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JMF: The view of God that you present in The Shack is a sound biblical perspective that strangely is foreign to the way many people have traditionally thought about God.
WPY: We have lost, or a lot of us have never had, the conversation about the nature of God. We’ve been so focused on our ability to keep the rule, or the law, or whatever and it’s all been behavioral. We haven’t had a conversation about what is this character. We live in such world of uncertainty. Everything about our lives is uncertain. We could get a call from the boss today and what we thought we were heading toward is no longer there. A sale could go sideways, a truck comes across the middle line, and changes our lives. So we’re filled with uncertainty.
JMF: And especially about what God thinks about us, we don’t know… we’re afraid of him.
WPY: We try to create something that will get his behavior to be certain. “If I can just do the right things, in the right order, to the right degree, then God is rather obligated to do it” – to do whatever it is that we think we want him to do. That can be having enough faith, for example… Whatever our formula is, to get the result… so that we can get God’s behavior to be certain. There’s a word for that, and it’s called magic. God doesn’t like magic. Magic is, if I have the right formula, the right incantation, the right something, I can get the right result. We try to use magic to get certainty.
If there’s no certainty in our circumstances, and there’s no certainty in God’s behavior, where is there any certainty? It has to be in his character. If we get his character wrong, or if we think that he is not good, that he is not loving – and we get that wrong, then we are by ourselves, and we’re back to issues of fear and control, because we try to get control over uncertainty in many ways. Anger, or dulling the pain of it through addictions of one sort or another, depression… there’s a million ways that we try to gain some control. Instead, if we begin to understand the character of God – that he comes into this relationship with us, for us, to heal us – that is a place we can put our feet down and begin to stand and move forward. Otherwise, we’re just on our own.
So the characterization of God in the book is an attempt, in fiction, to try to describe that solidity of character that I think a lot of us have not trusted. We don’t trust… That’s Mack’s big issue – that he doesn’t believe God is good. But he doesn’t know to get from where he is to believing it either, and God is very gracious about that process and says, “You can’t do it by yourself, but together we can do it.”
JMF: In the midst of tragedy or great pain, that’s when it’s very difficult to believe that God is good…
WPY: Yeah, because everything has become uncertain.
JMF: There’s a place in the book where you talk about the Father versus the Son, the Father being so holy and so great that he can’t be touched by our evil and our wickedness. But Jesus on the other hand is the good guy. Kind of the good cop, bad cop… Let me just read that section briefly.
Mack [the central character] says, “But I always liked Jesus better than you, he seems so gracious and you seem so mean.” “Sad, isn’t it? He came to show people who I am and most folks only believe it about him. They still play us off like good cop, bad cop most of the time, especially the religious folk. When they want people to do what they think is right, they need a stern God, when they need forgiveness, they run to Jesus.”
And yet as you portray the characters here, we’re not talking about two different Gods of different character, we’re talking about one God who is for us…
WPY: Unfortunately, we have some theology that has come alongside and said, where God the Father is, his issue is our sinfulness. He can’t hang around us. That is sort of like Jesus has made friends with us and God the Father is a little perturbed about it. He wants to say, “Can you find a better quality of friend? I mean, they come to my house, they mess it up, they leave things dirty, they don’t do the dishes. If you just find a better quality of friend. I know I’ll be ok because you love them.” We have the mentality that Jesus is trying to convince the Father that we’re worth enough to love.
JMF: We use the word “advocate” because he’s an advocate with the Father for us, but … he needs a lot of convincing.
WPY: And to make even matters worse, we have this idea that God comes to us and says, “You and I have a problem. Your behavior doesn’t meet up to the standards required, but I have a solution: For you and I to be ok, I’m going to take my innocent Son, whom I love more than anything else in the world, out to the woodshed, and kill him – and then you and I will be ok. Oh, by the way, trust me.”
We’re going, “Is there a disconnect here somewhere? Is that what had to happen for God the Father and me to be ok?” We’re going, “That’s not it at all… that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, it was God the Father that crawls inside of this very thing.”
People say, “What about, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’” That is Christ on the cross, for the first time as a human being, experiences a sense of separation. He doesn’t believe that it’s real – because the next thing he says is “into your hands I commit my spirit.” There is no real separation, but he feels the sense of it, but God is in him in that whole process. There is no abandonment like that. That cry is a cry of those who have experienced abandonment. For some of us that is such a hope for us.
JMF: There is this sense that you get from preaching sometimes that the Father is so angry, he’s furious; the wrath of God is cited, because the word wrath appears in Scriptures. The sense is that he is so angry that somebody has to pay, and so Jesus steps in and says, “Well, kill me if you have to kill somebody.” So we have the resolution that, “Christ died for my sins, therefore I’m absolved” – but there’s still that angry God. He has calmed down, but when he is going to break loose again?”
WPY: Exactly – we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and we fall back on performance, we fall back on our behavior being the basis for his mood. We have to maintain at least an adequate amount of behavior so that he feels good about himself and doesn’t take it out on us. So we have this schizophrenic God, we have the “good cop, bad cop” type of God. We don’t know whether we’re waking up on the side of his love, or the side of his justice – or his holiness. We think holiness is a manifestation of his reaction against sin. The truth is, he was holy before there was sin. What makes God “other” [i.e., holy] is his very nature of love – that’s what makes him “other” than us. Holiness then becomes a manifestation of his love, not of his justice, not of his dealing with sin.
Wrath is the right response to things that are wrong. Anger is the right response when there is pain and hurt, when children are abused, when people lie to each other, when divorce happens, people taking advantage… to greed, to all of these things, it is the right response. And for God to have that right response against everything that is in his creation that prevents the freedom of the human creation, which is the object of his love, for him to come after that with everything that he’s got, [wrath] is appropriate, is right.
My friend Wayne Jacobson has a book called He Loves Me. In it he uses the illustration of being a child running into a hornets’ nest and screaming running in the direction of his mother, and seeing her coming at him with this look of rage. She wasn’t after him. She was after these hornets, how dare they touch her precious little child. But if you look at her face, you’d think he had done something wrong. We have that mentality when we deal with God.
He’s angry against everything that hurts us. Jesus showing up at Lazarus’ funeral – that intense anger, compassion that comes out even though he is in the midst of raising him from the dead. Death is wrong, you know. The impact of sin is wrong. The wrath of God is an element of his love. You can’t divide his wrath from his love, as if he’s two separate characters. Everything God does is motivated by love, and everything has a loving purpose.
JMF: Scripture speaks of “the enemies of God,” and “the wrath of God against his enemies.” How does the love of God come into his relationship with his enemies in terms of his wrath?
WPY: He is constantly saying that we are to love our enemies as well. There is an understanding that we wed ourselves to our own lost-ness, to our own independence. It’s like the surgery. There is a process that is very painful for us. God, even, in dealing with the Egyptians, or the wonders of the plagues – that was a very painful process.
There are people who set themselves up in an independence stance and I tell you, you can wed yourself – the people in the New Testament that were most doing that, were the religious people. They were the most lost when Jesus says, “Woe, woe, woe,” and he tells them that they are dead men, the inside of them is dead. The “woe” idea is a warning woe. It’s saying “whoa!”… almost like a horse. “Stop what you’re doing. Don’t you understand that this process that you’re on, this path that you’re choosing – of independence, is going to drive you deeper into the darkness, not into the light that you think?”
One of the other questions that has come up about book is, “Why isn’t Lucifer in the book – as one of God’s enemies?” I believe in the fallen angels, I believe in the demonic, and I grew up out in the mission field. I know the reality of these things – the spiritual dimension. We don’t live in a benign universe as far as the spiritual dimension. I don’t believe God has any rivals, I don’t believe Lucifer is a rival. I think his power was totally destroyed and now all he has is the ability to lie.
All those things being true, the book was not intended to be another book about Satan. It was intended to say, “This is who God is, and this is the process that we’re in – that he comes inside of us to bring us to healing. We don’t need the juxtaposition in this book, and like I said, there are plenty of books that deal with that. This was not an attempt for a systematic theology.
JMF: When we talk about enemies, Christ died for us while we were yet enemies ourselves.
WPY: Who among us has not been an enemy?
JMF: Right. Then, like you said, we’re told to love our enemies. Then we proceed with the idea that God doesn’t love his enemies, but he expects us to love our enemies.
WPY: Suddenly we have this requirement that even God cannot live up to. The reality is, that he does. The reality is, that the creation that he has created, he loves, and human beings as the epitome and apex of what he pursues. We have all been in the position of being his enemy, and in some respects, we still fight him in this process, but there’s no shame to it.
JMF: That’s the beauty… In your book, the most poignant scene, to me, is the judgment scene where everyone stands guilty. It’s very beautifully done, and thoroughly scriptural. That’s what makes it so beautiful.
WPY: Part of that was to try to get the reality of this out of the abstract intellectual framework – just like using the loss of a child as the core part of the story. The term agape is used, that God is agape, he’s this kind of love that’s so different. The only verse that I can think of (and there maybe other ones) where somebody who is apart from God experiences agape… (Normally you cannot be apart from God to express it. But the closest that a human being apart from God can) is reflected in the verse, “If you being evil…” It’s talking about your core independence. “If you being evil know how to agape your children…” That’s the word that’s used.
The closest point that we can come to understanding the way God loves is the way that a parent loves their child, and I tell you there’s nothing like that – not if there’s any kind of health in your life, there is nothing that comes close to that. That is the kind of way God is, in his very character and nature. That’s why I wanted to use the thing that is deepest in us, to raise the deepest kinds of questions, and (for my children) I wanted this to be the conversation around which to develop the conversation, the processing, the ideas, and the relationship with God.
JMF: I tend to be that kind of person who when he sees a bandwagon, I say, “The last thing I’m going do is get on it.” So, as people kept saying, “You ought to read this book, you ought to read this book,” I thought, “I don’t read books that ‘you gotta read.’” But finally I did read it. I read the first few chapters, and this is where we get into the story of the tragedy and so on, and the very real anger and so on that Mack has.
He enters the shack, and I lost interest after God entered the shack. I thought, “I don’t see how he’s going get out of this, because I’m on Mack’s side here. There won’t be a good resolution to this, I don’t see how, in fictional form, we’re going be able to – [WPY: Find our way out.] – get from here to there, and resolve this anger without it just being facile, just some easy solution – what do we call that, a platitude, sort of thing. [WPY: a cliché.] I eventually got back to it and well, I had to do an interview with the author.
WPY: That’ll get to you every time.
JMF: So I better finish the book anyway… That judgment scene, to me, that itself could be a full treatment of the subject, it was just beautifully done.
WPY: Thank you. That scene has become where the whole book leads to. From there, everything becomes resolution after that. It was to say, “This is the reality of the heart of God in terms of how he relates to us. Let’s take it out of intellectual, spiritual, religious kind of terminology and make it real to us.
For Mack to have to struggle with this big question about his own children – that becomes something very real to him, and all of a sudden it puts us into a spot thinking, “Are you telling me that God loves us like that?” We’re saying, “He loves you more than that.” That is as close as we can get to understanding the intensity of that love – he loves us more than that, and more pure and better than that. I agree, I love that chapter.
JMF: Another section that is striking in the book is where Jesus is talking to Mack:
“Remember, the people who know me are the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda.” And Mack says, “Is that what it means to be a Christian?” “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian,” Jesus said. The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected. “No, I suppose you aren’t.” Then Jesus says, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhist or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who are murderers and many who are self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I’ve no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into brothers and sisters, into my beloved.” “Does that mean,” asks Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?” “Not at all,” smiled Jesus. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”
Some people have taken from that or responded that, “You’re saying that being a Christian doesn’t matter,” they accuse you of universalism, whatever they mean by universalism.
WPY: Yeah, when somebody asks me if I’m a Christian, I ask them back: “Would you please tell me what one is, and I’ll tell you if I’m one of those.” If we’re on the same page, I don’t have any problem identifying myself as a Christian. Unfortunately, in the world today that has become kind of a Ziploc bag, and as soon as you say the “C” word, there’s no more communication, no more conversation. What people think in their minds what a Christian is, is not what Scripture reveals as someone who is indwelt by the very character nature of …
JMF: It has become a caricature, a pre-conceived idea depending on a person’s experience of a Christian or Christianity.
WPY: Exactly. For example, we think of anybody in the Middle East, as Westerners, we tend to think of them as Muslim. As if they believe all the tenets of Islam, etc.
JMF: And they’re all the same, and they all fit this particular category that we have them on.
WPY: Most believers from the Middle East will still tell you they’re Muslim, but they’re Christian. For us that’s a little incongruous. These little boxes, I wanted to get outside. Jesus died, rose again, ascended to the right hand of the Father before the term [Christian] had even been created or coined. It happened probably in Antioch, where it was a derogatory term; they were going, “We like this term.” And so for Jesus to identify himself as a Christian is moot. The term didn’t exist. That was one piece of it.
Then I wanted to push it even further and say, “It’s not the label that you’re identified with that is the relationship. A label is a label, and I don’t care what label you have, let’s talk about what you mean by it. And then we’ll see.”
I have no problem identifying myself as a Christian, or the validity of being a Christian, or any of those things. But I want some agreement about what we are talking about. What a lot of people think of a Christian, I don’t want to be identified with, because there’s a bunch of it that is not true, and not right. I want a bridge to be built in a relationship with anybody. I don’t want the word “Christian” to become the impediment that stops that relationship from being built. I don’t want it to be an impediment between them and the love of Jesus Christ, either.
JMF: That has nothing to do with faith in Jesus Christ, or belief in the name of Christ, as some would want to say it.
WPY: No. If I can say it as clearly as I can, I am convinced that Jesus Christ is THE only way into the embrace of the Father. There is no other name given among men through whom we are saved – he is the sole and only road into the Father’s heart – he is the Father’s heart who has bridged that gap to us.
That was the last edit we put into the book, because somebody who read a pre-version said, “I love this book, I love everything about it, but I’ve got a couple of friends who are going think you’re a universalist.” So that little section where he says, “Do all roads lead to Papa?” Jesus smiles and says, “No, most don’t lead anywhere, but I will travel down any road to find you.” That was the last edit we made before it went to the printers in the first edition.
I’m grateful for the brother who sent that and said, “What do you think?” Because I wanted it to be clear that we are not talking about… I want the centrality of atonement to be central. This is what God has done to reconcile the world to himself. Now, as ambassadors of Christ, as if you are the very pleading of God, beg, “Be reconciled back to him, because he’s reconciled himself to you.” That, to me, is the centrality and the significance… the exclusivity – if I can use that term – of the person of God who has come in Christ in the power of the Spirit to make a way for us. I’m not a universalist.
JMF: The subject of the Bible comes up in the course of the discussion between the Holy Spirit and Mackenzie, and in one place here, they’re out together in a canoe. Just reading from the book:
Mack allowed his oar to turn in his hands as he let it play into the water’s movements. “It feels like living out of relationship, you know, trusting and talking to you, is a bit more complicated than just following rules.” “What rules are those, Mackenzie?” “You know, all the things the Scriptures tell us we should do.” “Ok,” she said with some hesitation. “And what might those be?” “You know,” he answered sarcastically, “about doing good things and avoiding evil, being kind to the poor, reading your Bible, praying, going to church, things like that.” “I see, and how is that working for you?” He laughed, “Well, I’ve never done it very well. I have moments that aren’t too bad, but there’s always something I’m struggling with or feeling guilty about, I just figured I needed to try harder. But I find it difficult to sustain that motivation, [I think virtually everyone, with any honesty would have to identify with that.] “Mackenzie,” she chided, her words flowing with affection, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules, it is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other. My goodness, you didn’t think you could live the righteousness of God on your own, did you?” “Well, I thought so, sorta,” he said sheepishly.”
You’re presenting here the Bible not as the way it’s popularly taught – as God’s instruction book for mankind. So it is used to rule on behaviors and to judge and to tell everyone what they’re doing wrong, and then goes back on the shelf. But the whole idea of Jesus in the Scriptures is often missed.
WPY: If we are only flesh, if that’s what we come to this writing with, then we’ll drop back to see it as a behavioral kind of thing without the illumination of the Spirit and the work of the Spirit. Even those words are dead to us. They don’t produce life. We are absolutely dependent, even in the words of Scripture, for the presence and life and illumination of the power of the Holy Spirit. All of us are. We know folks who know the words very well but have no life in them.
There’s that part of it. Jesus on the Emmaus Road with the disciples: Starting with Moses he showed them himself throughout all of Scripture. It’s a story, it’s a story of his love, it’s a story of his attraction to us.
I love Scripture. We are very blessed in the sense that we have this so available and just at our fingertips. Most of our brothers and sisters throughout history did not. They began with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I think maybe they have a little bit of an advantage, because we so easily fall back into our intellectuality and don’t even know how to hear the voice of the Spirit for ourselves.
Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” And there’s a lot of us who are going, “Well, but don’t we just have to hear it through whatever the leadership is, or whatever the structure is that I’m a part of?”, and he is saying, “No.” He’s saying, “You individually, you hear my voice.” I think that’s part of what the work of the Spirit is. It’s to tune us, to allow us, so that through the purification process, we sense his presence, and we hear him speak to our hearts. That becomes central.
Then Scripture comes, he can illuminate it – but I’m not at all convinced that Scripture is the sole and only place through which God speaks. In my life, it’s been through movies even, but also music, creation, relationships, conversation, art, architecture, incredibly beautiful cultural diversity and uniquenesses that happen there. The Spirit is very able to speak through whatever the Spirit has available or what we’ve given the Spirit to be available.
JMF: And the Scripture provides a rudder, a foundation, a primary means by which God reveals Christ to us. But isn’t that something that is often misused in order to maintain some kind of control or to subjugate or to rule over … That isn’t the Holy Spirit speaking to us through Scripture, that’s us manipulating Scripture for our own ends, our own selfishness.
WPY: Yeah, it goes back, in part, to not believing that people can grow up to hear the voice of the Spirit for themselves – that we need to interpret that for them so we can maintain control. A lot of people are afraid that if people move into freedom, and freedom is why Christ came – it was for our freedom – that if that happens, people will go do crazy things. There is good evidence that suggests that the amount of coercion and control that’s placed on people is the reason why, when the control comes off, they go out and do crazy things. They’ve just never matured inside of that framework. The work of the Holy Spirit is to move us toward freedom. That is his life in us.
Freedom within the context of our understanding of reality is all based in dependence, not in independence. We are a culture that’s full of independence, which makes sense, and the Holy Spirit is constantly driving us toward dependence. That is the only place where we find freedom, because we were designed to live our life in freedom – in dependence – in that union relationship with God.
Scripture is wonderful. It is definitely something through which the frame of our lives are understood. But if I was thrown in a prison, without it, I know the Holy Spirit would be present with me. You have a teacher, you have an anointing on you, and in that sense you don’t need a teacher, because the teacher lives inside of you, and in all things will teach you how to abide in him, 1 John.
JMF: Sure. And yet there’s a submission that we all have to one another, to listen, to test our ideas, and so on, and make sure that we are reflecting the self-sacrificial love of God rather than our own agenda. All that works in community…
WPY: Exactly, it takes us back to this relational element that exists in the very character, nature of God, that our relationships are just a reflection of that unity and diversity in the community of the Trinity. The beautiful thing is that he invites us into that level of relationship.
I was thinking about Christmas this year, and you have God who is working together for our redemption and they [Father, Son and Spirit] have this circle of relationship and they crack it open and invite a 15-year old little girl into it and they say, “Would it be ok if we did this?” They wait until Mary says, “Be it done unto me.” That’s the God of the universe who is in relationship with us and submitting the process to us so that we would join in that process with him.
Same in our own hearts, same in the process of our own healing and nowhere does he use shame to try to produce this. He doesn’t use law to try to produce it. The beauty of it is, as we become whole, pure in heart, we begin to see God everywhere. We see his activity, he’s in the details of our lives, he’s in the present with us. Incredible. Is this good news or what?