Spiritual Reflections

Missing God in the Story

{A little background, I read The Shack in 2010 after it had reached it’s peak in popularity among Christian circles. I was volunteering in our church bookstore at the time and vividly remember the masses talking about the story as being beautiful and faith-changing. I didn’t read it for a long time because I’m slow to jump on bandwagons. I usually avoid them, to be honest. For example, I have never seen a full episode of The Bachelor, Survivor, Lost, or The Walking Dead. I guess I just think if the vast majority likes it, I probably won’t—because that’s usually true. I’m not sure what that says about me. Maybe just that I’m weird? Anyway, I finally read it because I had too many friends tell me personal stories of how God met them in their pain through the book. The typical conversation went something like this:

Friend: Have you read The Shack yet?
Me: Nope. I bought it but I haven’t read it.
Friend: I know people are saying it’s a little crazy, but God used this book to draw me out of my suffering so I could get my relationship back with him. I highly recommend it! You know, God has a habit of using things that seemed crazy at the time to reach people, so maybe He can use a book that’s considered a little controversial. It would be just like Jesus, don’t you think?
Me: I need to read this book!

Now, I knew the book was controversial, but when the film came out last week, I was genuinely surprised by the amount of Christians and bloggers speaking out so vehemently against it. I thought maybe I was missing something so I prayed and asked God if I was, because—well, maybe I was. I think Christ sets a good example for us to have humility where things like this are concerned. Days before and after seeing the movie I felt nudged to write my thoughts on this. So here they are—with lots of humility, sincerity, and heaps of love.}

I will start by saying that The Shack is a work of fiction, not a book of the Bible, and I read it as such. I think a lot of people must be forgetting this very important fact. William P. Young wrote it after years of dealing with his own pain, wrestling and questioning God’s plan in his own life. He was on the verge of suicide, and after God redeemed him he wrote the book. His life is a living testament to the grace and mercy of a living God. If you know the history of the book, it was never intended to be anything more than a gift to his six kids. Young has made it clear in interviews that he is not a theologian or a Biblical scholar. He wasn’t even a writer before this book. God is bigger than anything our finite human minds can imagine so, historically, writers have been known to infuse God-like ideas in creative story form. Why is this book any different? Pilgrims Progress, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the Screwtape Letters, and Lord of the Rings are also stories that presented the spiritual realm in creative ways. Why this book in particular has been attacked the way it has is a bit baffling to me. It is a fictional story that gives us glimpses of God’s deep love for us. The Shack has been called heretical and blasphemous by so many Christians. Those words are serious accusations! Jesus spoke in parables, storytelling, and metaphors to explain the deep, mysterious truths of scripture. I think books that do that today can also be used to stretch our understanding of God. I fully believe that it is okay to ask questions and continue to pursue our understanding of Him and His grace—in fact, I think that’s how God would prefer it.

The movie has been blasted for going against the commandments of scripture because it depicts God in human form (make no graven images/no idols). Watching a creative interpretation of a fictional story absolutely does not mean I am worshipping the actor or the image of God represented in that book/movie. What about watching musicals or plays at church when God is depicted in different ways? Where would this logic end? God is creative—just look around us. We are made to create because our father creates. We can be moved and inspired by a creative story and not worship it or believe the way the story depicts. The way the Trinity is presented in The Shack is probably the most creative way the Trinity has ever been painted for me, but I knew going in that it was a human’s interpretation. I got the same feeling when I read The Shack that I did when I first read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Aslan was introduced. There was something that was incredibly moving about seeing the characteristics of God in the form of a lion (even more powerful when I saw the movie). The visual way The Shack portrayed God and the Trinity was just that—for our visual, creative minds. The writer isn’t saying the spirit of God is always in human form. When I read about the descriptions of Mack hanging out with Jesus, walking on water with Him, having meals together, and how Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) comforted him—it took my breath away and caused a holy longing in my spirit for that same tangible relationship. I even had to take a break from the book for a couple of weeks because the longing was so intense.

This story made me yearn to see Jesus in skin. I ached for my earthly, spiritual relationship with Jesus to finally be reconciled to the way it was originally meant to be—face to face. I am missing God and I know I always will until that day comes, but there are moments in my life when a book, quote, movie, or piece of music is like a defibrillator to my heart; and with each revived heart-beat, I remember… I remember…I remember. Oh, how I remember that I am missing Him!

I will not shy away from this truth—anything that reminds me of my need for a savior is good. The Shack paints a picture of how life will be with God in eternity, and that picture made me desperately long for my Jesus. A story that creates a yearning, stirring within our souls for our Creator and gets us talking about Jesus is only going to make our relationship with Him better. He will bridge the gap for anything missing, incomplete or imperfect about that story.

One of the biggest points of contention is due to God being presented in the form of a woman. But if you listen close, you will hear Papa (God) say she is in the form of a woman because Mack “would not be able to handle God in a father-like figure right now” (in reference to Mack’s history). Later in the story, during what will be a very hard journey for Mack, Papa becomes a father figure (male). Maybe the author based this on the fact that God tells us that “he will meet us where we are.” Since Mack may have only been dreaming all of this, it could have just been his way of “seeing” God through his dream. How else would a human envision a triune God in a dream but to see three beings, and further still, as a writer myself it would be hard to personalize a spirit as a character. By making them all human helped move the story along so that Mack could talk with Sarayu more freely. But even so, God came to the world in different forms in the Bible, too—a burning bush, a dove, tongues of fire, a mighty wind, etc. This happened in both the Old and the New Testament. The close connection between “wind” and “spirit” comes to the forefront immediately at the beginning of the Bible. In Gen 1:2 we read that the “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” An in-depth Hebrew study of this passage in particular reveals that the words translate to mean God was the wind. It is not just saying He was moving over the water but that He literally was the wind. This brings to light the question: who are we to say what form God can or cannot take? Or what His Spirit will or will not do?

Yes, we are made in His image. Does that not also include me, a female? I am also made in the image of God. If we admit that God’s thoughts are infinitely higher than our own, then our world cannot contain him. Professor of Apologetics at Biola University, Sean McDowell, explains, “God has chosen to create and use imagery of himself that is both masculine and feminine. Of course he refers to himself as Father and Jesus as the Son of God, which are both masculine imagery. Yet Jesus spoke of himself in feminine imagery when he said, ‘How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me’ (Matthew 23:37).” Is it really blasphemous then to write a fictional story with God in female form? How small we make our God so He can fit inside our human minds! He is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent—the very definition of these words tell us that He can be anywhere, is all-knowing, and is powerful enough to be anything He wants to be! McDowell also says, “To ask the question, ‘Is God male or female?’ is somewhat like asking if God is right- or left-handed. Or is his first language English or Spanish? Truth is, he is not confined by our human or material world. He created us in His image, but He is unlike us in many, many ways.”

We have an overwhelming tendency to put God in our “human box”—the box of how we understand and have always known things to be, which is very distorted and imperfect compared to God’s thoughts and how he loves. God cannot be contained by a box, our world or inside our minds. But He gives His spirit to us for the very purpose of deeper understanding.

I think 1 Corinthians explains this best, especially in The Message translation:

1 Corinthians 2:7-13  (The Message)
God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene. The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is. If they had, they wouldn’t have killed the Master of the God-designed life on a cross. That’s why we have this Scripture text:

No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this,
Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—
What God has arranged for those who love him.
But you’ve seen and heard it because God by his Spirit has brought it all out into the open before you.

The Spirit, not content to flit around on the surface, dives into the depths of God, and brings out what God planned all along. Who ever knows what you’re thinking and planning except you yourself? The same with God—except that he not only knows what he’s thinking, but he lets us in on it. God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that he is giving us. We don’t have to rely on the world’s guesses and opinions.

There’s that word. Mysterious. God is mysterious and moves through an intricate design, rooted in plans that HE ALONE knows the details—but plans that He is letting us in on little by little through his Spirit.

Another issue that is debated is the lack of “God’s Judgment.” The character, Wisdom, actually talks about heaven and hell, and Papa explains to Mack that justice is His alone. But depending on what you believe about God, this will be interpreted differently. I believe the story did a good job of presenting the world as a fallen world, and that sin started with Adam and Eve in the garden. It has continued and is the reason why evil is in the world today. It was not God’s plan. Wisdom explains that we cannot be judge and jury because God sees the heart. In my opinion, one of the most impactful scenes is when Mack is talking to Wisdom and she is trying to explain to him why he needs to let go of his anger and reevaluate his judgmental heart towards God. Wisdom says he must make a decision: one of his children will go to heaven, and the other to hell. Mack tells her he can’t make that decision—obviously, there is no way he can make a decision like that. She lists out his children’s qualities, as well as their sins and struggles and continues to ask him to choose. He still says he cannot make that choice. He finally yells in frustration, “Take me! Take me instead! Take my life in place of my children!” It is at this moment that you realize that Wisdom is not making Mack choose between his children, she is wanting him to get a glimpse of what God did for the world, and just why He did what He did. God took our place so that His children—sins, struggles, faults, and all—would not die and be condemned to hell. Mack finally gets it, and it’s a beautiful picture of His grace. This book is only a small glimpse into a much larger story. It was not meant to address the entire gospel story. I don’t expect all the books I read, especially fiction books that mention Jesus, to explain every facet of the gospel. I only trust the Bible to do that.

By far, the most troublesome aspect to me, is that there is a well done (Hollywood) movie—made with a big budget, with great actors—that is literally about JESUS, Grace, and God’s redeeming love. But instead of celebrating that, I see Christians coming out of their holy huddles to bash other Christians for watching it. Some pastors and theologians are trash-talking the book and the movie, blogging about how terrible it is, and making lists of all the reasons it is heretical. A movie about God comes out and what are we doing?? We are fighting about it. Not only fighting, debating, and debasing it and each other; we are actually boycotting it! We are great at that, aren’t we? No wonder the world keeps us, and Jesus, at arms length. I am not sure I would want anything to do with the Christianity presented by the vocal majority of Christians if I wasn’t a Christian already. That is disturbingly heart-wrenching to me, and was even hard to type, but I know I’m not alone in this feeling. I know because I’ve heard it echoed by too many disheartened believers voices.

This is a story that is making people reevaluate their faith, because for the first time ever they are being confronted with a Jesus that loves them and sees them. It is a book that has brought people to church that never darkened the doors of a church before in their life. It is a story that helped people lean into God and stop blaming him for tragedy so they could begin to heal from their past. It caused people to open their Bibles for the first time and find God through scripture. I believe that a story that can do these things is a story God can use for his glory. If The Shack gets one person to the cross and in relationship with Jesus, then who am I to say what God can or cannot use for His Kingdom?

For the love of God (literally), can we—as Christians—please stop picking everything apart and just keep our eyes and our minds open to how God can move among us and in the world? Because He does, and He will. Whether we approve, celebrate, debate, or boycott.

“All things are dark and confused now, compared with what they will be hereafter. They can only be seen as by the reflection in a mirror, or in the description of a riddle; but hereafter our knowledge will be free from all obscurity and error. It is the light of heaven only, that will remove all clouds and darkness that hide the face of God from us.” Matthew Henry, 17th Century theologian

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