What The Shack says about the Healing Journey
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With all the controversy surrounding The Shack, both book and now movie, I’ve had several people ask me to share my thoughts on it. While I certainly have some thoughts I could share, I find thoughts are often best conveyed by those who have personal experience with an issue rather than just academic knowledge of it. Many have shared their academic knowledge. Few have shared how the book/movie has impacted their story.
I hope as you read this guest post from my friend Meridee that you would receive her words as you would from your dearest friend. Not letting a book be your basis for judgement of a person, but instead letting a trusted person help you judge a book. I’m not interested in getting into any kind of argument about the theology of The Shack. There are plenty of those on the internet already. I am interested in highlighting how the story of The Shack has helped many abuse victims and those just hurt by life begin the journey of wrestling with their anger towards God and have a real healing experience with Him. You may not agree with the answers The Shack gives, but its questions are important ones we all could benefit from asking. I encourage you to read the book and/or see the movie to see for yourself. If you are totally unfamiliar with the story, here is the trailer for the movie that just released.
Meridee’s Journey with The Shack
As an INTJ female, I thrive on linear, logic based arguments. I often view emotions and personal experiences as inconveniently abstract factors that must be weighed and considered in an otherwise linear process. This however, does not mean that I do not value emotion and experiences, rather that I assign weight to them on a case by case basis.
I tell you this because I believe that it is important to you understanding my story, experiences, and theology regarding a book turned movie that is highly controversial in Christian circles, The Shack by William P. Young.
It is so good for us that God does not work in strictly linear or strictly abstract ways. We can see this as we look at the Old Testament and see the law (Torah) as the first five books and right after this we get the prophets (Nevi’im). The first lays out a linear, strict, and even unyielding law while the second is full of uncomfortable encounters with a living God. Though they are very different and most of us will be drawn more to one style or the other, we need both (the concrete and the abstract) to have a full understanding of who God really is. You can learn more about this in this sermon.
My Experience with The Shack
I read The Shack in early 2009, not long after it was published. At the time, I was beginning to see a counselor but God had already been working on healing me from a childhood abuse for a few years.
I remember attempting to express to a friend at the time that I felt like if I started crying I might never stop. I had an unending cavern of pain and sorrow inside of me. I felt that if I acknowledged the cavern it would swallow me up and never release me. In one of the first chapters in the book, Young describes Mack’s (the main character’s) pain, which he calls “The Great Sadness”. Reading this was the first time I read a book and felt like a stranger understood the darkest and most wounded places inside of me. It was one of the first times that I felt like God had come down from the heavens, come out of the Bible and was using one of my favorite pastimes (reading a good book) to love on me. It was during my time reading The Shack that the Bible that I knew and loved came alive as I had a true encounter with the living God.
Like the author (who I heard speak not long after reading the book) my “shack” experience did not happen over a weekend like Mack’s but rather over the course of years spent talking and wrestling with God about who He was, what my identity in Him was, why He didn’t intervene in my circumstances, and how I could ever forgive those who had hurt me. God never once shied away from my questions or even my anger at Him that seemed to overtake me at times. He was patient and loving and more wonderful then I could have ever known.
Many may think that because of the above statements that I view The Shack as on par with scripture. This is not true. The Shack is the story of another person’s encounter with God. The storyline itself is fictional but the encounters with God are a very real experience of the author. This is not scripture but it is not without power. In 2 Timothy 3:16 it teaches us that all scripture is God breathed and unfortunately some in the church have taken this to mean that only the Bible can be used to encounter God.
Though the Bible should be our highest authority for filtering the world around us, it is naive indeed to think that an infinite God could truly fit everything there is to know about Him on the pages of 66 books (John 21:25). The testimonies of the followers of God also bear weight as God works in us and through us (John 5:9; Mark 5:19-20; Psalm 22:22; John 15:26-27; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; John 9:24-25; Revelation 12:11).
One of my favorite examples of a radical encounter with God in scripture is the story of Mary Magdalene. We do not know a lot about her, but we do know that Jesus cast out seven demons from her body (Mark 16:9). We also know that she never abandoned him; she was with Jesus when He died, when He was taken down off the cross and buried, and she was one of the first to see Him risen from the dead (you can read about her throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the beginning of the New Testament).
You see, Mary Magdalene, like myself, like Mack in The Shack, and like countless others, had an encounter with God that did not alter scripture but rather brought it to life. When I experienced God, the verses I had committed to memory and the Bible stories I had painstakingly studied didn’t change. When I encountered God I discovered that He was better than I ever could have imagined because He was not just words on a page but a loving, real God who wanted me to be whole and actually wanted to be an active participant in my life.
The Counseling Perspective (some spoilers)
The Shack takes Mack and the reader through several processes of forgiveness that are common to any healing journey. This is why this book (and hopefully the movie as well) have helped so many abuse victims process their pain and move forward in their healing.
Our Deepest Pain
At the beginning of the book Mack describes the shack as the icon of his deepest pain, and he wonders why, of all places, God would want to meet him there. In every healing journey we must face that place of deepest pain. This doesn’t mean we have to relive the trauma or process through memories, but it does mean we have to move out of denial and be open with God about what is hurting us. And God desires to meet us in those places. He doesn’t shy away from our pain and wince at the thought of seeing it. He longs to come into those places and show us where He was in the pain, how He feels about it, what He wants to do about it.
Much of what Mack has to deal with in the book and movie is his judgments against God, himself, and others. Part of dealing with these judgments is identifying them and holding them under the light of truth. As Mack finally declares his grievances against God he finds the freedom of seeing how flawed his judgments were and the truth of God’s real nature and feelings towards him. Ultimately Mack learns that setting himself up as judge contributes to the pain he is stuck in and creates distance between himself & God, and himself & others.
The Great Sadness
As I said above, the book’s description of The Great Sadness that Mack felt perfectly described how I felt inside. For many this description is the most perfect description of grief, sadness, depression, and emotional pain they have ever heard. It weighs on you like a garment that you just wear everywhere you go. Sometimes you don’t notice it as much, but other times it cannot be ignored. Ultimately Mack finds through forgiveness and giving up the right to be judge that The Great Sadness can lift and joy and freedom can be felt again.
Often on our healing journeys we have to forgive ourselves for things we feel we somehow should have prevented or things we did or didn’t do. We may even need to forgive ourselves before we are really able to believe that God forgives us. Mack had to forgive himself for Missy, his daughter’s, death, because he believe that he should have somehow prevented it, or somehow rescued her but failed to. No one was blaming him for her death but himself. And that is often the case with the things we are struggling to forgive ourselves for.
Forgiving those from our Past
When we are healing from a specific hurt, it often is necessary to forgive people unrelated to that hurt who are a part of past hurts. Mack’s dad had nothing to do with Missy’s death, but forgiving his dad was part of his overall healing journey. As you process through your our pain you may find that you need forgive someone that isn’t involved in your current pain, but has wounded you in some foundational way.
When we forgive God, we are not saying God has done anything wrong. Forgiveness is actually about the offenses held in our hearts, not what was done. So even though God is sovereign and done no wrong, we still may need to forgive Him because of the judgments we have made against Him. You can read more on this here. Mack had to forgive God for not protecting Missy and for abandoning him.
Forgiving those who have Wronged us
Ultimately on our healing journeys we must forgive those who have wronged us. For Mack this was forgiving Missy’s killer. This is often the hardest act of forgiveness we face; but as Papa teaches Mack, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is just us “letting go of their throat” and trusting God to be judge over them. Reconciliation requires a two way street of both parties seeking to restore relationship. Forgiveness does not have to start as a feeling, it simply is a declaration we make of, “I forgive them”. And as Mack learned, we often have to continue to declare that forgiveness over and over until we truly begin to feel it.
Bringing Healing to Others
The beautiful thing about healing is that once we have gone on our own journey we are able to bring healing to others. Mack does this at the end of The Shack by inviting his daughter Kate into healing by telling her that Missy’s death was not her fault, and encouraging her to forgive herself. Hurt people may hurt people, but healed people also heal people.
Oh the Heresy
Because scripture is to be our highest filter for the world around us (even for the testimonies of others) I feel it is important to examine some of the most common arguments against The Shack calming that it is heretical and/or blasphemous. Not to enter in to the arguments swirling on the internet, but to provide additional information for those who may be afraid of reading the book or seeing the movie because of what they have heard.
Firstly, a heresy is,
adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma” (“something held as an established opinion; especially: a definite authoritative tenet”) (Miriam Webster’s Dictionary).
And blasphemy is,
the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God” (Miriam Webster’s Dictionary).
More simply stated, heresy is claiming something as scripture that is not. Since in the introduction of The Shack, Young has always been very clear that this is a work of fiction. The Shack is not heretical as it does not claim to be scripture.
Now that we’ve got that straight, I will continue with some of the other arguments against The Shack. (Know that many of the arguments were based on “X” being heresy but I will ignore that misstatement below and just deal with the argument itself and what scripture actually says.)
This is not going to be an exhaustive discussion of every argument against The Shack, but rather a starting point for you to go and do your own research rather than just believing everything a pastor or leader tells you. So go research, don’t just read what I or anyone else says. See the movie for yourself, read the book for yourself, and then decide what you think about it.
1. God being portrayed as a (black) woman is blasphemous
Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female He created them.” God is neither male nor female. But both men and women are bearers of His image. We often get hung up on God being male because of the “gender neutral he”, but other than Jesus being a man, scripture never tells us that God is a man or woman. If it bothers you to see God portrayed as a woman, don’t just shout “heresy!” but ask yourself why you would have trouble seeing women as His image bearers.
With the movie imparticular, would you have as much issue with God being portrayed as a woman if say Julie Andrews played God instead of Octavia Spencer? Is there something about a black actress playing that role that bothers you more than if a white actress had? We really must wrestle with why something like this would bother us, and if perhaps it is revealing hidden prejudices we are harboring.
What The Shack really shows us through the portrayal of Papa God as a woman is that God is willing to come to us in a way we feel safe. For the main character, Mack, God appearing as a bearded white male would not have felt safe. It would have only continued to fuel the hurts, fears, and judgements Mack already had made about God.
2. The Shack preaches universalism
The Shack on multiple occasions spells out that Jesus is the only way to heaven (not as many times in the movie, but repeatedly in the book). What causes this confusion is one conversation between Mack and Jesus where to the thoughtless reader it seems like Jesus says that he isn’t the only way to heaven. However, if you really read His statement in the context of the rest of the book, it’s more like he is saying that everyone’s story is different but He can find you and bring you to Him (the only way) from wherever you are. As it’s said in the movie, He’s not hung up on labels like Christian. He doesn’t care what you call yourself when you follow Him.
Another reason this confusion comes into play is how all people, followers of Jesus or not, are referred to by Papa as His children. This can be a controversial statement depending on your denomination, but it does not directly contradict scripture in the way it is used in the book and movie.
Papa repeatedly expresses His heart for all of His children. That His desire is that all of His children would be redeemed through relationship with Jesus. This is not the same as saying that all children get to heaven regardless of if they believe in Jesus. This is cleared up when Papa explains in the book that Jesus dying on the cross enabled full reconciliation for the whole world, but that while reconciliation is a two way street and while Papa has already done His part, we must choose to reconcile with Him as well (pg. 192). Affirming again that Jesus is the only way to the Father and that not everyone will reconcile with Him.
3. The Shack teaches that God doesn’t care if we sin
This is never directly said in the book or movie but several dialogues Mack has with God give the impression that sin does not bother Him. What The Shack actually teaches, is that God is not afraid of your mess and that He is willing to come into your mess and help you clean it up. Being ok with entering into our mess is totally different than approving of sin. God is not afraid of our mess or mistakes, but that does not mean He is ok with them. This is a common theology in Christianity, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us…” (John 1:14) Jesus entered in to our mess of a world to redeem it. He didn’t approve of the mess, but He also wasn’t afraid of it. For more reading on this check out this book.
4. The Shack teaches that God was with Jesus on the cross while the Bible teaches that God really turned away and couldn’t look at the sin His son now carried
The heresy in this argument is the argument itself. The Bible never once tells us that God looked away or abandoned Jesus on the cross. On the cross when Jesus said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He was just doing what He had done for His entire ministry. He was pointing to Old Testament scripture. He was saying, “Hey remember Psalm 22? I’m fulfilling that right now!” Psalm 22 starts with the cry of feeling that God has abandoned us, but ends with the declaration that God has been with us and our defender all along. You can read more on this here.
Think for Yourself
There are many more possible points to defend the theological basis of The Shack but this is my challenge to you. I enquire my fellow Christians to refuse to be ignorant of the word of God. The Bible is very clear that we are to be active participants in our faith, not just parrots or sheep copying everything we hear from teachers, leaders, and even parents. We are to be respectful and honoring but that is not the same as following blindly.
You are responsible for your own salvation, you need to know what the Bible says and you need to be able to work through what your pastor teaches every week and test it against scripture (Philippians 2:12). Scripture tells us that there is only one mediator between God and humanity, and that is Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5) The veil is torn, we do not have to rely solely on priests and pastors to tell us what God says.
It can feel daunting to study for yourself, but we have the Holy Spirit to guide us in our understanding of scripture. It just takes a little practice to learn to study the Bible and hear the Holy Spirit for ourselves (not a seminary degree or understanding of Hebrew and Greek). If the concept of studying Gods word is new to you I suggest starting with small verses instead of huge chunks of scripture. But remember, every verse must be taken in the context of the chapter, the book, and the entire Bible so as we do not find ourselves proof-texting (reading just to prove what we already believe to be true).
Regardless of what you think about The Shack, I hope you will take this as an opportunity to investigate things for yourself. And that you won’t let the criticisms of the book/movie get in the way of you being blessed, as I was, by the journey this story can take you on to getting to know God better for yourself and healing from your hurts. Check out the free workbook below to help you on your journey.
Meridee Watts lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and son. She has her bachelors in crisis counseling and her certificate in Horticultural Therapy through which she brings her love of gardening together with her passion for healing people’s hearts. She is also an instructor with The Inner Healing School teaching the foundations, skills and ethics needed to be a competent and compassionate inner healing minister.