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What Does ‘The Shack’ Say About Your Pain?

The Shack movie releases in theaters this weekend, as this year marks the tenth anniversary of Paul Young’s self-published novel of the same title. The book appeared in 2007, and traveled through the wider Christian market to become a global phenomenon. By early summer, 2008, more than one million sales were reported, and by the end of 2009, more than ten million.

Young grew up as a missionary kid and was sexually abused (not by family) on the mission field. The Shack, he says, was birthed in his own wrestling with his trauma and his existential “problem of pain” — how God can be sovereign and good, and not just allow such evil in the world at large, but such evil toward me personally.

The Shack is fiction, but don’t think for a minute that Young isn’t clearly and intentionally writing theology. He’s the first to say so. Theology isn’t merely conveyed in abstract propositions. Dozens of literary genres make up the Christian Scriptures. It’s not only the apostle Paul who speaks for God, but also the Psalms and Proverbs and the apocalyptic writings. Jesus himself spoke in stories, called parables. Story is a powerful tool for teaching someone about God and his world. The fact that Young writes a novel doesn’t mean that he’s indifferent to how his readers think about God and their pain. In fact, the key to understanding why so many love his novel is it speaks so vividly about God and pain.

Shack Attack

I read the book in 2008 amid the swirling controversy about Young’s portrayal of the Trinity. Honestly, I was not impressed by the writing or the theology. The story has enough intrigue and narrative tension to hook readers and keep us interested in how things resolve, but lacks much in the finer points. Beyond the Trinity, which has been addressed at length, the book makes problematic and untrue claims that seem to be more informed by evangelical-folk assumptions than specific things the Bible actually says.

The story starts with a kidnapping and a murder. While on a camping trip with his children, Mack Phillips simultaneously saves his son from drowning and, in all the commotion, loses track of his youngest daughter. He soon discovers that she has been kidnapped, and eventually the police find evidence that she was murdered in a shack somewhere out in the wilderness.

Three years later, with Mack still struggling over this Great Sadness, as Young calls it, he receives a letter from God asking him to meet him at the shack where his daughter was murdered. At first Mack wonders if it’s a cruel joke. But he decides he must go. He needs some kind of closure.

“God makes our pain a channel of his grace to bring about a deeper trusting and delighting in him.”

When he arrives, God is there, but not like anyone would expect. God the Father is an African-American woman named Papa. Jesus is, well, Jesus — a Middle Eastern carpenter. And the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu. But don’t get too distracted by this bizarre, and unhelpful, portrayal of the holy Trinity. Strange as it is, the story is moving somewhere deeper — to touch a more tender theological nerve.

Without spoiling the height of the story for those who plan to see the movie, Mack’s weekend at the shack with God culminates by confronting his Great Sadness. Mack’s anger with God over the death of his daughter eventually boils to the surface. He finally admits, “Yes, God is to blame!”

Young’s defense of pain amounts to God’s hands being tied. Humans choose evil. God is limited by the choices they make with their free will. Wisdom (a Hispanic woman portraying divine wisdom) explains, “Papa has never needed evil to accomplish his good purposes. It is you humans who have embraced evil and Papa has responded with goodness.” As Papa has said to Mack, “There was no way to create freedom without a cost.”

Not Our Job

The further I read into The Shack, the clearer it became that the deepest theological reality for Young is not the Trinity, or self-autonomous free will, but the very personal problem of pain. And in the various degrees of error at these flashpoints, what the story can’t help but evidence is a subtle, but significant misunderstanding of divine revelation — how it is that God speaks to us today.

For Young and his readers, the story wrestles most profoundly with pain. What’s remarkable — and from the little I’ve researched, it does not appear that Young is aware of this parallel — is that long before Mack Phillips, and Young himself, wrestled in story form with the problem of pain, God himself told us a more reliable story of another man suffering inside a theological shack. His name is Job.

All at once, word came that Job’s donkeys, sheep, camels, and even his servants were wiped out in a series of tragedies. And then, most devastating of all, came the report about his children: “Behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:19).  What did Job do — and what did he say about God?

Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20–21)

Lest we assume that this sufferer, in his great sadness, spoke in error, the inspired commentator immediately confirms, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22).

But the story of Job is far from over. With God’s permission, Satan attacks Job’s own body with “loathsome sores” from head to toe (Job 2:7). Again, unlike Mack Phillips who shakes his fist at God in anger, Job bows his head in faith. “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And again the inspired writer verifies, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).

Then for thirty chapters, Job’s three friends argue, in their folk theology, that Job’s suffering is God’s retribution for his sin. Yet Job defends his righteousness, and at the same time holds true to his God. Finally, God himself speaks to Job in chapters 38–41, and it sounds nothing at all like Papa’s and Wisdom’s free-will encouragement and consolation. 

Rather than trying to answer the problem of pain by sloughing it off on the shallow explanation of human decisions, the story of Job lifts our heads to the incomprehensible glory, grandeur, and majesty of a mysterious and sovereign God. Job’s climactic expression is not that little human choices derail God’s will, but this: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

And, again, lest we think the inspired writer of this book is presenting Job at this point as a bad theologian, he adds his own authoritative description of all Job’s pain, “All his brothers and sisters . . . comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).

If we are in Christ, God makes our pain a channel of his grace to bring about a deeper trusting and delighting in him. Without answering all our questions about pain in detail, we learn that God is greater, and his purposes more mysterious and wiser, than we can fathom; and that pain, in his good providence and plan, is his strange grace to draw us to him — not simply a question requiring an answer on our terms.

For Bible-lovers, our great sadness, as John Piper says, should be one of a very different sort than Young’s: “It is a great sadness when sufferers seek relief by sparing God his sovereignty over their pain. The sadness is that this undercuts the very hope it aims to create” (Job, 8).

Want to Hear God Speak?

The problem of pain is the most profound focus of Young’s story, but what lies beneath the surface in essentially all the problematic parts are widespread false assumptions about how we hear God speak today. Where do we go to hear God’s voice? Again and again, Young points away from Scripture, and in doing so, he well represents what is assumed today by many professing Christians.

We do not need a wilderness shack to hear from God. He gave us his word, through his appointed prophets and apostles in the Great Book, and he gave us the Spirit to illumine and apply our hearing. In short, the voices in your head are not God; they are you. If you want to hear God audibly, then read the Bible out loud.

“The voices in your head are not God; they are you.”

I don’t plan to see the movie. For me, I’m not eager to lend my support to a subpar story with problematic claims about such precious realities. It is faintly Christian at best, and teeters on the brink of something else altogether. It may well represent what Young and many professing Christians believe today, but it does not well represent the theology and teachings of the Bible.

If you do read the book or see the movie, perhaps you can help others wrestle with these important issues, and point them to God’s revealed word in the Scriptures for greater clarity and hope in their pain.