I will try to give a brief review of this book without giving away the plot.
The Shack is a story about a man named Mack who suffers the loss of his daughter victimized by a serial killer. While still grieving her death, he receives a note in the mail supposedly from God, inviting him to meet him exactly at the place where his daughter was murdered: an abandoned shack. Mack decides to go and meets three individuals who introduced themselves as the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The conversations are casual and friendly, trying to normalize the interactions as if there were four human beings talking to each other.
This book pictures God repeatedly condemning the idea of independence from Him. In chapter 8, God says “When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other”, implying that independence would lead to hierarchy and authority. Mack reasons that authority is used to refrain people from fighting endlessly and getting hurt but God explains beautifully that in a selfish world, authority is used to inflict great harm. I believe that the key word is not independence or authority, but selfishness. Being selfish is the root of all evil.
According to God , we humans ” embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in our relationships” but our choices are not stronger than His purposes. We don’t understand it now, but one day we will. I think this is all a human author can say about the possible reason why God allows evil things to happen to people. We can never fully explain or justify evil, which is why so many people conclude that God is evil or simply does not exist.
But going back to hierarchy, doesn’t the Bible teach about the man being “the head of the household” like Jesus is “the head of the church”? And didn’t Jesus relied on God the Father to do his miracles and fulfill God’s will? Doesn’t the Bible also teach about slaves submitting to their masters? Clearly, the Bible does teach about the importance of hierarchy.
In chapter 12, God uses the analogy of sinking in water and encouraging Mack to allow God to rescue him. “When you start to sink, let me rescue you.” While reading this, I ask myself : are we sinking? Are we unsaved and desperately needing to be saved? I believe we are sinking in our own selfishness and need to be “rescued” by learning to reach out and serve others in need. We need to genuinely rescue others from injustice, hunger, and illness so that we can be rescued from our egos. But God says we cannot do this with our own strengths. I can believe that, except that we don’t necessarily need to be saved from “eternal damnation”, but we actually need to be saved from ourselves. The ego gets in the way of genuinely helping others (which can be called sin if you want). Emptying ourselves from the ego so that we can fill ourselves with genuine care and love can also be interpreted as being dependent on God so that we can live the Kingdom of Heaven (“blessed are the poor in Spirit” Matthews 5).
God also said in chapter 12 “I don’t create institutions…”. This is an important statement to remind ourselves with. Humans create institutions, including religion. God, on the other hand, is about relationships.
In chapter 13, God teaches that lies are like fortresses that need walls (justifications) to make us feel secured, but it does not work. God uses our choices to work perfectly into His purposes. He says “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice”. He also says “True love never forces” and He further explains that love has true meaning when He allows consequences of our choices be manifested. But, does true love also permits God to allow people to suffer eternally in hell? What happened to grace? And wouldn’t true love allow us to be independent somehow? For example, my love to my children would not be selfless and complete if I don’t allow them to live on their own and have their own lives outside of my house. I would want them to succeed in life without depending on me forever. True love would mean being willing to let go. Maybe God’s love does not function the same way as a human father’s love.
In Chapter 14, conversations get even more interesting. God states an important fact when he says that emotions are neither bad or good. “Most emotions are responses to perceptions” and “Just because you believe something firmly does not make it true” are statements I agree with. The description of expectation versus expectancy nicely illustrates how important it is to maintain a relationship alive instead of killing the relationship with rules and requirements. If I perceive my relationship with God by simply being fixated on the rules that I must obey (the Law), then my relationship with God is based on fear. But if I accept the fact that I am imperfect and accept God’s grace while living a simple life, then my relationship with God is further nourished and deepened. If I expect my wife to do certain things to make me happy, then I would be greatly disappointed and will quickly start building resentment towards her. But if I focus on simply being with each other in good times and bad times, everything else becomes secondary.
Farther in this same chapter. God says “I don’t want to be the first among a list of values: I want to be at the center of everything.” According to this statement, God does not want to be #1 in my life, or be the most important thing in my life. He rather be involved in everything in my life. This idea conforms with the concept of not idolizing an erroneous image of God by attending religious services , but simply living life to its fullest. In other words, stop looking for God in particular places and during very long repetitious prayers, but live God in everyday life. When we idolize God, we put everything else behind. When we “live God” , everything else is included. We can do this by practicing compassion, mercy, forgiveness, service, peace making, and simplicity when we interact with family, coworkers, strangers, and friends. Everybody we commune with; everywhere we go; every time. Otherwise, we run the risk of treating everyone else with contempt and hatred, while “loving” an idolized God. Livng the Kingdom of Heaven instead of searching to go to heaven.
God says that religion uses the Law to condemn and accuse. Mack asks “Then why did you give us those commandments…?” and God responds “Actually, we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently”. So this answer implies that the Ten Commandments were just another reminder of human’s tendencies to be independent through rules and regulations and controlling others. So it wasn’t God’s attempt to keep us straight? I understood that the Commandments were ways for God (or humans) to keep control of a chaotic mass of confused people in the middle of the dessert. Anyhow, the book also implies that we don’t have to follow the Commandments anymore. So I don’t have to love God with all my might since Jesus forgave my sins and it is all about grace? I believe it is true that God’s grace is unimaginable and enough to redeem us, but we should also not take for granted the importance of loving our neighbors as ourselves, being truthful, avoid greed, honor our parents, etc. while we live the Kingdom of Heaven.
I also think that having a genuine love and care for others would automatically lead us into obeying the Commandments, without having to worry about breaking them. It is almost like learning a new language by trying to memorize a long vocabulary list and grammatical rules, versus simply speaking the language with others in everyday conversations and learning as you go.
“Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver…to release you from something that will eat you alive..” is a true statement that we should all learn from. We should let God help us “take on the nature that finds more power in love and forgiveness than pain.” At the end of the book, Mack pardons the killer by repeating himself “I forgive you, I forgive you…” To me this sounds simplistic and superficial. Do people really forgive by simply repeating this phrase? Is this realistic? Jesus taught in the Gospels that we should forgive 70 x 7. I am not sure He meant to “fake it until you make it.” Maybe Jesus did mean it like that. At the end of the story the reader is left in the dark about whether Mack spent a real weekend with God, had a near death experience, a psychotic break, or simply a dream.
In the After Words page, the author talks about a “new revolution of love and kindness.” This is what I call the Kingdom of Heaven. The Life that involves a radical change of behavior that reflects selfless acts of service and compassion. Whether you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Atheist, or whatever you decide to identify yourself with, we all can agree that this kind of revolution is essential in today’s world. I could say a lot more about other parts of the conversations that Mack had with God, but I will only limit it to what I have written on this post. I may have more input in another post.
The Shack is a book that clearly reflects the Christian’s interpretation of what God would tell us about suffering and His love (although not fully explained). However, it is fair to say that the author attempts to address life’s most difficult questions with kind words and reassurance which reflects an unconditional love from a graceful God. It emphasizes on relationship instead of institutions and authority. It stresses on dependence on God rather than independence and self-righteousness. It magnifies on grace rather than guilt. It reminds us of God’s unexplainable purposes being bigger than our fruitless and selfish choices. If I ever have a true conversation with God about suffering and His love for us, I think it would be similar to the conversation that Mack had with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu.