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The Shack, Part 3 – God in the midst of tragedy

The ashes just look pretty on your eyes. ~ Deb Talan

Ashes on your eyes

Our novel begins with Mack in the midst of what he terms, “The Great Sadness.” His daughter, Missy, was kidnapped and murdered. Mack begins his journey to this shack angry at God, but Young’s novel does not find God wanting or to blame. Instead, human beings, bent on their own selfish desires and driven by fear, have cast a fallen creation into a despair that can only end when they begin to love and trust the Triune God. This touches on the classic understanding of sin as a human perversion of the good. As Augustine put it, just as darkness is the absence of light, so evil is the absence of good. God said, “Let there be light” and pronounced creation “good” – therefore evil is not from God. Rather evil was introduced into the world by humans in our effort to become like God. Whether you believe that the story of Adam and Eve is historically or metaphorically true, the point is the same: we got ourselves into this mess, not God.

But rather than dwell on the nature of sin, The Shack is fundamentally about a God who embraces human pain. At bottom, it seems to me that William Young is after the age-old question of theodicy: why does God “allow” bad things to happen, especially to good people? In The Shack, Mack is a good man and father, and his wife is practically a saint. Why do these people have to bear the pain of losing a beloved child, especially in such a grisly way?

The novel answers this difficult question by way of a discussion of power. The members of the Godhead, though all-powerful, inform Mack that they choose to limit themselves in all kinds of ways. For example, they choose to limit their omniscience by placing temporary limits on their own knowledge, as when they ask Mack at the dinner table to tell them about his family. To him, it feels silly to discuss family matters with them when they know it all beforehand anyway. But Sarayu gently explains that she and the other members of the Trinity have chosen to set aside these limitations in order to enter into relationship with human beings, in much the same way a parent might color a picture alongside a child, or even let a child win a game. Incidentally, John Calvin’s word for this notion was accommodation by which God makes concessions for our benefit or for our understanding.

Here is the key point: according to The Shack, the members of the Godhead also limit their omnipotence or all-powerfulness! Jesus tells Mack that he would never force his will on anyone, which also means not interfering when human beings make choices that are not helpful or healthy. This limited God is the central thesis of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. William Young seems to have read and absorbed much of this book, and he is not alone. In fact, one of the streams of Jewish thought after the Holocaust is that there is a level of human evil that God is powerless to control. Perhaps if I, too, was subjected to Nazi concentration camps, I would gravitate towards such a theology . . .

Mack finds this perspective of God’s limitation to broaden and deepen his faith, moving beyond his former paradigm (“all I wanted was a God who will just fix everything so no one gets hurt”) into a new trust. When Mack realizes that God “doesn’t stop a lot of things that give him pain,” he begins to understand that Missy’s death was not part of God’s plan, or a punishment for Mack’s past sin. As William Sloan Coffin has rightly preached, “God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”[1]

So then, what do we do with tragedy? Do we simply say that God was not involved at all? The Deists of the American Enlightenment believed that God was the clockmaker who created the world and now allows the machine to run according to its own laws. As Christians, we agree with the idea that God is creator. However, we assert that God is decidedly hands on. Jesus is God in the flesh, the God who became human. Therefore the Creator is also deeply and personally involved with all of creation. Rather than questioning God’s involvement, it seems to me that we need to consider the nature of God’s involvement, the crux of the matter: How is God involved in our world?

The Shack depicts a weeping God who literally meets us in our darkest places, which for Mack are represented by the shack. Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu mention several times that they are always in attendance when humans are suffering, even when we cannot discern their presence. Mack even learns that, in her final hours, Missy felt God’s love and that Sarayu literally wrapped her arms around Missy to comfort her. This reminds me of Isaiah 40: “‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, O my people,’ saith your God.” I don’t pretend to know all of the mysteries about God and suffering; but I do know that is beautiful stuff …

[1] Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” 263–264

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.


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