I now come to the third theme in The Shack that I find both emotionally and theologically compelling. The first theme is God’s total delight in and fondness for his children no matter what their shacks look like. The second theme is that trusting in God’s goodness and loving purposes is the key to living through our Great Sadnesses. The third theme is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is just beneath the surface in the first half of Young’s parable. By the end it becomes central to Mack’s healing. Our shacks only become mansions through the grace of forgiveness. Without forgiveness–both receiving and giving–our shacks will remain broken. Without forgiveness–both receiving and giving–we are “stuck” in the Great Sadness.
Mack thought he had come to the end of his spiritual journey at the moment he finally learned to trust Papa (p. 222) which is how we experience the circle of God’s Triune loving relationship–through dependance and trust. Mack had arrived, or so he thought.
Papa took Mack on a “healing trail,” but it was not just about Missy’s body. It was about something much deeper, much more difficult. If Mack is going to fully experience the circle of divine love, then he must also enter into the circle of forgiveness. Papa says, “I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart” (p. 223). Mack must forgive the “son of bitch who killed” his Missy (p. 224), about whom Mack had earlier said “damn him to hell” (p. 161).
I believe this is one of the more stirring sections of The Shack and, I think, filled with profound wisdom as well as striking statements. How do we forgive someone who killed our inner child? Young remembers his father’s abuse and the sexual abuse he received from tribal children in New Guinea. How can he forgive those who wounded his soul so deeply?
Forgiveness is an obligation of tremendous significance. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we ask God to forgive us as we have forgiven others (Matthew 6:12) and if we do not forgive others then God does not forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15).
But forgiveness is more than a duty; it is an entrance into the circle of divine life. It is an expression of divine life itself. We experience the heart of God when we forgive. We know the nature of God as an insider through forgiving others.
And yet there is also this deep yearning for justice, even revenge. As Mack says, “if I can’t get justice, I still want revenge.” Papa’s response is brilliantly on point, “Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him” (p. 224). Mack, and the reader, is reminded of an earlier scene where Sophia gloried in how “mercy triumphs over justice because of love” at the cross, and then asks Mack, “Would you instead prefer he’d chosen justice for everyone?” (pp. 164-5).
God wants to redeem even those who have wounded us and he prefers mercy for them just as he preferred it for us. Our act of forgiveness releases them to God and takes the burden off us. We can let go of resentment, bitterness, and vengeance as we leave it in the hands of God.
Are we still angry about the wounds? Yes. Anger is certainly a healthy response toward abuse, for example. Papa says, “anger is the right response to something that is so wrong.” “But,” he continues, “don’t let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck” (p. 227). Forgiving someone does not excuse their actions, but it does release them from our judgment into the hands of God who will handle justice in his world. Forgiveness means that we are no longer vindictive, seeking to do the other harm. We no longer take them by the throat but hand them over to God.
Forgiveness doesn’t seem fair, does it? That is the joy of receiving it….and the difficulty of giving it. None of us wants fairness when we are receiving forgiveness but we tend to want our “pound of flesh” before giving it. In forgiving we not only release the offender to the judgment of God, we also release ourselves from the weight of resentment which is too heavy to bear and will only sour the sweetness in our lives.
How do we let go of resentment? Here is a practice that I have recently discovered though it has been around for centuries. It is so simple that I feel like an idiot for not having practiced it earlier in my life. To forgive and let go, I simply pray for that person every day for a month. Every day I say to God, “I forgive ‘Joe,’ and I want you to give him every blessing that I seek in my own life.” I have found that habit–which is also suggested in the “Big Book” of the 12-Step program (p. 552)–liberating and enriching. Whenever I feel resentment, I pray for those I resent, and I pray daily for them until I feel the release…and it may take weeks!
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It only takes one to forgive, but it takes two to reconcile. Forgiveness is something that happens in our souls without respect to who the offender is, what they have done, or how they feel about what they have done. Forgiveness is a gift to ourselves by the power of the Spirit who enables us to exercise the love of God in our own hearts. To forgive is to be free. To forgive is to be like God and share his love.
The “miracle” of reconciliation begins with the “miracle” of forgiveness. There can be no reconciliation except where the offended forgives the offender. I think the word “miracle” is appropriate because such acts are divinely enabled and are themselves participation in the supernatural divine life itself. When we extend forgiveness, and it finds a tender response in the forgiven, then we will, according to Papa to Mack, “discover a miracle” in our own hearts that allows us to build “a bridge of reconciliation” between the parties involved (p. 226). The miracle begins with God working in our own hearts and not waiting for the “other person” to make the first move. The first move is forgiveness; it was God’s own first move, right?
Mack has a problem, however, with himself as well as with the murderer. He lives under the burden of self-blame and self-punishment. He deserves, so he thinks, to live in the “Great Sadness” because he did not protect his daughter.
The “Great Sadness,” when we feel responsible in some way (no matter how small!), creates a self-perpetuating cycle of blame and punishment. It becomes a form of self-flagellation. We deserve the pain, so we think. It is our just deserts. How can Mack enjoy life when Missy is dead? He has no right to joy and peace. He did not protect his Missy. He even feels like God is punishing him because of how he treated his father as a teenager (p. 71, 164). That is the insanity into which the “Great Sadness” throws us.
How do people forgive themselves? I wish I knew. Ok, I have some ideas, but I don’t know how to let it sink into my soul. I still have days where I want to beat myself up over my divorce. I still feel a deep sense of failure over it and sometimes I still feel the guilt associated with that failure.
I do recognize problems in my occasional foray into self-affliction. For example, my self-worth is not found in my perfection, my ability to keep the law. My self-worth is found in the delight my God has for me; he welcomes me and is “especially fond” of me.
On one occasion when I was shaming myself for my sins, a friend asked an empowering question. “Do you believe God has forgiven you?” Yes, of course, I answered. “So, do you know something God doesn’t know?” I recognized the point immediately, at least intellectually. When I fail to forgive myself, I make myself god. I become the judge. Whereas God has declared me “free,” I continue to bind myself to my sins. What I forgive in others and what God forgives in me, I find difficult to forgive in myself. That is nothing but arrogance and ingratitude. But it is easier said than done.
The Shack, however, has helped me process self-forgiveness. It is rooted in trusting God’s fondness for me, his forgiveness, and that God finds me worth his sacrifice for the sake of enjoying my presence (p. 103). The parable provides a narrrative in which to experience God’s love which enables me to forgive myself.
God takes my “shack” and transforms me into a mansion. When I experience God’s forgiveness at the gut level and when God’s beaming joy envelops me, then I can see self-affliction as rebellion and self-forgiveness as trust. I can even see Papa smile and wink as I look myself in the mirror and say “I forgive you.”
Mack blames God (p. 161). He becomes the accuser, taking on the role of the Accuser (Satan). He assaults the goodness and honesty of God. His anger boils against the one who did not protect Missy. Mack must learn to “forgive” God. The Shack does not use this language and I am extending the parable’s point here. I am taking it a step beyond what is present in the book.
“To forgive God” is a difficult expression and it must be carefully nuanced. When Rabbi Kushner adopted J.B.’s position from Archibald MacLeish’s modern retelling of the Job drama, he suggested that humans need to forgive God in order to move on with their lives. Humans need “to forgive God for not making a better world.” After all, in Kushner’s worldview, God is ontologically limited–he can’t do anything about evil in the world or heal diseases. To forgive God, then, is to recognize his limitations and not expect more from him than he can deliver.
This is not, however, what I mean by “forgiving God.” It is not to forgive God’s limitations or his unrighteous acts. The transcendent God does not have limitations and he is holy without any darkness. Forgiveness, in the sense of showing mercy toward an imperfection, is not applicable to God. So, what does it mean to “forgive God”?
Fundamentally, it means letting go of the need to judge God. It means letting go of “getting back” at God, of brooding over the seeming unfairness of it all. That kind of resentment and bitterness not only stalls spiritual growth, it can kill it. Instead of holding a grudge against God, we let it go.
This is has been my experience; my anger with God has led to self-pity and resentment. I have, at times, felt “picked on” by God. I have railed against God with the angry but despairing cry, “This is just too much.” I understand that anger and I cannot simply pretend like it is not there (though I have tried that as well, stuffing it down into my soul). But anger is not the problem–anger should be vented, expressed, prayed. At the same time, it is the deep mistrust that sometimes accompanies anger which turns it into resentment.
When Mack blamed God, resented him, and was willing to simply give up on God (Mack: “I’m done, God” [p. 80]), it was because of his basic distrust of God’s goodness and purposes. When trust re-enters his soul, he lets go of the blame-game; he lets go of the resentment. This is a form of “forgiving” God. Trust conquers fear; faith triumphs over resentment; and love does not blame.
Perhaps Mack could have prayed, and we might pray:
“God, I don’t understand why this great sadness is part of my life. I don’t know why you allowed it. It seems so meaningless and hurtful to me. Every fiber of my being wants to protest and even rebel. But I know you are good. I know you love me. I trust you. I forgive you and let go of my resentment. Open your heart to me that I might enjoy the circle of your love and feel your fondness for me. Increase my trust and root out my resentment. Though I do not understand or know the way, I will walk by faith and trust that you will lead me in your way.”
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgression…” Micah 7:18
“forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you…” Ephesians 4:32b