I am writing this partly as a review for the book/movie but moreso because even though it is fiction it is teaching somethings about God. Now I understand that the point of the book is to address loss and to comfort those that may need it, but in doing so it seems to me that while general help may be a good thing, I would want to present how God actually comforts. I say this because the book gets into themes that as a Pastor I would not want to counsel a person suffering with.
It is easy for me to say I do not know why this happened to you in the midst of tragedy and give you a hug, but I would never say that The Lord doesn’t know why this happened either and then expect you to reach out for a hug from him. See the point of the story is displaying God’s love in the middle of suffering. But what we get it this long-winded band-aid session while building up to the inevitable “why” question that lingers over the whole affair. In the story God goes out of his way to present himself as a mother despite inviting the man as “Papa” because the man has a terrible relationship with his Father.
The story is continually pandering to the man and his experience. Rather than redeem the idea of Father and as God as the very best one, it is cast aside. God changes heaven, earth and his own revealed revelation of himself from scripture in order to nurture the man back to mental health. The problem is once the obvious point of God cares is painstakingly established the punchline is basically: God really loves and cares, but he can’t really do anything about evil. It is entirely an open Theist position. This God can and only does respond to pain with overwhelming love but he seems to be incapable of doing anything in the first place about it.
Now I write this because the way we minister matters. If someone walks away from tragedy thinking that God was not responsible, because he couldn’t be, well that is going to affect their relationship with him. Now if the first question is demanding answers from God, then this should tell us something. Instead of lovingly help them through the conflict that arises from the pain we selfishly give a simple answer to the blame question to get God off the hook. Well, now we have something just as bad. A person who doesn’t believe God is sovereign or can do anything about evil. This displaces people from creation and it creates an urgency to depart this wicked earth to a place where God actually has jurisdiction. But if this is your theodicy, then the God you are left with is simply one who really wants to do good deeds but is continually stifled by actual human events. The earth is at the whims of Satan. God can only respond. If God can’t get involved in human affairs, prevent evil, then what exactly does he involve himself with? The weather? This is not a God that I would want to put forth as someone who is a present help in time of need, because you have just presented him as not.
The Bible testifies that God is in control (Job 42:2, Psalm 135:6, Proverbs 16:4, Matt 19:26, Eph 1:11,12) and the truth of this reality is sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t, for his own glory. (Job 1:21) But God knows all. (Hebrews 4:13) The story of the Shack goes that God bends over backwards to accommodate the man. But this story flies in the face of what the book of Job teaches; who when faced with tragedy and calls God into question, is not answered by God who bends over backward to accommodate him-even in the midst of tragedy. The lesson we learn from Job is that God is good whether we can discover all the reasons, further we learn that God is God and we are not. God doesn’t answer the questions, so neither should we attempt to make that part of our grief counselling.
However, Pastorally, this is not what I would necessarily say to someone in mourning. They don’t need to hear hard theological truths when they are in the middle of loss. I get it. I would counsel with the faithfulness of God, (1 Cor 10:13, Psalm 35:5) and his love (John3:16, Eph 2:4,5) and care for us as people and not try to hammer down a reason or perhaps lesson to be learned. But neither do they need to hear someone making excuses and presenting an anemic God who is really not able to do much. This book is probably a response to pastoral counsel that simply brought the hard truth of God is in control and you should praise him for this incident.
If we skip the mourning with those who mourn part we will never be able to join them when the time of rejoicing with them that is supposed to eventually happen. We cannot undercut God’s involvement while still trying to present him as good. This is the hard task of a faithful Pastor, to tell people the truth in love. This can take time. This can take many sleepless nights. This can take late night phone calls and continual reminders of the love of God. It takes being present with reminders of encouragement and perhaps teaching about God’s nature but the help has to actually reflect the nature of God.
My brother James Ponce’ death has just past the one year anniversary. I know that as much as went on ultimately God allowed him to pass, as he couldn’t have went to be with the Lord a moment out of his notice. (Psalm 139:16, Job 14:1-6) This is the truth that God is in control and even though I do not understand it, I accept it as part of my ongoing relationship with God. But saying that God is in control may not have been the first thing to comfort everyone with when it happened. It comforts me now, but only because I allow the scripture to inform me what God is like, and press into him.
This is the point: I take comfort where the Word of God gives it, as God give it. So I take comfort in the fact that God hates that death had entered the world. (Psalm 5:4, Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9) I take comfort in the fact that we have the Holy Spirit to comfort us. (John 14:26, 16:7) I take comfort in knowing that God is near us in our pain. (Psalm 34: 18,19) I take comfort that he sends people to comfort me is the middle of tragedy as well. (2 Cor 1:3-5 ) I take comfort knowing that this life is not all there is and that there is a heavenly city that awaits where we will be joined together again. (1 Cor 15:50-58, 2 Cor 5:1-8) ) I take comfort knowing that God has done an everlasting work to destroy the lasting powers of sin and death, here and now. (Col 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14, Rev 1:18) I take comfort in the church who God has established as a network of encouragement and love on the earth, his very hands and feet. (Acts 9:31, 1 Cor 12:24-26) I take comfort in prayer, that I can commune with God himself and go to him when times are difficult. (Matt 6:9-13) I take comfort in his comfort, but not in solutions that fly in the face of his revealed nature.
To live in a world where evil just happens is not the kind of world we live in. We live in one that is orchestrated by a loving Father who allows some things and disallows others all for his glory, but the reasons, I certainly cannot always ascertain. But I move forward knowing that chaos does not in fact rule, but the consequences of sin still damage and destroy. I still feel the loss but I wouldn’t want to be comforted in knowing that nothing God could have done would have prevented it. That is a scary prospect. Bad things just happen? I don’t want an aloof God that is super loving, but a loving God who is in fact sovereign that I may not yet perhaps understand everything about.
This book is simply coming to the wrong answer on the question of Evil. The author seems to have answered with “No, God is not powerful enough, but he is loving enough.” The problem with the question of evil is that is doesn’t give you enough options and assumes something is wrong with God. Rather a Christian should go to the Bible for our revelation of God and our reality in order to understand the invasion of sin and evil.
I left the Shack shaking my head, knowing that while some will be comforted, what they will be comforted with is a false and undermining impression of God. I wouldn’t want to comfort carte blanche at the expense of honoring God, and misleading people. God is bigger than that. He is more loving than that. It may not always look like what we want, but that is what faith is all about. It may take time, but I would rather take time on an accurate picture of God’s love walking through the grief than circumvent the process with cheap imitations and safe answers. When walking with someone through their own valley of the shadow of death I want them to come out the other side with more comfort and love and support as possible and that only comes from truly knowing how loving the Father God is.