The first time I encountered the phrase “The Great Sadness” in The Shack it immediately resonated with me. I knew exactly what my own “Great Sadness” was though I did not as yet know what Mack’s was or what Young’s own personal sadness was.
Grief Renders the Creation Colorless
My “Great Sadness,” like Mack’s, colored everything in my life. It touched every aspect of my being–the way I looked at the world, the way I experienced life. It sapped the color out of life and turned everything to a dingy grey and, at times, an “inky darkness,” as The Shack describes so well. The “Great Sadness” tints our vision with shades of grey and black rather than with bright, vibrant, and life-affirming colors (p. 196). It sees the world through tinted windows. It is worse than blinding; it distorts the goodness of God.
Mack’s “Great Sadness” is his missing, and presumed dead, daughter Missy. For Paul Young, the author, Missy is a metaphor for his murdered innocence as a child; it is his wounded child. Young was wounded by a physically abusive and angry father as well as by sexual abuse from others. His “Great Sadness” is lost innocence and unhealed childhood wounds. Missy’s murder is Young’s own childhood loss.
My own “Great Sadness” is the cumulative experience of the deaths of my wife, son, and second marriage. To many I have given the appearance of strength and joy. But I now realize that was mostly a facade. It was an unintentional deception. I had built a Hollywood front around my “Great Sadness.” It is easier to put up a facade than to deal with the real hurt and pain that goes so deep that you can’t imagine ever being rid of it.
The “Great Sadness” shapes how life is lived. It becomes our “closest friend;” it is darkness (Psalm 88:18). I hid that darkness deep within me, giving no one–not even my wife–access to the hurt. It hurt too much to speak. To acknowledge the pain would shatter my heroic self-image, my identity. The “Great Sadness” had become, like for Mack (p. 170), my identity as I lost joy in my inner soul and propped up the image of a superman, the Great Comforter. While I have no doubt God worked through me in ways beyond my imagination, I now know that I did not deal with my own grief in healthy ways.
It is easier to ignore, numb, or escape the feelings of grief than to live through them. Mack’s journey in The Shack is the story of dealing with his grief and anger that had become a barrier to his relationship with God and others.
My “Great Sadness” stalled my spiritual growth; honestly, it more than stalled it, it diminished it. And, in February of this year, I crashed. I, like Mack, was “stuck” (p. 161) in emotionless silent grief and anger (p. 64). It was an anger toward God as well as myself, perhaps mostly at myself. I was not living up to my own self-image; I was not honest with my own pain. Instead of seeking spiritual nourishment, I performed. I thought that would do it. I thought excelling would heal the grief, soothe the anger, and get God and I on the same page. But my performance was an escape; it was a religious addiction, a workaholism. I was running from my grief rather than living through it.
I was, in fact, holding back the tears. The Shack has renewed my appreciation for tears. The waterfall present on the shack’s property is a symbol for tears (cf., p. 167). Tears can “drain away” the pain and replace it with relief (173); they are God’s gift to cry “out all the darkness” (p. 236). And the Holy Spirit collects tears and they become part of the heart of God himself (p. 84). Indeed, God himself weeps with us and sheds his own tears (pp. 92, 95). God, as Young rightly pictures it, is “fully available to take [our] pain into [himself]” (p. 107). That is the empathetic, redemptive, atoning love of God.
Stuck in Grief and Anger
One of the more significant points The Shack raises is what fuels the “Great Sadness” when we are “stuck” in it. Why does it continue? Why does it sink in deeper? Why does it become an identity rather than an experience endured? This is pursued in one of the more outstanding chapters in the book, “Here Come Da Judge.”
Sophia, the Wise One, invites Mack to sit in the judge’s chair. Mack will decide how the world is run. The encounter is analogous to Job’s encounter with God in Job 38-42, and presumably Young wants us to draw the link. As God questioned Job, so Sophia questions Mack. Though Mack sits as judge–because this is what he has presumed himself to be in his anger–Sophia questions him about love, blame, and punishment.
The dialogue reveals the underlying problem. Sadness is never intended to be an “identity.” When the “Great Sadness” becomes our identity rather than our just part of our experience, we get stuck in the Sadness instead of living through it. It becomes our “identity” because it consumes our experience, becomes the sum total of our experience, and colors everything we are, believe, know, and hope.
Then the point comes. Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom (like Proverbs 8), asks what “fuels” the Sadness. She answers her own question with a rhetorical one, “That God cannot be trusted?” (p. 161). Rather than trusted God is blamed. This is the critical juncture; this is the orienting choice humans make. This is how we get “stuck.”
We do not trust–at a deeply emotional level–that God is really good. We do not trust–with our heart as much as our head–that God loves all his children. We do not trust–with our gut–that God has a goal or purpose for his world, for my own children, for me. We doubt that every story participates in God’s Story and that his interest in everyone’s story (even Missy’s or Joshua’s) is good, loving, and meaningful.
As many, including the fictional Mack (p. 141) and the real Paul Young, I have lived much of my life in the past or the future. I am only now truly learning to live in the present, to live one day at a time. Living in the past or future is largely driven by fear–fear of past secrets, hurts and pains or future ones. It is the kind of living that Job confessed: “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me” (Job 3:25). And, as Jesus tells Mack, “your imagination of the future, which is almost always dictated by fear of some kind, rarely, if ever, pictures me there with you” (142). The future without God is indeed bleak.
Jesus then said to Mack, “You try and play God, imagining the evil you fear becoming reality, and then you try and make plans and contingencies to avoid what you fear.” Mack asked, “So why do I have so much fear in my life?” “Because you don’t believe,” Jesus responded. “To the degree that those fears have a place in your life,” Jesus continued, “you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you” (p. 142).
Exactly! I have said it before, written it (Yet Will I Trust Him), and knew it in my head, but it had not sunken deep into my heart, into my emotional being. The baggage of my life, for the most part, prevented God’s love from fully saturating my soul.
This, for me, has been the value of The Shack. It has given me powerful emotional imagery to explore my grief, recognize my own “shack,” embrace the theological and emotional truth of God’s love at a new level, and see beyond the Sadness. Emotional, of course, does not mean irrational or atheological, but it does mean that God has used this story to connect me more fully, more deeply with his Story.
The Garden that sits beside the shack in Mack’s vision is important. The garden is Mack’s own heart, his soul. It is a chaotic mess but beautiful, and more importantly, tended by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, speaking for the Triune community, the Spirit assures Mack that it is also “our garden” (p. 232). There is hope for the mess because God works in this garden; it is his garden too! To God it is not a mess but a fractal. It has meaning, significance, beauty, and purpose.
Amidst the “chaos in color” (p. 128), there is a “wound in the garden” (131). It is Mack’s pain, his “Great Sadness.” Young offers a wonderful picture of somatic and psychodramatic endurance of grief. Papa leads Mack to the body of his daughter, Mack weeps for her, and carrys her back to the garden for burial. Mack buries her in his heart–in ground prepared by the Spirit, with a casket made by Jesus, and in the loving embrace of the Father. It is a pure act of love. With their presence, the garden blossoms with the beauty of Missy’s life and God’s heart.
Mack’s encounter with the Triune God has given him perspective. He sees his life as a garden tended by God. Through his story-telling and his own recovery, Young is able to “become the child he never was allowed to be” and abide “in simple trust and wonder” (pp. 246-47). The more his woundedness heals, the more intimtate he becomes with God and with others. And he can even see the wounds as part of the process. The journey, in the judgment of The Shack, is worth it just as Jesus’ own journey through his Great Sadness was worth it (pp. 103, 125).
Mack–Paul Young, and I would add myself–now progressively though imperfectly embrace “even the darker shades of life as a part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted masterfully by invisible hands of love” (p. 248).
“I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”