challenged, if we are to mature in our relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So, I have taken time here to layout the theology as I see it presented in The Shack. (The occasional parentheses with a “p” and a number are the page number in the book where the text comes from so you can evaluate for yourself what it means.)

The Great Sadness

The Shack is the story of how a great tragedy has affected the life and family of a man named Mack. The story is narrated by a man named Willie, three years (p12) after God intervened in Mack’s life and seven years (p11) after The Great Sadness began. Willie is a friend of over 20 years and a good compassionate Christian.

Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) was born in the Midwest. His father was an alcoholic and a wife-abuser who, whenever he came home drunk, repeatedly and brutally beat her and Mack from a very early age. Mack’s father was also a deacon in a very toxic, Calvinist church. He hid his abusiveness from his fellow church members. Mack’s eventual cries for help for his mother and himself went unheeded by the elders who sided with Mack’s father.

When Mack got home from sharing his story with a church elder, his father tied him to a tree, and for two days, alternated between beating him with a belt and quoting bible verses to him to teach him some respect. Mack left home early and never looked back (p8). His bitterness and hatred of his father fueled much of his life, and Mack blamed God and His people for allowing all this to happen to him. At the time the story begins, Mack is a married father of 5 children. Due to a loving, Christian wife, Nan, Mack had returned to church, but he had forgiven no one, especially God, for his past situations.

Then the story gets worse, much worse! At the end of a summer just before school begins, Mack takes his three youngest children on a camping trip to Wallowa Lake State Park near the Columbia River Gorge. Everything is going well until on the last day, his 5-year-old daughter, Missy, is kidnapped by what proves to be a brutal serial killer of young girls. Mack’s worst fears are realized when her dress and her blood are found on the floor of an old mountain shack. Her body is not found, but everyone knows she is dead. Mack blames himself but he blames God more for what has transpired, and from that point on, his life is dominated by “The Great Sadness” that colors all that he is and all that he does. His bitterness toward the killer – and toward God – dominates and defines him going forward.

The Letter from Papa

The allegory is designed to ask the question about how a supposedly loving, all-powerful God can allow bad things, even horrific things, to happen to good people. Mack, like many people, believes that God should have prevented it. He wonders “where was God when this bad thing happened?” What transpires next is God’s intervention in Mack’s life to address that very issue.

One March weekend, seven years later, Mack is home alone. His wife is out of town visiting friends along with his other four children. A snowstorm pounds the area in which he lives, such that no one can drive in or out of the area. Mack goes out to shovel some snow and discovers a letter in his mailbox. It has no stamp and is obviously hand-delivered, yet it is later determined that his mailman did not bring it.

After determining that it was not sent or delivered by anyone in the neighborhood, Mack is thrown completely off-kilter, because the letter purports to be from “Papa,” his wife’s personal name for God. (Nan lovingly calls God “Papa” because of the closeness of her relationship with Him). The letter warmly invites Mack to come visit “Papa” at the very shack where Missy’s dress and blood were found.

Against the advice of his best friend, neighbor and fellow church-goer, Willie, and without letting anyone else know what he is doing, Mack decides to go see if it is really Papa who has invited him to come. He knows it could be the killer, luring him back to the shack to do him further harm. He understands that the idea is totally implausible, and yet something about it draws him back to the shack.

As much as Willie thinks it is a bad idea, and realizing that Mack is going no matter what Willie says, he eventually agrees to loan Mack his four-wheel drive truck on the outside chance that Mack may be right. He tells Mack, “God doesn’t do stuff like that or at least I have never heard of such a thing. But it does not mean that He couldn’t if He wanted to (p71).

There are times when you choose to believe something that would normally be considered absolutely irrational. It does not mean that it is actually irrational, but it is surely not rational. Perhaps there is a suprarationality: reason beyond the normal definitions of fact or data-based logic, something that only makes sense if you can see a bigger picture of reality. Maybe that is where faith fits in (p67).

The Shack is Transformed

Mack barely makes it through the snow and the blizzard only to find that the shack is empty, abandoned, cold and showing no sign that anyone has been there since Missy died. After exhausting his anger and frustration breaking what little furniture still exists in the shack, he falls asleep on the floor of the cabin. Sometime later he awakens and finds himself in what can only be called an alternate universe. The world around him is rich and warm, a spring-like atmosphere with birds and animals aplenty. Vegetation is everywhere blooming and the shack has taken on the look of a sturdy, idyllic, log cabin in top-notch condition.

At this point the fictional story becomes an allegory using non-traditional images to explain the theology being proposed by The Shack. Unable to relate to the allegorical images, some have blasted the book as heretical, demonic and dangerous. Unable to relate to His parables, many religious people of Jesus’ day made the same accusations about His teaching. I read one fundamentalist who insists that The Shack is a veiled reference to eastern religion involving layers of chakra, etc. Based on my personal opportunity to be with the author, nothing could be farther from the truth. Many have rejected the Shack because its message does not line up with their man-made doctrines. Many religious people in Jesus day rejected Him for the same reason.

Commentary on Metaphor and Allegory

I take the story to be just what it purports to be, an allegory or metaphorical presentation designed to help us redefine some twisted religious views of the nature about God and His behaviors. So, I am writing this to address those metaphors and compare them to orthodoxy and biblical truth. As we were all taught in grade school, metaphors limp. They help us to see things without purporting to be 100% accurate in their portrayals. For instance, Jesus said He is the door to the flock (Jn 10:7-9), but no one expects to see him with hinges or door knobs implanted. With that in mind, let’s start to unpack this allegory, at least from my point of view.

The Nature and Image of God

Mack has come into the presence of three people who claim to be the Father (Papa), the Son and the Holy Spirit who seem to be expecting him and who warmly invite him to join them for a couple of days. Further confounding the brain is the fact that Papa is appearing in the form of an upper-middle-aged black woman who is loving, kind, patient, folksy, over-weight and a great cook. It is explained to him later that because of his issues with his own father, Mack would have been less likely to hear well from a male version of the Father (p91-92, 93). Papa is also called Elousia (God of all being).

Jesus is a youngish middle-eastern looking man (p84) who has a carpenter shop out back and all manner of miraculous skills. Jesus loves Papa (and her cooking) and He loves us. And because he loves us, He came down among us, right in the midst of our human mess and dwelt among us as one of us. In the book of Hebrews (Heb 2:17-18; 5: 7), we are told tell us that He was just like us in every way. Jesus tells us that everything He did, we will do and more (Jn 14:12).

On earth, Jesus limited Himself so that He could save us (p106). When Jesus came among us, although He was fully divine in His being, He poured Himself out (Php 2:5-11) leaving His superpowers in Heaven. (The theological term is kenosis.) It was the level of His relationship to the Trinity that empowered Him to work mighty miracles while here on earth. Papa tells Mackenzie, that “although Jesus is also fully God, He has never drawn upon His nature as God to do anything” (p99). Jesus used the same power of the Holy Spirit that we are empowered to use to accomplish all of His signs and wonders. In the Book of Acts, we see Peter and Paul working all of the same signs and wonders through their relationship with the Trinity.

Jesus tells Mack that what He created as the Word, the second person of the Trinity, He understood at some level and was blessed by it. But after He became human like us, He could enjoy His creation more and differently as a human (p109). He was talking about the upside of being one of us, but the main reason He came down to be among us was His love for us.

Finally, we are introduced to the Holy Spirit who is presented as a small, distinctly-Asian woman” (p84) who goes by the name, Sarayu. Sarayu says she has a thing for gardens (p134). The Holy Spirit is the gardener of our souls, the sanctifier of our life. The process of sanctification is His (Her) purview, pulling up our weeds and replacing them with beautiful plants. Sarayu and Mack spent a morning clearing out a garden and even stripped an area of nice flowers for a spot to plant something even better and more extraordinary later. Eventually, she revealed to Mack that the garden they were working in that day was his Mack’s soul (p138).

Sarayu tells Mack, “The world looks to us to be a mess, but God sees it as a fractal (p129). From 30,000 feet, one can see patterns that God is weaving to make sense of it. A fractal is a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales. (The movie does a nice job with this visual concept.)

This trinitarian community (Papa, Jesus and Sarayu) is seen as three distinct persons who nonetheless share one mind and function in total harmony with each other as seen in the following text. “Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?” “I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next. Even though he could not begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them” (p87). Papa: “You cannot share with one without sharing with all” (p106). Mack: “It was how they related to each other. He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed to be more aware of the others than (they were) of themselves” (p120-121).

Commentary on The Nature and Image of God

The first thing that catches most people’s attention is the presentation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have all grown up with and have developed notions of what God looks like. Mack tells his friend Willie that he always imagined the Father to look like Gandalf (p73). In this story, Young presents the Father as an upper-middle-aged black woman. At the end of the story the Father is presented briefly as a male after Mack has been reconciled to his own father. In the scripture, God, the Father, is a spirit being and has no shape or form of any kind. He sometimes takes physical form when appearing to people on earth. He appeared as a burning bush to Moses (Ex 3:2). Later up on Sinai, after a significant growth in the relationship between God and Moses, God tells Moses that even after such growth it would be dangerous for Moses to see God’s face so he hid Moses “in the cleft of the rock” and let him see the back of God as He passed by (Ex. 33:17-23).

The bible speaks of the Father’s eyes, ears, hands lap, mouth, etc., all of which are metaphors. God has appeared in the scriptures as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day (Ex 13:21). He has been presented as a great and mighty wind accompanied by tongues of fire (Acts 2:2). He has shown up in Genesis in human form numerous times (Gen 14:18; Gen 18, etc.) and in the book of Joshua as a great spirit warrior (Josh 5:13). In Ex 33:20, God told Moses, “No man can see the face of God and live. Apparently, then, all the images we have of the Father are metaphors, so if someone’s metaphor of God’s image is different than yours, it would be arrogant to think that his must be wrong and yours must be right. God chooses how He will appear to us and has His purposes for doing so.

The Father has no gender, even though we traditionally and metaphorically call Him a “He” because Jesus called Him Father. In the Old Testament, this male gender assignment for the Father was more related to the patriarchal culture than for any other reason. It is arbitrary. God could be known as “It.” At least one of His common names is feminine. El Shaddai means “God, the nurturer from whom all things come” and is a derivative of the Hebrew word for wife (shiddah OT:7705). Later in the story, as mentioned earlier, Young presents Him briefly as masculine, but makes the point that with Mack’s extremely negative image of his own father, presenting Papa as a male initially would have hindered Mack’s healing process (p93).

Papa tells Mack that He is neither male or female. “If I appear to you as a man or a woman, it is because I love you. We have limited ourselves out of respect for you” (p106). After what you’ve been through, you could not very well handle a father right now” (p93). This is typical of parents everywhere. They relate to their children in ways the children can understand. It is an act of love, not a scientific statement.

Earlier when Mack came into the cabin and the three of them were already eating. “He asked them: “You don’t have to eat do you?” Papa: “We don’t have to do anything.” Mack: “Then why do you eat?” Papa: “To be with you, honey. You need to eat, so what better excuse to be together” (p199). God acts in a manner designed to enhance our relationship with Him.

Papa tells Mack that He could look like Gandalf if the wanted to, but that would only reinforce Mack’s stereotypes. But the whole point of the weekend was to challenge and change Mack’s view of God. Papa tells Mack, “That’s why you are here. I wanted to heal the wound that has grown inside of you, and between us (p92). “Being” always transcends appearance. Once you know the being, the appearance does not matter (112).

The Father is not black, but He is not white either. In fact, He has no color or racial identification. As diverse as we are, all men and women are made in His image, not He in ours. Jesus and the Father are often presented as black in African-American church communities, allowing the members and their young children to relate better to them. Presenting Jesus and the Father as white in those churches evokes negative images of white taskmasters to black slaves.

Jesus did have human form. He was fully human. He did have racial identity (Jewish) and color (p111), but it is neither black nor white. More than likely it was Middle eastern brown. All peoples show Him as a member of their race so that they can fully relate to His humanity. C. S. Lewis presented Him as Aslan, a lion. Young’s presentation of Jesus is quite appropriate. Many Christian missionaries made the mistake of presenting the Gospel locked up in support of their culture, and all too often, their colonial interests, and thereby, greatly hindered their witness or killed it altogether. Sarayu: Religions must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive” (p205).

The Holy Spirit, like the Father, has no shape, ethnicity or gender. Presenting “Him” as a young Asian female is appropriate in a metaphorical story or an allegory. God’s strategy in the story was to get Mack to think outside the box and to challenge his negative, pain-based image of God. That seems appropriate also.

Who Do I See About This?!?

Once he gets his feet under him, Mack wastes no time heatedly confronting Papa about how He/She could allow what happened to him as a child, much less what happened to Missy. This is what Mack has long been wanting, a chance to give Papa a piece of his mind. God is, Mack believes, distant, brooding and aloof (p10). Add mean, vindictive, and eager to punish and you would have the opinion of millions of others in our day. Mack assumes that God just does not care. Mack is and has been angry with God for years.

When he first arrived at the shack and found nothing there, Mack cried out, “Why did you let this happen? Why did You bring me here? Wasn’t it enough to kill my baby? Did You have to toy with me, too?” Earlier he said, “This is ridiculous! I’m such an idiot! To think that I had hoped God might care enough to send me a note. I’m done God! I’m tired of trying to find You in all of this!” (p79-80). Mack has a very toxic image of God, one he learned from Christians and at church.

As he later admits, Mack is stuck. He is not making any progress in working through The Great Sadness. The loving God decides that Mack’s situation calls for divine intervention. Usually content to let us work through our issues as a part of our growing up process (because that is best for us), when necessary, God is the Grand Interferer (p12). God intervened because Mack was stuck (112). He intervened in all of our lives by sending Jesus to die for us because we were stuck.

Papa is non-defensive, and, in an explanation that stretches over the next three day, helps him to understand. He starts by telling Mack (and us), “I am not who you think I am.” I do not need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment. I enjoy fixing people and (repairing) sin’s ravages (p120).

The last 70-80 years in the western church have seen a severe reaction to the nearly millennium-long devastating over-emphasis on a toxic, punitive and distant God, the Father, an almost non-existent Holy Spirit and a victimized, wishy-washy (for too many) Son who comes across on the one hand like Troy Donahue and, at other times, a border control agent examining passports to allow us to go to Heaven when we die (or not). As a witness to a fallen, broken humanity, this view of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit appeals to very few in our culture, including many who call themselves Christians. Their Torah (law) is of no use to anyone and observed by very few, and then only as a form of legalism.

Like the Pharisees of Jesus day, we evangelicals have made an accommodation by tweaking this erroneous definition and offering explanations that make no sense, often even to ourselves. The rest of our broken society (the outcasts Jesus, in His day, actually spent His time with) are left hopeless, angry and anxious about their God, their reason for being, and their future. This has resulted in a widespread philosophy of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” that widely affects even our own children. They are not buying it either.

This has resulted in a new Marcionism, a heretical belief in the 140-500AD timeframe that denied the Old Testament and “the harsh God of the Old Testament” as being inconsistent with the loving God of the New Testament. But the problem is not the Old Testament God. The problem is a twisted, toxic, non-biblical understanding of God too often espoused by the church, sometimes out of ignorance, but often as an historical mechanism to keep the people under control.

The Shack presents us for the first time in a long time a biblical view of the Trinitarian God (a couple of odd metaphors notwithstanding), a time-honored theodicy (see below) seldom heard in today’s dialogue and a clarion call for sanctification, a topic of little or no use to many of us evangelicals hellbent to get as many people as possible into our pews and into Heaven, with little or no thought about how to live our life in between. Hardly matters. The view of God we present to the world today could not get us there anyway. “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” has become a mantra to us versus the mandate Jesus meant it to be for our own lives and the lives of the many we touch.

Commentary on: Who Do I See About This?

Theodicy is a theological term relating to the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil; i.e., how could a good God allow such evil as in in the world. Too often we ask the question as we throw our hands up in disgust, failing to realize that there is a good and legitimate answer to be found by the one who seeks with an open heart and mind. God reveals Himself to those who sincerely seek Him and by what He has actually done for us, properly considered.

Mack’s understanding of what God is responsible for is like most people’s; i.e., infantile and not biblical. We think that God is supposed to prevent bad things from happening to us and we blame Him when things go wrong. We think that God, if He is good, should provide us with a pain-free life. But, as Sophia* tells Mack in the movie version, “there is no such thing as a pain-free life.” In the Bible, Jesus tells us that while we are in this world, we will have tribulation (Jn 16:33). What is promised to us is a supernatural peace in the midst of our suffering, if we will seek God for it (Php 4:4-7).

*Sophia is a person Mack meets in the cave of judgment in the chapter on Here Come “Da” Judge (p171). The Bible portrays her as the personification of God’s wisdom (Pro 1:20-33; 9:1ff; Lk 7:35)

At one point, Jesus tells Mack that what allows the church, the bride of Christ to become spotless and without any flaw is the pain, suffering and death of Jesus. “Pearls,” He says, “are the only precious jewel made by (the combination of) pain, suffering and finally death” (177). He is explaining to Mack that pain, suffering and death are absolutely necessary to redeem fallen man. All evil is the result of the abuse of man’s free will. Had man not become independent from God, none of that would have had to happen.

God created the world foreknowing that mankind would fall. God endowed mankind with free will, fully aware that man would abuse it, and sometimes horribly so, but also, knowing that without the ability to choose, mankind could never obtain all that God has prepared for those who love Him and will join in relationship with Him.

Papa: “We created you to share in our Triune community, but Adam decided to go his own way, as we knew he would, and everything got messed up. But instead of scrapping the whole creation, we rolled up our sleeves and entered in the middle of the mess. That’s what we have done in Jesus” (p99).

While God does sometimes cause calamity (Is 45:6-7), God is never the author of evil. We put our own children through what they assure us is calamity. We make them get stitches, when necessary, discipline them as needed, make them go to school, make them apologize to the grocer for stealing candy and make them reimburse the grocer out of their own funds. These actions are calamitous to our children, but they are not evil. We allow our children to undergo very difficult circumstances that they, in their immaturity, are sure will kill them. We do it because we love them and because it is necessary to their future well-being.

Romans 8:28-30 tells us that God works all things to our good (benefit) if we love the Lord and are called (committed) to His purposes. He can turn lemons into lemonade. He redeems all He touches, including the evil that we do, if we let Him.

Mack: “And what is the value of a little girl being murdered by some deviant. You may not have caused it, but you did not stop it.”
Papa: “There are many reasons why one would not stop something. Each person’s story is different. Your choices are not stronger than My purpose, but I will make each choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome” (p125).
Papa: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that because I use something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish My purposes. Grace doesn’t need suffering to exist, but where you find suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors” (p185).

When our 17-year-old son died, we naturally wanted to know why God would take him so young. Ben had been an addict and alcoholic for three years in Middle School, but God intervened and caused Ben to be set free. He walked in the Lord for 14 months and then he died of seizures. Our theology saved us and the peace that passes understanding came over us allowing us to get through it (even today). We believed that God is good all the time. So, I asked God in a non-accusatory manner, “Lord, why did you take Ben when he was doing so well?”

God could have said to me that looking down the road in Ben’s life He saw Ben falling off the wagon, returning to his life of degradation and even turning away from God permanently. Since Ben was sick and because he was doing so well spiritually, God thought it was better to take him now while he was winning than later when he was losing. If God had said that to me, I would have responded, “Good thinking, God! I would rather lose him now and have him for eternity than to keep him here longer but lose him for eternity.”

I do not know what God’s answer would have been, but I trust that it would have been at least as good as that one. I have learned to give God the benefit of the doubt when I do not understand what He does or allows. I have come to believe as many do, that “God is good, all the time and all the time, God is good.” I may not know how God is going to use the present circumstances for my benefit, but I know that He will (Rom 8:28).

On two separate occasions, Jesus addressed the goodness of the Heavenly Father to us His children. I long ago decided that God was at least as good and loving a parent as I am.

Matt 7:9-12 “Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 “Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 “If you then, being evil (corrupted by sin), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

Luke 11:11-13 “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 “Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 “If you then, being evil (corrupted by sin), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” NASB

The bible say that God is a shield and buckler (protection) (Ps 18:1-3). We tend to think it reads, God is our shield and butler. We think that God exists to make us happy and keep us out of difficulty. So, we tend to hold God to blame for every tragedy that comes into our lives. But God in His wisdom often allows us to go through difficult, even horrible, circumstances in order to conform us in His image and allow us to become mature in faith, hope and love. As Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego found out (Dan 3:16-18), if God does not deliver you from the furnace, He will meet you in the furnace. Even the martyrs who die find their death to be a doorway to Heaven.

The Fall of man created a dangerous world, hostile to man, animals and all of creation in keeping with the nature of the god of this world, Satan (2Cor 4:4). Satan has no real power in the physical realm, but he is adept at persuading man to do evil for him. As stated previously, all evil in the world is the result of the abuse of man’s free will. God is, nonetheless, sovereign and will eventually work through all of man’s evil deeds in a manner that will solve the problems of the Fall to mankind’s ultimate benefit, provide justice to all people who deserve it, both the victims and the perpetrators, and, restore and redeem as many people as will allow it. God is like that supercomputer that can register all the chess moves of all of the greatest chess masters and still find a way to beat them all in the end.

Sarayu said, “All that I created was good. It had a purpose. Even poisonous plants and stinging bees. All bacteria were created for a good purpose. You humans are quick to label things good or bad without knowing what you are talking about. But you humans, little in your own eyes, fail to realize the power in the stewardship you have. Having chosen to go your own way rather than follow God’s direction, you have dragged creation into the mess with you. But it won’t be that way forever” (p131-132).

Rom 8:18-25 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. NASB

Eph 4:17-24 This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. NASB

“The Shack” on the Trinity

The western church over the last 70+ years has dumbed down the Gospel to the point of becoming so anemic that it lacks both power and witness. This has occurred in many theological areas, but perhaps, none so strongly as its present-day treatment (or lack thereof) of the Holy Spirit. This has robbed the church of its understanding of Sanctification in most denominational circles. We preach that the goal is to go to Heaven when we die, as if that is the main reason for being here. Bob Mumford used to tell us that if it was all about going to Heaven when we die, then after we get people baptized, we should shoot ‘em.

Too many of us in the modern western church get saved, and then we retire spiritually into a holding action until the Rapture (fingers crossed) takes us away. We preach Jesus as our Savior and ignore Jesus as our Lord. The implication that we are now called to obey God will, we fear, empty the pews, and the church coffers. Knowing we cannot keep the commandments in our own strength and lacking knowledge about the Holy Spirit and His ministry to sanctify us, we just take Lordship out of the formula, even though Jesus is almost always in the New Testament referred to as our Lord and Savior. The Greek word for “witness” is “martyr.” It implies a serious laying down of our life and requires a miraculous power we can only get from the Holy Spirit.

While you may not like Sarah Palin, she had a great speechwriter. She once said that being the Mayor of a city was kind of like being a community organizer (her opponent’s only experience), except that being a mayor had actual duties. We have for 7+decades been so focused on telling people how to get to Heaven, that we failed to teach them that as Christians, they had “actual duties” here on the earth.

We ignore the multitude of scriptures that tell us to “stop sinning” (yeah, good luck with that!). We ignore the message of Paul to the Galatians that the same Spirit of God which caused them to become born again must be accessed to become sanctified. We ignore Paul’s message to the Romans that for those who love God and are called according to His purpose, He predestined them (based on His foreknowledge of who was seeking Him) to become conformed to the image of His Son (and he meant in this lifetime). If asked today about the Holy Spirit, most non-Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians would answer like the dozen undertaught Christians Paul encountered when he first arrived in Ephesus. “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 18:24 – 19:7)

At the heart of all of this is that we have stopped teaching our people about the Triune Community of God, how it works and how we are invited to join in it in our daily lives (What Baxter Kruger calls the Great Dance). Because it seems tough to describe, we have chosen to not discuss it at all. The theology of The Shack is based in the Trinitarian nature of God, its separate and combined ministries to us, and our invitation to join it.

The cast of characters in the story are as follows: Papa is the name for the Father. Jesus is, as always, the name for the Son. Sarayu is the name for the Holy Spirit. Mack is the main character in the story in search for answers from God. This trinitarian community (Papa, Jesus and Sarayu) is seen as three distinct persons who nonetheless share one mind and function in total harmony with each other as seen in the following text (partially repeated from above):

“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?” “I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next. Even though he could not begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them” (p87). Papa: “You cannot share with one without sharing with all” (p106). Mack: It was how they related to each other. He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed to be more aware of the others than (they were) of themselves” (p120-121).

Mack: “There is that whole Trinity thing, which is where I kind of get lost.” Papa laughs and says, “To begin with, that you cannot (fully) grasp the wonder of My nature is rather a good thing. Who wants to worship a God who can be fully comprehended?” Mack: “But what difference does it make that there are three of you and you are all one God?” Papa: “Mackenzie, it makes all the difference in the world. We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one God with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father and worker. I am one God and I am three persons and each of the three is fully and entirely the one” (101).

Mack: “Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two? Don’t you have a chain of command?” (121-122). Sarayu: “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you are seeing here is a relationship without an overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your (idea of) power.” Mack: “Really? How so?” Sarayu: “Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge.” Mack: “But every human institution that I can think of, from political to business, even down to marriage, is governed by this kind of thinking. It is the web of our social fabric.” Papa: “Such a waste!” Jesus: “It is one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you. Once you have a hierarchy, you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it” (p122-123). Mack: “It seems like living out relationships – you know, trusting and talking to you – is more complicated than just following rules” (p197).

Sarayu: “Why do you think we gave you the Ten Commandments?” Mack: “I suppose, at least I have been taught, that it is a set of rules you expected humans to obey in order to live righteously in your good graces.” Sarayu: So, if that is true, which it is not, how many people do you think lived righteously enough to enter our good graces?” Mack: “Not very many if they are anything like me.” Sarayu: “Actually, only one succeeded, Jesus. He not only kept the letter of the law, but more importantly, He kept the spirit of the Law. He only did that because He rested fully and dependently upon Me (by the power of the Holy Spirit).”

Mack: “Then why did you give us those commandments?” Sarayu: “We wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently from me” (p202). (In other words, they did it to show the level of righteousness necessary to please God, knowing we would not be able to achieve it on our own without God’s empowerment.) Sarayu: “Trying to keep the Law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.” (Suggests that we can save ourselves without God’s help.)

Mack: “Is that why we love the law so much, to give us some control?” Sarayu: “It is much worse than that. It grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them. You believe you are living a higher standard than those you judge” (p203). Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive” (p205). (In other words, religion puts responsibilities and expectations on you to control you for its purposes rather than teaching you to expand your relationship with me so I can sanctity you.) Responsibilities and expectations are the basis of guilt and shame and judgement, and they provide the essential framework that promotes performance as the basis for identity and value (p206).

This one discussion is worth the price of the book and goes a long way to understanding the Trinity. The members of the Trinity cannot have conflict or even differing opinions, because they all share the same mind. And they always choose the best and right choice because they have the mind of the all-knowing God. They are three independent persons in one being. They are a divine collective. For as long as Adam and Eve obeyed them and followed their leadership, they also had no conflicts and shared in the Trinitarian life (the Great Dance). Once man began to act independent of God, they had tremendous conflict and lost all contact with the dance.

Sarayu: “When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other. Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want.” Mack: “Isn’t it helpful to keep people from fighting or getting hurt?” Sarayu: “Sometimes. But in a selfish world it is also used to inflict harm.” Mack: “Don’t you use it to restrain evil?” Papa: “We carefully respect your choices, so we work within your systems while we seek to free you from them. Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired. In your world, the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system, whether political, economic, social or religious – any system actually. First one person, then a few and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good and ongoing existence of that system” (p123). Jesus: “As the crowning glory of Creation, you were made to be in our image, unencumbered by structure and free to simply “be” in relationship with Me and one another. Humans are so lost and damaged that they feel that relationship cannot exist apart from hierarchy” (p124).

We even think about our relationship with God in terms of hierarchy or a pyramid. Papa: “You see, Mackenzie, I don’t just want a piece of you and a piece of your life. Even if you were able, and you are not, to give me the biggest piece, that is not what I want. I want all of you and all of every part of your day.” Jesus: “Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list of values, I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you. Rather than a pyramid, I want to be in the center of a mobile, where everything in your life – your friends, family, occupation, thoughts, activities – is connected with me but moves with the wind, in and out, back and forth, in an incredible dance of being.” Sarayu: “And I am the wind” (p207). (In our home, I do very little and make very few decisions without first taking my wife into consideration, because we are so connected in relationship, that everything that happens to me affects her, and vice versa.)

A broken mixing bowl full of batter is turned into laughter, immediate forgiveness and foot-washing because relationships are more important than things lost (p104-105). Mack: “So why don’t you fix it, the earth I mean?” Jesus: “Because we gave it to you.” Mack: “Can’t you take it back?” Jesus: “Yes, but the story would end before it was consummated. To force My will on you is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy. That’s the beauty you see in My relationship with Papa and Sarayu. We are indeed submitted to one another and always have been and always will be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I am to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her.

Jesus: “Submission is not about authority and it is not about obedience. It is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.” Mack: “How can that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?” Jesus: “Because we want you to join us in the circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to do My will. I want brothers and sisters who will share a life with me. … When I am your life, submission is the most natural expression of My character and nature, and it will be the most natural expression of your new nature within relationships” (pp145-146). Jesus: “Mack, just like love, submission is not something you can do, especially not on your own. Apart from My life inside of you, you cannot submit to Nan, or your children, or anyone else in your life, including Papa” (p149).

God is Always with Us

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with tragic events and situations, is the sense of abandonment one feels. Immanuel – God with us – can seem to have disappeared. There is no doubt that many people experience this. But must they? Young says they do not have to experience this, and my own experience bears witness.

God loves us all personally, individually and intimately. We are not just a member of a group that He loves, but personal beneficiaries of His focused love. It took me years after I was born-again to realize this and it made all the difference. This is what Papa means when He says, “I am especially fond of” someone. Papa was especially fond of Mack, Missy, Bruce Cockburn, etc. He is personally committed love to each of us. “I have no favorites. I am just especially fond of ……” (p118) Mack: Come to think of it, it’s like when Papa says she is especially fond of someone. When I think of each one of my children individually, I find that I am especially fond of each one (p155).

God is always with us, even when we cannot see or feel it (p114). According to Papa, Missy was not alone in the truck with the kidnapper. God was there with her and gave her a peace that passes understanding. Missy eventually was able to realize that she was not alone (p173).

This is a story, and I was not there. I’ll take Papa’s word for it. But I myself have experienced this peace that passes understanding. When Ben died, God was with us and we did not grieve as those who have no hope. We found the grace to minister to others. I have twice been told that I have terminal cancer with a limited window of time to live, but I have never once been afraid. I am at peace because I can sense God’s presence. I paralyzed my diaphragm in 1984 and since that time, I am often unable to breathe without a machine to assist me when lying down. I have been unable to sleep for days at a time on numerous occasions.

I struggle to breathe every day of my life, But God has always been with me, held my hand and given me peace. All of these things are challenging but none have been devastating. All of this supernatural peace has happened in me and my wife because we have been the beneficiary of some good teaching. We expect God to meet us in the furnace if He cannot save us from the furnace. It is part of our inheritance in Jesus, Paul told the Ephesians, but there is so little of it taught in the west. We western Christians too often mirror the culture, not the scriptures.

Papa never left Jesus on the cross but was with Him the entire time. (In this allegory, Papa also had nail scars in His wrists (pp 95, 102, 107, 164). What happened to Jesus on the cross happened to the Father and the Holy Spirit, too. They are one being. And He never left Mack or Missy either. He points out that Jesus’ story did not end in forsakenness on Friday, but in victory on Sunday (p96). The same promise is made to us.

One of the really unfortunate turns in western theology came out of the introduction of the penal substitution definition of the atonement after Luther and Calvin. Prior to that time, atonement was said to have occurred when Jesus ransomed us from Satan, the harsh and cruel master of the fallen human race (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45, 1Ti 2:6). Penal substitution theory portrays the event quite differently.

According to the penal substitution theory of atonement, God was shocked and very angry at the fall of man and required a great penalty for it, a penalty we could not pay. So, Jesus, our substitute, came to take the penalty in our place and an angry, vengeful God dumped His rage all over Jesus. This theory flowed more from the harsh, cruel and judgmental culture than it did from the Bible. In this theory, Jesus is seen to be crying out of his sense of abandonment, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” In the ransom theory of atonement, Jesus is merely praying the opening lines to Psalm 22 which David wrote for this very moment 1000 years earlier. The idea of an abandoning God has done great damage to the body of Christ since the 1500’s.

1 John 4:15-20 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because He first loved us. NASB

John, the Beloved Disciple (above) paints a very different picture of God and punishment. Papa tells Mack that He is totally uninterested in punishing people. He wants to fix them. Papa tells Mack (and us), “I am not who you think I am.” “I do not need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment. I enjoy fixing people and sin’s ravages” (p120).

Heb 11:6-7…, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. NASB

Hebrews 11 is the great pantheon of faith, the testimony of the myriads of people who trusted God for deliverance. Many received what they prayed for in this life, and rejoiced. Many others did not receive what they prayed for in this life (Heb 11:13-16; 32-39), but they still trusted God knowing that this life is but a preamble and that God would meet them in the next. All of them trusted that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. Apparently, they believed that God is good all of the time and was not the author of their “tribulation.”

When Wesley was coming to America to take over the Savannah church as its new pastor, the boat he was on encountered such harsh weather that even the sailors thought they were going down, and Wesley was afraid to die. Most on board were cowering in fear. However, there were a group of Moravian Christians on board and even their little children were unafraid to die. They went about the boat comforting and encourage people. God was with them and they knew it well. God was also with Wesley and all the others, but they did not realize it. Their faulty theology had let them down. Even the Moravian children felt connected to a loving Father in the midst of the storm.

Sarayu explained it to Mack this way: “Paradigms power perspective and perspective powers emotions. If your perception is false, then your emotional response will be false also. Just because you believe something firmly, doesn’t make it true. Be willing to re-examine what you believe” (p197).

Wesley, the preacher, Oxford educated, ordained for over a decade was not operating under the correct paradigm and he lived in fear of a capricious God. Apparently, the sailors had the same theology as the preacher. They were also terrified. The Moravians and even their children were operating under the correct paradigm and they were unafraid to live or to die. They lived a life of ongoing religious persecution but held no resentment against God. They did not see Him as the cause of their tribulation, but he was their very present help in times of trouble.

This kind of connectedness can only come out of relationship, not ritualistic religion. When Mack was with Jesus, he was able to walk across the lake like Peter did in Mt 14:25-33. When Peter and John engaged with the man born lame, he found the faith to take up his pallet and walk in Jn 5:8. But first, they had to make contact with him, telling him pointedly to “Look at us!” (Acts 13:1-5). In their culture, beggars did not visually engage people because no one wanted a relationship with them. The just wanted to donate to a beggar on the way into the temple to better their chances of their prayers being heard (culture and ritual begets religion.) Peter and John offered him, virtually insisted on, relationship and the life of God flowed between them and the lame man.

The woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) and the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar (Jn 4:1-42) both engaged Jesus personally. All that religious culture in their lives could offer them was religious shame, ritual guilt and empty, uncaring, judgmental hearts. Jesus offered both of them full-on relationship, shocking both of them in no little way. The woman caught in adultery later publicly washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The change in her is recorded for eternity (Mk 14:1-9; Jn 12:1-7). (In Matthew, Mark and John’s gospels, this event seems to have been the trigger that sent Judas to make a deal with the Sanhedrin.)

We remember her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. We remember that good, godly but duty-based Martha complained that Mary was neglecting her cultural, ritual duties in favor of some relationship-building fellowship with Jesus. Jesus tells Martha and us that Mary had chosen the better part and it shall not be taken away from her (Lk 10:38-42). We do not have to disparage Martha to get the point. What Martha was doing was good, but what Mary sought was relationship and that is far better.

The Samaritan woman went from being a terrorized outcast to a major evangelist for Jesus in her village (Jn 4:27-42), totally liberated from the cultural, religious chains that bound her to her sin. Acts 8 tells us that the first evangelical awakening outside of Jerusalem was in Samaria, a ground first plowed by the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. It should be noted that the apostles disapproved of Jesus’ even talking to both of these ritually unclean women.

It is in such moments of connectedness such as between Jesus and these two women that the miracle happens within us. Relationships involve conversation, connection and mutual concern for one another. Religion only requires ritual and doctrine. (Whether it is right or wrong seems to matter little.)

God Wants Voluntary Love, not Obligation

God is looking for voluntary love and trust, not forced or coerced love and obedience. Mack continuously is reminded of this, because he habitually responds out of obligation and his understanding of sovereignty is that God can and does make people do what they do. Biblically, nothing could be further from the truth.

Mack: “Well, I sort of feel obligated to go in and talk to Him, uh, Her.” “Oh,” now Jesus was serious. “Don’t go because you feel obligated. That won’t get you any points around here. Go because it is what you want to do” (p89).

On another occasion, Mack told Papa, “Okay, now I am feeling guilty.” Papa chuckled. “Let me know how that works for you. Seriously Mack, it’s not about feeling guilty. Guilt will never help you find freedom in me. The best it can do is to make you try harder to conform to some ethic on the outside. It’s about the inside” (p187).

Mack: “Then was I free not to come (to the shack)? Did I have a choice in the matter?” Papa: “Do you believe you are free to leave?” Mack: I suppose I am. Am I?” Papa: “Of course you are. I am not interested in (making) prisoners (p94-96). Papa: Love that is forced is no love at all (p190).

Papa: “We carefully respect your choices, so we work within your systems while we seek to free you from them” (123).

Mack: “Why do you love us humans? I guess what I really want to ask is, Why do you love me, when I have nothing to offer you?” Jesus: “If you think about it, Mack, it should be very liberating to realize that you can offer us nothing that can add or take away from us. That should alleviate your pressure to perform.” Jesus: “Remember I am not about performance and fitting into man-made structures. I am about “being”. As you grow in relationship with me, what you do will simply reflect who you are” (p148). (In other words, the more sanctified by the Spirit we become, the more conformed to the image of His Son we become.)

Papa: “And do you love your children because they perform?” Mack: “No, I see your point, but I do feel more fulfilled because they are in my life, do you?” Papa: “No, because we are already fulfilled within “Our Self” (p201). (In other words, we are not doing any of this just to make us happy. Our motivation is to bring you into relationship with us to make you happy.)

Religion vs Relationship

In the book, Jesus and Mack discuss the difference between religion and relationship: Jesus: “As well-intentioned as it might be, religious machinery can chew up people….An awful lot of what has been done in My name has nothing to do with Me and is often, even if unintentional, very contrary to My purposes.” Mack: “You’re not too fond of religion and institutions?” Jesus: “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will!” Mack: “What about the institution of marriage?” Jesus: “Marriage is not an institution. It’s a relationship.” “Religion, politics and economics are the man-made trinity of terrors that ravage the earth and deceives those I care about.”

In the forward, Willie makes a great point, “Our hurts came through relationships so will our healing” (p 11). God offers us relationship, not rules, as the basis of our acceptance to Him, as a basis of our salvation.

A relationship involves a conversation, in this case a conversation between us and God. God has been speaking to us from our conception. By the time we are born, that conversation has developed into a full-blown conscience (Rom 2:11-16). Languages are learned by using them and forgotten when they are no longer used. Many Christians have developed their conversation with God to a very high degree. Some have abandoned the conversation, searing their own consciences (1Tim 4:1-2) because they do not like what they hear. It is contrary to their will for their life.

Mack has pointed out to Sarayu that it has been easy to converse with them while they have been together in this very unusual event, but he is concerned about how he will be able to communicate with them after he goes home. In the Bible, this relates to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but Sarayu gives Mack a very nice and simple answer on how to go forward.

Mack: “Will I always be able to see you or hear you like I do now, even if I’m back home?” Sarayu: “Mack, you can always talk to me and I will always be with you whether you sense my presence or not.” Mack: “I know that now, but how will I hear you?” Sarayu: “You will learn to hear My thoughts in yours, Mackenzie,” she reassured him. Mack: “Will it be clear? What if I confuse you with another voice? What if I make mistakes.” Sarayu laughed, the sound like tumbling water, only set to music, “Of course, you will make mistakes, but you will begin to better recognize My voice as we continue to grow our relationship.” “I don’t want to make mistakes,” Mack grunted. “Oh, Mackenzie, mistakes are a part of life, and Papa works His purpose in them, too.” She was amused and Mack couldn’t help but grin back. He could see her point well enough (195-196).

Once my Ben, who was just emerging from his long darkness, told me that God had spoken to him and he had become born again. After living with his addiction for three years, I always had my antennae up when he spoke to me, trying to sort the truth from addictive thinking. I asked, “Ben, how did God speak with you?” His answer was not what I had expected. Ben said, “He made His thoughts known to my mind.” It was at that moment that I realized my boy had emerged from out the darkness into a relationship with the living God. We spoke and cried and restored our own relationship for most of the night, and Ben never turned back to old ways to the day he died.

He found the grace to walk the very difficult life in recovery. It was hard but he was empowered by his new relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I went to AA meeting with him and he was wise beyond his years, a man among boys (Recovering addicts do not recognize age differences. They recognize genuine recovery.) We had family bible study all of Ben’s life at least once each week. Ben learned (as it turned out) many things in those meetings, but he found his miracle in relationship with the Triune God.

Commentary on Relationship

Modern western Christianity (if you can call it that) is too often based in ritual and religion. It is heartless and uninspiring as can be seen by the fact that churches are full with too many people whose hearts are empty and whose personal relationship with God is non-existent, even when all the right words have been said. A wedding ceremony does not make a marriage. If it does not confirm an existing relationship or begin a new one, it is invalid. Marriage begins with consummation, and not just physical consummation.

The scripture teaches us that all salvation is based in relationship and all relationship is based in trust (faith or belief). Abraham believed God and it was counted to Him as righteousness and he was called a friend of God. (Jas 2:23; Gen 15:6, Rom 4:1-8; Gal 3:6). David trusted in God and his sin was not counted against him as far as his salvation is concerned (Rom 4:5-8). His righteousness was not based on works, but on relationship. Heaven is full of people who never invited Jesus into their hearts in a ritualistic format espoused by modern western Christianity, the myriad of Old Testament saints among them.

Isaiah graphically describes God’s view of the corrupt religious behavior of His people in his day, saying, “For all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place” (Isa 28:8). In Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, God decries religion in some graphic ways. “Your offerings are like vomit on My altars,” says the Lord. You offer diseased and putrid meat that you would not dare offer to your governor should he come to dinner. I wish, says God, that someone would lock up the church so that you could not get in to offer such offerings. Meanwhile your relationship with Me and your relationships with your neighbor, your workers, and your family are broken and/or non-existent.

The Pharisees were long on religion and short on relationship, often totally absent of any relationship with God. “You travel land and sea to make a single convert and turn him into twice the child of Hell that you are.” Jesus told them, “You should have done your tithing (religious behaviors), but not neglect the weightier (more important) matters such as justice and mercy and faithfulness (which are relationship behaviors).

Religion and ritual are a good thing as a demonstration of a loving relationship, but not as a substitute for relationship. That is why God so often told Israel they were an unfaithful wife. They had lots of intimate ritual but little or no relationship with God and their neighbor. Those Pharisees who had a relationship with Jesus (Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, etc.) were received on that basis (relationship).

In a stunning proclamation, Jesus said in Matt 7:21-23,

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ NASB

Shocked, they replied to him, “Did we not do many church-based religious things in your name?” His reply is telling, “I never knew you.” In other words, you and I have had no relationship.

Husbands and wives can practice numerous rituals (even intimate, sexual rituals), that give the impression that they are well-married. But if their relationship has died, so has their marriage. And it will remain a sham unless and until they return to their first love.

In Revelation 2: 1-7, the church at Ephesus was commended as a stellar example of good ritual and religious practice, but totally failing because it had lost its original loving relationship. The modern western church too often focuses on right doctrine, big and beautiful buildings, melodious choirs and self-justifying preaching while it is totally devoid of right relationship with God and neighbor. In the bible, the meaning of the word righteousness is “right relationship,” not sinless or holy.

God on trial

We feel free to judge God and others even though we do not see all the facts. And what we think of as good, changes from year to year. Unless we have the knowledge of God, we cannot confidently judge others, especially God. Only God has all the facts. We just have to trust that God is good and will only do or allow things that are for our benefit in the long run. C.S. Lewis says that all sin flows from the suspicion that God is not good or trustworthy.

Papa: You try to make sense of a world that is like a parade that you look at through a tiny knothole, a very small incomplete picture of reality. The real problem is that you do not think I am good. If you did, you would trust Me. Trust is the fruit of a relationship of love (126).

In the chapter, Here Come Da’ Judge, Mack encounters a female being, Sophia, (p171). The Bible portrays her as the personification of God’s Wisdom (Pro 1:20-33; 9:1ff; Lk 7:35). She sits Mack down in the judge’s chair and tells that him he (Mack) gets to be the judge. She soon gets Mack to admit that he would love to judge Missy’s killer and send him to burn in Hell! He thinks that could not be so hard. And it MUST be done for the sake of justice. In fact, Mack thinks he can even judge God for letting it happen.

But when Mack is told that he must sentence several of his own children to Hell, Mack has a realization about God as the Judge of all mankind. Sophia: “So you suppose then, that God does this (sends people to Hell) easily, but you cannot? Come now, Mackenzie. Which three of your five children will you send to hell? … You are the judge, Mackenzie, and you must choose.” Mack: “I don’t want to be the judge,” he said. Mack’s mind was racing. This couldn’t be real. How could God ask him to choose between his own children?

Sophia points out that all of humanity are God’s children. She tells Mack that his own five children are imperfect sinners. Mack is permitted to send two of his children to Heaven, but he must send three to Hell. She asks Mack to choose which ones go to Hell. Mack protests that he cannot send his own children to Hell and panics when it becomes clear that he must do so. But he cannot do it. He will not do it. He loves them all with perfect love even if they are imperfect beings.

Ultimately Mack begs to be allowed to go suffer in their place. Then it dawns on Mack that is exactly what God did, offered Himself as a ransom to save His children. Mack begins to get it. Many people deserve to be penalized for their behaviors (and they are punished through earthly consequences), but God would rather pay their ransom than allow them to go into eternal slavery.

There was no way he could sentence Kate, or any of his other children, to an eternity in Hell just because she had sinned against him. Even if Katie or Josh or Jon or Tyler committed some heinous crime, he still wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t! For him, it wasn’t about their performance, it was about his love for them. … Finally, he looked at her, pleading with his eyes, “Could I go instead? … He fell at her feet, crying and begging now, “Please let me go for my children, please, I would be happy to … Sophia: Mackenzie. Mackenzie. Now, you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you” (p162-163).

Once again reference is made to the fact that Papa had nail marks in His wrist also. Through the trinitarian unity, He shared in Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The Shack shows us that God does not want anyone to go to Hell, but that all would be saved (1 Tim 2:3-4). It is man who refuses to enter into relationship with God that cuts himself off from fellowship with God. It is clear from the scriptures that many will be lost, but that will be the choice of men and women personally, not “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

1 Tim 2:3-4 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. NASB

John 3:17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. NASB

Reconciliation with Mack’s Father

On the second evening, Sarayu temporarily fixed Mack’s vison to see things as God sees them. It was, I suppose, kind of like night-vision goggles. It was so intense, it took some minutes to get used to it. Everything was vibrant beyond his earthly experience. Angels were seen as beings of fire. People could be seen from a distance as beings of light. A multitude of Papa’s children emerged into view as well as many others who were obviously adults. Each person reflected a different pattern of color and light. Mack became aware that he felt totally whole, with no emotional or physical pain, even the usual irritations one develops when aging.

One man seemed to be struggling, trying to control his emotions and his light. It spurted out of him erratically as if he was wrestling with something within himself. All the rest were blending harmoniously whenever they had interaction. They were calm, but highly energized and interactive. They all seemed to be comforting and encouraging the man. Sarayu told him that each relationship produces a distinct color pattern that allowed one to recognize who the people were. As people encountered each other, pieces of their light broke off to fellowship with the other person producing its one unique color and pattern for the pair.

Sarayu told him, “You cannot love any two people the same. You love each person differently because of who they are and the uniqueness they draw out of you. And the more you know another, the richer the colors of that relationship.” Mack began to understand that all the light beings had actually come to celebrate something that was about to happen with the man who was having difficulty, whose erratic light display stood out and separated him from the others.

Mack then discovered that the struggling light being was his father who had come hoping desperately for reconciliation with Mack, knowing he did not deserve it. Mack’s emotions were a mix of anger and longing, but soon the longing won over and he ran to meet the man who was running to meet him. His father was ashamed, embarrassed and began even from a distance to confess his sin toward Mack and to plead with him for forgiveness. They embraced and sobbed as they mutually asked for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Mack began to realize why God does not see anyone as good or evil, but rather sees them as captured or free. He realized that His father’s behavior had proceeded from his own father’s brutalization as a child and his inability to rise above it. While Nan’s love had allowed Mack to grow past his own upbringing, his father either had no one to intervene in his struggle or was unable to respond. He had become a prisoner of his own sin and the sins of others in his life.

Soon the entire field began to be filled with light and song in celebration of the healing of these two men. Eventually, Mack walked back to join Papa and Sarayu, and his father rejoined the fellowship of the light beings, calm and peaceful and exploding with joy. Then the field erupted in praise as Jesus walked out among them all, embracing them and calling each one by name. Finally, Mack went with Papa and Sarayu back to the cabin where Mack began to feel a total freedom from the issues that had led to The Great Sadness (p209-217).

Forgiving our Enemies

On the morning of the third and final day, Mack awakens to hear a familiar but deeper voice tell him it was time to go. He turns to see an upper-middle-aged man whose silver hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He quickly realized that the man is Papa who has now presented Himself to Mack in a masculine form. Now that Mack was reconciled with his own father, he could relate better to God as a male. Besides, as Papa tells him, “Today you are going to need a father.”

Quickly he gets himself dressed and eats his breakfast. Sarayu comes in and hands Mack a gift, a bundle of cloth smelling of fragrant spices and many of the flowers they had picked the day before. “You will need this today and Papa will tell you how to use it.” Jesus comes in and tells him, “You will receive my gift when you return.” Jesus left some tools in a bundle for Papa, as well. As they set out, Mack was filled with all that had occurred and all he had learned the last two days. Mack realized that their time together was short and Papa was helping him with last things.

He did not question Papa about where they were going, content that Papa would tell him when the time was right. He realized for the first time that he actually trusted Papa and had no anxiety about what Papa was doing in his life. That was about to change. After two hours of serious hiking, they broke the tree line and Papa set them down on a big rock for a conversation. “Mack, there is one more thing I need to remove from your heart in order to fully set you free. Papa spoke gently and reassuringly, “Son, this is not about shaming you. I don’t do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation (Rom 8:1). They don’t produce one speck of wholeness or righteousness, and that is why they were nailed into Jesus on the cross” (p223).

Mack knew exactly what Papa wanted from him, but he was not sure if he could pull it off. Papa wanted him to forgive Missy’s murderer. That seemed impossible to Mack. He had forgiven his father and he had forgiven himself, but this seemed one step too far. Mack protested vehemently. “How can I ever forgive the son of a bitch who hurt my Missy. If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do. I know it isn’t right, but I want to hurt him like he hurt me …. If I can’t get justice, I want revenge!” Papa said, “Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me so I can redeem him.” Mack exploded. “Redeem him? I don’t want you to redeem him! I want you to hurt him, punish him and put him in Hell.

The discussion went on passionately for some time. Papa explained to him that there was a significant difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness benefits the forgiver, not the culprit. It sets the forgiver free from that which has captured them. “I’m stuck, Papa,” said Mack. I just can’t forget what he has done, can I?” “It is not about forgetting,” Papa said. “it is about letting go of another person’s throat.” It sets you free, not him. “But this man is My son and I want to redeem him. too. Forgiveness does not automatically result in relationship (reconciliation)” (p225). In other words, before reconciliation can occur, the offender has to make acceptable restitution. Their conversation says it all very well. God intervened because Mack was stuck and admitted it to Papa (112). He will intervene for us if we ask Him to.

Papa: “When you forgive someone, you certainly release them from your judgment, but without true change (in them), no real relationship can be established.” Mack: “So forgiveness does not require me to pretend what he did never happened?” Papa: “How can you? You forgave your dad last night. Will you ever forget what he did to you?” Mack: “I don’t think so.” Papa: “But now you can love him (your dad) in the face of it. His change allows for that. Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive.”

Mack: “Papa, I think I understand what you’re saying. But it feels like if I forgive this guy he gets off free. How do I excuse what he did? Is it fair to Missy if I do not stay angry with him?” Papa: “Mackenzie, forgiveness does not excuse anything he did. Believe me the last thing that man is is free. And you have no duty to justice in this. I will handle that.” Mack: “So is it alright if I am still angry with him?” Papa: “Absolutely! What he did was terrible. He caused incredible pain to many. It was wrong and anger is the right response to something so wrong. But don’t let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you forgiving him and from removing your hands from around his neck” (p226-227).

Commentary on Forgiveness

Most of us have trouble with the biblical teaching on forgiveness because we confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. We think of them as one and the same or as inextricably connected, but they are not. Forgiveness is a gift given by the offended to the offender. Reconciliation can only occur after the offender makes acceptable restitution.

Forgiveness is an act of the will. That is why God can command it. It is a pardon without respect to guilt. The governor pardons a criminal even though it may be clear that the criminal was guilty. He pardons because of extenuating circumstances. My father worked long hours and weeks to put food on our table, a roof over our heads and provide us with an education. He was distant and stern when he was around. He did not ever play with us, coach our baseball or go scouting with us as many younger dads did and as I did with my own children. It wasn’t in his job description. The only time I remember seeing him was when we woke me up to give me on of his harsh whippings, because my mother decided hers was not good enough (or bad enough) to cover my offense. My parents fought frequently and she told me he was a mean man, and I believed her. I had no data to contradict the analysis.

Once a year he took two-week-vacation and we went to Kentucky Dam Village area to visit relatives and have fun at the lake. About 4 days into the trip, he would thaw and become a nice man, whistling as he drove and buying us nickel cokes. He laughed at our antics, tousled our hair and developed patience. After vacation was over, and he had gone back to work for several days, he had reverted to form. In my ignorance, I hated him. As I got older and had my own family, I realized several things. First, it is hard to provide for a family, especially with only a high school education. Second, my mother’s view of him was not accurate. Third, my dad’s own life as a child was itself loveless, duty-bound and servile. He was faithfully doing just what he was trained to do, to provide food, shelter and education for his family with no hesitation and at great cost to his own well-being.

After I became a Christian, I forgave both of my parents in my heart. Dad came to live with us when my mother divorced him (after 30+ years of marriage) and I got to know him better. He turned out to be a good, loving (if non-emotional) man with a single mind to do right and a self-sacrificing work ethic. He was only doing what he was taught to do and was doing it very well. Playing was an experience he never had, nor coaching baseball or scouting. All were totally foreign to him. He gave us better that he received. I forgave him for the harsh discipline, the aloofness and the absenteeism.

There were extenuating circumstances. My mother, whom I loved always (but did not always like), was dysfunctional, alcoholic and came from tough circumstances herself. Her dysfunction twisted her view of him to us and her view of us to him. They both came from environments I would not have wanted for myself or my children. His upbringing, his own childhood and the culture in which he was raised in the 40’s did not prepare him to be a 60’s father like I saw on TV or like the younger fathers I encountered. He should not have disciplined us so harshly and ignored our emotional needs, and he said so later with many tears, but he did not know that at the time. He had, in my mind, been the meanest man I had ever known, yet we lived reconciled for over forty years.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. You can forgive a dead man who is long past the ability to express remorse. You can forgive an evil man who is totally uninterested in expressing remorse. But you cannot be reconciled to either one. We make the mistake of thinking that to forgive is to be reconciled. It is not. Let’s use an example.

A woman gets beat up by her drunken husband for the xxxth time. Her children are terrorized, so for their sake and her own, she checks them all into the battered women’s shelter. Once he sobers up, the husband, full of remorse, seeks her out and asks her forgiveness. As a good Christian, she gladly forgives him. Then he wants her to come home again. She wisely declines to do that until he has successfully participated in a recovery program and has demonstrated for some time that his change is real and has some permanency about it.

He clouds up and exclaims, “I thought you were a Christian! You are supposed to forgive me!” He is making the classic mistake. He is equating forgiveness with reconciliation. Because she understands how God has forgiven her, she does indeed forgive him and holds no animosity against him. She pardons him like the governor does even though he is guilty and for extenuating circumstances (more on that in a minute). However, she cannot and will not be reconciled to him unless and until he makes restitution or reparation, something far more tangible than remorse. And nothing in the Bible or the heart of God requires her to go home and get another beating the next time he buys a bottle.

Abusers, broken people, bullies and other “devils” will always try to leverage our Christian requirement to forgive in order to make us do what they want, but there is no requirement to be reconciled with the devil or any of his captured ones. Reconciliation only comes when the offender repents and does as he is required. You want some Bible on that? Try this one.

Luke 23:33-37 And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. 35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” 36 And the soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” NASB

From the cross, Jesus demonstrates His own teaching. His enemies are taunting Him. They are dividing His personal belongings among themselves and in front of His grieving mother. They challenge His trust in God and attempt to provoke a response in Him that would disqualify all that He has taught. They goad him physically and emotionally. Satan has them whipped into a frenzy. Jesus has already told Pilate that if He wanted, He could call for legions of angels to deal with all of this. How tempting that must have been. But instead, Jesus demonstrates forgiveness, saying “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus died and offered forgiveness to every one of us in every age. All of us are forgiven, but not all are reconciled to God. That will depend on our individual response to Him. Jesus offers reconciliation to everyone, but not everyone will do what is required to receive it; i.e., surrender to God.

2 Cor 5:18-20 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. NASB

Paul tells us that Jesus came with a ministry of reconciliation and gave that ministry to us. But he also tells us in verse 20 that we must “be reconciled” to God. There is an action required on our side. God’s forgiveness is a universal gift, but reconciliation only happens when the offender (us) makes restitution or reparation by giving our life to God and accepting the Lordship of Jesus. In some ways, it is not much, but it is required. God does all of the work of salvation, except that which only we can do – seek His forgiveness. Unless we do what is required (repent and submit to His Lordship), we cannot be reconciled to God even though Jesus has forgiven us.

Final and Full Closure with Missy

Once Papa has led Mack to forgive all who have hurt him, including his own father and Missy’s killer, Mack thinks he has reached the end of his mystical 3-day weekend with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But they have one more surprise for him. Papa stops Mack from heading back to the cabin after he finally forgives Missy’s killer, telling him that there is one more task to be done. “We are going to bring Missy’s body home to you.” Mack is astounded but then he remembers the shovels from Jesus and the bundle from Sarayu.

Papa leads Mack deeper into the woods and points out some red half-moon-shaped markings on rocks and trees that he soon realizes forms a trail left by the killer. Finally, breaking out of the woods at the edge of the mountain, the trail leads to a cave which has been covered with rocks that looks like a landslide. On the very top of the pile is the red, half-moon-shaped symbol they have been following. Inside the cave, they find Missy’s body covered by an old sheet. They wrap her in the shroud given them by Sarayu and take her back to the cabin.

There in Jesus’ work shop, Mack finds a beautiful, child-sized, hand-made coffin with delicate carvings all over it celebrating Missy’s life. After gently and reverently placing her in the coffin, Mack and Jesus gently carry her to Sarayu’s garden. This is the spot where Mack had labored the day before clearing out all of the vegetation. There they laid Missy to rest. They return to the cabin for the Lord’s Supper, and Mack, after an exhausting day, falls asleep in a chair.

Back to the Real World

When Mack awakes, he is back at the shack, lying on the cold floor. The cabin and all of its ambiance is gone. The spring like weather has given way to the harsh winter that he encountered when he first arrived. The rest of the story is in the book and the author tells it much better than I could. It poses no tricky theological problems, so I will end my treatment of the story here. What I have given you of the story is merely an outline. The full story is richer by far than anything I could have written. I highly recommend it to you.

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The theology of the shack is not the full theology of God, but it speaks to the nature of God, which is most misunderstood in our western world today. There is the theology of God’s justice. We know a lot about that, but what we think we know is often twisted by forces mentioned already and without the balance outlined in The Shack, it gives us an erroneous view of God’s love, His eternal purpose and His goodness.

I think The Shack is giving a view of God that has been lost in toxic Calvinism and replaced with something cruel and monstrous that neither reflects God well nor recommends Him to others. If the theology of the Shack is not the whole theology of God, and I do not think it is, it is a much-needed antidote to the poison that has been passing for the whole theology of God and causing His image to pass away from among us. The theology of The Shack needs to be embraced and allowed to counteract the toxicity of what has long come before it that has come from man-made doctrines and passed off as the Word of God. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we need to soak in the healing rain of God’s goodness. Among other things, we need to let the Holy Spirit back into the Church and restore a Trinitarian view of God to His people.