It has topped The New York Times’s bestseller list. Sold over a million copies in a year. It has been called The Pilgrim’s Progress of our generation. It’s received rave reviews from Christian leaders. So what is it about William P Young’s The Shack that has captivated so many people? Without giving the plot away, the heart of the book is a series of extended conversations between a man called Mack and the three Persons of the Trinity, about why God allows suffering in his creation.
These conversations take place in a shack associated with a deeply traumatic family tragedy, the worst nightmare of any parent. Through these conversations, God reveals deep secrets about himself, about the nature of the universe, that slowly begin to heal Mack’s anger and pain. (See Paul Grimmond’s excellent article in the Briefing for a critique of the Shack)
Allowing for the fact that the book is fiction, you need to know that Young depicts God the Father “(addressed throughout the book as “Papa”) as a middle-aged, slightly overweight and extremely cheeky African American woman who loves to bake, Jesus as a man of Middle Eastern appearance in blue jeans, and the Holy Spirit as a slight woman of Asian appearance who is seen more clearly when you aren’t looking directly at her.” So what makes an imaginative but extended dialogue with the three persons of the Trinity so popular with non-Christians? At several key points in The Shack, God declares that love must involve no compulsion and therefore no expectations…
The message is reinforced when the Father declares, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” (p. 120). God says the Mack, “we are submitted to you… we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.” (p. 145-146). Put simply, the God of The Shack, while sometimes angry at people’s folly, is never angry with people. Sad yes, angry no. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his anger will never lead to judgement. So we are relieved to hear the God of the Shack assuringly insist, “Evil and darkness… do not have any actual existence.” (p. 136).
In a beguiling way, The Shack speaks words about God and sin and judgement that will scratch itching ears, but this is still not enough to account for the book’s popularity. If there is one thing that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code exposed was the deep seated suspicion that the Church down the ages has distorted and corrupted the real Jesus. And the failure of the Church is woven into the fabric of this story too. So Jesus insists, “who said anything about being a Christian?” (p. 182) “My life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus’…” (p. 149).
Now, I can understand the book’s place on The New York Times bestseller list; what I find a little more difficult to understand is why so many professing Christians apparently find the book so helpful. I think it is because the Shack is a beguiling mix of truth and error – like combining life giving water and deadly poison – precisely what Mack gives to his alcoholic father before leaving home (p. 8). The combination of profound ideas and an easy conversational style sweep you along so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between truth and error. You see you cannot mix them any more than you can mix water and poison without suffering the consequences. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed parts of the book and I do think there is value in spending one to one time alone with God when you are hurting. But because the book has been commended by well known Christian leaders, many readers will not be able to distinguish between the truth and the error. Its caused a good deal of heated discussion in the Vicarage.
The theological discussion comes wrapped in an incredibly powerful and emotional journey of discovery which I confess is deeply appealing. It is hard to put the book down. But as I read it, I kept screaming – “but that is not what the Bible says”.
As Paul Grimmond concludes, “The raucous praise that you hear for Young’s blockbuster is the sound of our theological chickens coming home to roost. Sinful human hearts notwithstanding, if people in our churches have been meeting the God of the Bible genuinely in all the fullness of his biblical self-revelation, they wouldn’t be falling head-over-heels in love with the God of The Shack.” (see here for another useful critique).
This morning, we come to one of the most precious descriptions of the nature and character of God found anywhere in the Bible. William Young has Jesus say, “My life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus’” (p. 149). Well, the Apostle Paul begs to differ. He says the very opposite. To the Corinthians he writes, “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). And to the Philippians, “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5). What example is that? It is the superme example of humility.
Robert Green Lee, once wrote: “There never was another Who caused all creation to be ransacked in pursuit of words appropriate to convey to human hearts and minds His glorious pre-eminence. There never was another Who was a human child and also a divine Son; Who was wounded by Satan and Who, at the same time crushed Satan; Who was appointed the Saviour of men, yet was crucified by men; Who was Judge of men; yet was led as a felon from one tribunal to another. There never was another Who died and was buried and yet lived; Who saved others and Himself could not save; Who had no sin in Him, yet all sin on Him; Who was the King of Glory, yet wore no crown but a crown of thorns;
Who, in the glory He had with God before the world was, had the angelic hails of heaven and yet, on earth, gave Himself to the murderous nails of men! There never was another Who was the Prince of life, yet died on Calvary; Who was as old as His heavenly Father and ages older than His earthly mother. There never was another Who poured all seas, all lakes, all rivers out of the crystal chalices of eternity, yet on a cross said with a mouth hot like a parched desert that cries for rain, ‘I thirst’”. All of this was written to describe the Lord Jesus Christ. And our text tells us that God has given Him a name far above every name. We speak today of the Righteous, Risen, Reigning Christ!” Please turn with me to Philippians 2. Lets learn from the example of Jesus. Lets make the journey with him, to the cradle to the cross to the crown.
1. To the Cradle: The Example of Jesus in Humility
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7)
The phrase “in very nature God” literally means, Jesus is uniquely divine, truly God, from eternity past to eternity future. The phrase is also in the present tense meaning this is Christ’s continuing condition. In humility, the pre-incarnate Christ already possessed equality with the Father and resolved not to cling to it, but for your sake and mine, was willing to give it up and serve as a human being. He had nothing to prove, nothing to achieve, but gave, gave, gave. The RSV translation says “he emptied himself”. What did Jesus give up to become a human being? Don Carson observes, Jesus did not empty himself of something. Jesus did not give up one thing to become another. “For example, it is not as if he emptied himself of his deity, for then he would no longer be God. Nor did he empty himself of his attributes of his deity for the result would be the same… far from meaning he emptied himself of something, he emptied himself.” – as the NIV puts it, “he made himself nothing”. Jesus abandoned his rights, he became a nobody, he became a slave. Is not this true humility? C.S. Lewis illustrates the enormity of what we learn here:
“Lying at your feet is your dog. Imagine, for a moment, that your dog and every dog, is in deep distress. If it would help all the dogs in the world to become like men, would you be willing to become a dog? Would you put down your human nature, leaving your loved ones, your job, hobbies, your music, and choose instead of the intimate communion with your beloved, the poor substitute of looking into the beloved’s face and wagging your tail, unable to smile or speak? Christ by becoming man limited the thing which to Him was the most precious thing in the world; his unhampered, unhindered communion with the Father.”
To the Cradle: The Example of Christ in Humility.
2. To the Cross: The Example of Jesus in Obedience
“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)
He always was God, but in the incarnation, he became something he was not – a human being. Carson writes,
“It is very hard for us today to hear the shocking overtones of the words Paul uses, because the cross has become for us such a domesticated symbol.”
We wear them from ears, on our rings and around our necks. We place them everywhere from church spires to car bumper stickers. Miniature, life size and on skyscrapers, wooden, silver, gold, titanium, even backlit with fluorescent green lights – and no one is shocked.
Carson asks, imagine if we were to place in a prominent position in our church a fresco of the mass graves of Auschwitz. Would not people be horrified? Would there not be complaints in the media? But in Roman occupied Palestine, the cross had that kind of symbolic power. It provoked just one emotion – horror – well two – horror and shame. “Of the various forms of Roman execution, crucifixion could be used only for slaves, rebels and anarchists; it could never be used of a Roman citizen unless with the express sanction of the Emperor. Crucifixion was considered too cruel – so shameful that the word was avoided in polite conversation.”
But here Paul insists the one we serve, the one we are called to be like, the one who is our example, not only humbles himself, not only makes himself nothing, not only makes himself a slave but in obedience to God the Father offers his life – dies – an odious, revolting, shameful, humiliating death on a cross. A means of death reserved for public enemies, rebels. When Paul says Jesus suffered “death on a cross” it was meant to shock. Charles Spurgeon explains the centrality of the cross:
“No matter what text you take immediately cut cross the country to the cross and begin there. The cross is the strength of the minister and I would not be without it for the world. I would feel like a soldier without his weapons or a labourer without his tools; like an artist without a pencil or a pilot without a compass. Let others preach the law and preach morality; let others preach about sacrament and preach the church — but give me the cross. Let me preach the cross, let me glory in the cross. This is the only lever that has ever turned the world upside down and made men forsake their sins”.
When I survey the wondrous cross. The test therefore, for me, of any work claiming to be Christian, whether its a book – fiction or non-fiction, whether a sermon, a speech, a talk, a song, a hymn, a film or a video – is simply this: What does it say about the cross? Is it central? Does it clarify or confuse the cross? Does it help me understand more about the cross and what my Lord has accomplished there?
To the Cradle: The Example of Christ in Humility.
To the Cross: The Example of Jesus in Obedience.
3. To the Crown: The Example of Jesus in Exultation
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
This is my text for next Sunday so let me leave it with this simple comparison. William Young has tried to describe the Lord Jesus in the Shack. Dr. Shadrach Meshach Lockridge tried a generation ago to do the same. You decide who is more successful, who is more faithful to the Christ we have encountered in Philippians chapter 2. (see video here)
“The Bible says my king is a seven-way king: He’s the king of the Jews — that’s a racial king. He’s the king of Israel — that’s a national king. He’s the king of righteousness. He’s the king of the ages. He’s the king of heaven. He’s the king of glory. He’s the king of kings and he’s the Lord of lords.
That’s my king. Well, I wonder, do you know him?…
He’s enduringly strong, He’s entirely sincere, He’s eternally steadfast. He’s immortally graceful. He’s imperially powerful. He’s impartially merciful. He’s God’s Son. He’s a sinner’s saviour. He’s the centerpiece of civilization. He stands alone in Himself. He’s unparalleled. He’s unprecedented. He’s supreme. He’s preeminent. He’s the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest idea in philosophy. He’s the fundamental truth in theology. He’s the miracle of the age. He’s the only one able to supply all of our needs simultaneously. He supplies strength for the weak. He’s available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and He saves. He guards and He guides. He heals the sick, He cleans the lepers. He forgives sinners, He discharges debtors, He delivers captives, He defends the feeble, He blesses the young, He serves the unfortunate, He regards the aged, He rewards the diligent, He beautifies the meek.
Do you know Him? Well, my king is the king of knowledge, He’s the well-spring of wisdom, He’s the doorway of deliverance, He’s the pathway of peace, He’s the roadway of righteousness, He’s the highway of holiness He’s the gateway of glory, He’s the master of the mighty, He’s the captain of the conquerors, He’s the head of the heroes, He’s the leader of the legislators, He’s the overseer of the overcomers, He’s the governor of governors, He’s the prince of princes, He’s the king of Kings and the Lord of Lords. His life is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His mercy is everlasting. His love never changes. His word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His reign is righteous. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Well.
I wish I could describe Him to you. But He’s indescribable. Yes. He’s incomprehensible. He’s invincible, He’s irresistible. I’m trying to tell you, the Heavens cannot contain Him, let alone a man explain Him. You can’t get Him out of your mind. You can’t get Him off of your hands. You can’t outlive Him, and you can’t live without Him. Well. The Pharisees couldn’t stand Him, but they found out they couldn’t stop Him. Pilate couldn’t find any fault in Him. Herod couldn’t kill Him. Death couldn’t handle Him and the grave couldn’t hold Him. That’s my king!
He always has been, and He always will be. I’m talking about He [who] had no predecessor and He [who] has no successor. There was nobody before Him and there will be nobody after Him. You can’t impeach Him, and He’s not going to resign. We try to get prestige and honor and glory to ourselves, but the glory is all His. Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, and ever, and ever, and ever. How long is that? And ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and when you get through with all of the forevers, then “Amen.”
Check out Mark Driscoll’s fine critique of the Shack here