Originally released in 2007, this book created quite a stir in certain circles. I wasn’t ready to read it then, for the simple stated reason that I refused to read fiction (but that’s another blog post for another time). Not even when one of my closest friends begged me to read it because she was desperate to discuss it with me, I held firm in my resolve. The deeper, underlying reason was that I was in a dark period of doubt regarding God’s love and goodness. I didn’t need some off-the-wall view of a different sort of divine presentation to mess with my carefully constructed fort of self-protection. I avoided mystery. I wanted “Just the facts, ma’am!”
The protagonist in the book, Mack, was a black and white kind of guy. A pretty average husband and father with average nice kids. He’d had some pretty painful experiences though, like many of us, as he was growing up and they colored his view of God. This was only compounded when his youngest daughter was kidnapped and murdered. The character development and this part of the story takes about the first eighty pages. His heart snapped shut to grace. He considers suicide. At this point in the book, the story turns to how he encounters God in a completely different form than his perceptions had previously allowed.
So how did I come to finally pick up this book? I started in a cohort to become a Spiritual Director. I began to engage in Listening Prayer. What startles me most is the very clear experience of hearing, sensing, seeing, feeling and encountering God in ways far different than anything I had previously known.
My most significant encounter with God to date (which turned me on my ear) was immediately following Brent’s suicide. It was trauma, similar to Mack losing his daughter. But God’s presence was immediate: an aura of light, consuming love and promised provision were clear and physically tangible, coming and going over the next few days and weeks. I was held. My doubt was gone. God is good and God is love. I don’t understand it, but I’m willing to embrace the mystery. I am carried and cared for.
Since then, I have come to hunger for a more intimate knowledge of and relationship with this God who has made known to me the reality of Presence.
So, I thought, why not read the book? Why not stretch my imagination to include a God that might possibly show up in all sorts of unusual ways? After all, God's “ways are high about our ways" and God's "thoughts are not our thoughts.” And as it says in the book of Hebrews, “God spoke in diverse ways at diverse times”.
If you have trouble grasping the idea of a God that could show up as an older, pleasant, loving, black woman, or you read the book and hate it, Mack says “Sorry…but it wasn’t primarily written for you.” Then again, maybe it was.
I wasn’t ready for it in 2007. I was ready for it this week.
There’s a little bit of story and a lot of dialogue. As far as writing goes, there’s a lot more “telling” than “showing” but there is very descriptive language. There are some terrifying scenes involving a serial killer, kidnapping and the resulting devastation on a family. There are impossible to believe encounters with the Trinity in bodily form (remember, it’s fiction), and yet those encounters seem not only plausible but they articulate complicated truths and make them accessible in a way that goes far beyond any theologian I’ve ever heard wax eloquent in a pulpit or on a blog. It’s written respectfully and lovingly and I closed the book in awe-struck wonder, fresh with child-like faith at the possibilities of how God can reach into our world, come as a baby, grow up as a human, setting aside the right to exercise the power of deity and become our redeemer and life-giver.
Some of the questions about God’s appearance are the first subject to be addressed when Mack encounters the Trinity: “…I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear…as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you… To reveal myself as a large, white grandfather with a flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce religious stereotypes.” (p. 94). Mack admits all his stereotypes of God were very white and very male, but because of his negative experience with his own father, he would have been resistant to God appearing as Father. That God appeared as a black female showed compassion and skirted Mack’s resistance to God’s love.
I’ll leave it to you to read the book to discover how God the Son and God the Holy Spirit take tangible form. Remember, this is the writer’s imagination and yet I found it intriguing and delightful to imagine along with him.
As I continue to read, I appreciate the dialogue and interactions between Mack and the members of the Trinity. Mack, of course, can’t believe what is happening. Yet, the author creates a warm and welcoming series of scenarios in which I found it quite easy to imagine myself in Mack’s place.
There are well-articulated explanations on all sorts of subjects. I began making notes, because I want to be able to go back and reference some of the quotes on these various subjects: the humanity of Jesus, the concept of “being” vs. external appearance; how God’s sovereignty and human free will intertwine and happily co-exist; punishment vs. discipline; the problem of evil, pain and suffering; man’s independence from God exercised in creating power-based institutions like religion, politics and economics; true freedom, the appropriate place for judgment; the nature of heaven; and so much more.
I have learned long ago that God, the creator of the universe, the one who knows my name and numbers the hairs of my head is far beyond my understanding. I cannot create God in my image and no one on earth can conceive the expanse of God’s character, form and being.
What I do know is that God is a verb. Active, living, dynamic. And God is a noun. Three persons, distinct yet One. The trinity has invited me into fellowship. Christ has given me his life. The Holy Spirit is present in me, with me, around me, working through me to live the perfect life of Christ out of my humanity. God speaks and I want to tune in to hear; to surrender to this Love, this Goodness.
This gives me great confidence and I often sing and speak out of these truths. I am learning to rest and wait on the Lord, depending on the leading of the Spirit in both large and small ways. Do I have it figured out? Ha. No way! I still have bouts of fear, on occasion, in short bursts. Anxiety triggered by a current event that causes fixation on what should be a simple, uncomplicated issue which I cannot comprehend. I make choices or speak words that may hurt others, unintentionally, when I act out of my core issues of abandonment, insignificance, unworthiness. But I’m learning to tell myself the truth: that God is with always with me, God is especially fond of me (and of you), and considered me (and you) worthy of redemption. Most importantly, I am surrendering to God’s love, opening my heart and mind to God’s truth through the scriptures, through my pastors and counselors, through my spouse and friends, through nature, through circumstances (both satisfying and difficult) and through stories like The Shack.
But most intimate of all, in addition to all of these, God speaks to me in personal relationship, through listening prayer, through meditation, through impressions, through imagination, through reason, through feelings, and sometimes through dreams.
“I am come that you might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus said.
So, while I have breath, my prayer was, is and always will be, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth (in me, right now, here, today) as it is in heaven.”
The best way – the only way – to know God is to be in relationship.
If you are curious, read the book. Visit the website. Read what others think. Read what the author has to say.
As for me, I’m just a girl, standing here in front of you, asking you to believe God loves you and that God is not at all what or who you think. This book might just help you understand why.
But if you don't like it or don't get it, that's okay. God will go to any length down any road to find you. And when that happens, I kind of suspect you may just find everything you've been looking for.