Meeting God at the Shack IV: The Great Sadness

[My book on the Shack is now available on Kindle.]

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

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.”

13 Responses to “Meeting God at the Shack IV: The Great Sadness”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    I read The Shack months ago but as you’re discussing it and I’m reflecting on it more I’m beginning to see the riches and depths a lot more. Yes, simply believing that God is good (regardless of what my eyes see and flesh feels) is the center of one’s relationship with God; if not, we have a shack to explore.

    I’m seriously considering using The Shack as the basis for a class study for a quarter, perhaps somewhat like others have used the “Back to Mayberry” concept. (1) What do you think about this? (2) Besides what you’ve already discussed and will yet discuss what are some themes that should be a part of such a class? (3) What kind of format(s) might work best?

  2.   Tim Archer Says:

    It doesn’t help that we live in a society that doesn’t grieve. In talking with a friend, I was contrasting the way my mother-in-law (from Argentina) has so openly grieved the loss of her husband compared with Christian women from the States who feel the need to look like they are “getting along just fine” after a terrible loss.

    I read The Shack in July, on a trip to Cuba (DFW now has a real bookstore, by the way). I found much to agree with and a few things to quarrel with. I’m enjoying your review.

    Grace and peace,

  3.   Ryan Richardson Says:

    Thanks for sharing from your life John Mark. I just read the last four posts and received spiritual encouragement from you today! I praise God for his amazing justice and grace!

  4.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    it is nice to have FRIENDS in high places,
    that TRUELY care and nuture us all in the way of THEIR love.


    “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”



  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    I’m not sure. I know some congregations have had book discussions reading a chapter at a time.

    I would approach thematically, I think. But that assumes everyone one has already read it. Covering theological as well as pastoral themes would be important.

    But I do think it is a book worthy of discussion in class circles. The theological themes are important for the Christian faith, practice and experience.

  6.   Cheryl Says:

    Wow! Your review of this amazing book is the best I have read. You really conveyed the heart of the book’s message of reconciliation, relationship and love. I loved the book and thank you for these posts.

    God Bless!

  7.   rich constant Says:


    from a post on may third
    in fixing ourselves we are able to minister to our loved ones. We are able to minister the love of God that is shed abroad in our heart to the assembly.
    on an instinctual level we will be able to convey the harmony of love shared by the Trinity. For the building up of the assembly in love.

    You have helped me in so many ways, by your kindness and understanding and patience.
    I’m sure you have not much of an idea.

    John Mark your guna work it out, a light will come come on, and down the road we will go! Joyous happy and free.
    Rich in California



  8.   susan hudson Says:

    I was in your class today for all 3 sessions, having only planned to come to the first to get your “take” on the Trinity and to tell a friend who’s really “gung ho” about The Shack that I’d been there and what I’d heard.
    Instead, I was touched by what you said and your sharing and came back for the afternoon sessions. I had tears in my eyes several times.
    I, too, loved the rich imagery of the book relating to the garden and the colors and the scents. (I wonder if my own shack isn’t so far away that I can’t even readily identify it.)
    And I have a question for you regarding a good friend of mine whose adult daughter was killed one year ago in an automobile accident. The friend is a Christian, of the “anti” brethren and would either never read The Shack or would be totally outraged if she did read it. As a parent who has lost a child and finally learned to grieve and work through the process, can you tell me anything to tell her that would help? Any good responses? Suggestions?
    I suffered a divorce and the whole gamut of worthless, guiltridden feelings that go along with it long ago, but I finally came out on the other side realizing that “she” was a huge blessing in that I was later able to make a much better marriage with a wonderful Christian man who is the earthly center of my life. What seemed to be the darkest period of my life paved the way for the brightest and most long-lasting. I hope and pray it will be the same for you.
    Again I thank you for your efforts this weekend.


  9.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Susan. I am grateful that the Shack gives us a way of connecting with each other as well as others at an emotional level.

    As for helping your friend, probably the best you could do is help her find a support group who will listen to her and where she can hear others grieve. That is the best for me–being with others and truly sharing. And perhaps…take the chance…with the Shack.

    You might check out my blog on “Anchors for the Soul” under Audio and Bible Classes at my webpage under the topic of “suffering” or “pastoral care.” I offer many suggestions to help grievers on those pages.

    Blessings, and thanks again for your input and perspective.

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Cheryl, thank you for your kind comment. It is deeply appreciated.

  11.   jeff_r Says:

    JMH – Thanks for these wonderful posts. I’ve been teaching a quarter-long class on “The Shack” (lesson 5 tomorrow) and have been approaching it from two perspectives – (1) the underlying theology of the book in a topical sense (God and Gender; Fiction and Art as Revelation; Free Will and Human Limitations; Relationship v. Institution, etc.) and (2) the thematic narratives of the book (Forgiveness, Healing, Suffering, etc.). Your posts are great reflections on the thematic elements. The class has been well received so far!

  12.   Rene Says:

    Hi John,

    I appreciate your review, and your page providing a more concise overview.

    The comment is for your own clarification. Under the title there is written “A Disciple Seeking to Follow Jesus into the World for the Sake of the World to the Glory of God”; I’m not an advocate of controversy where truth is. Jesus could have stayed back for the sake of the world (having managed to attain the state where all is one and every body recognized as the veil across unity) it is the world that sets the limits. As such, being already within a system driving to sustain the concept of limits, our only job is to overcome our own via personal forgiveness.

    The task is then “for the Sake of Overcoming the World” 🙂

    A Course In Miracles

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Perhaps that several ways of construing “world.” My meaning is that Jesus came into the world for the sake of the world (John 3:19; 6:51), and so we follow Jesus into the world (we go into all the world and live in the world) for the sake of the world (that the world might know Jesus).

      Thanks for reading.


  1. Meeting God at the Shack: An E-Book « John Mark Hicks Ministries

Leave a Reply