Unsure if the note is from God, a prankster, or even Missy’s killer, Mack nonetheless finds that he can’t stop thinking about it and decides to make plans to go to the shack the next weekend. Luckily, Nan decides to take the kids out to visit her family that weekend so that Kate can see her brother-in-law, a psychologist.
Although Mack is close with his wife, he doesn’t tell her the truth about the note because it feels easier to keep his doubts about the note writer’s identity to himself. Mack believes it may be easier to confront such emotions alone, and seems to think that in doing so he is also protecting Nan from experiencing the pain and doubts that he is.
Mack asks his friend Willie if he can borrow Willie’s Jeep for the journey into the woods. Willie agrees, but insists on first learning what Mack is up to. Reluctantly, Mack shows him the note, and says that he thinks it might actually be from God—even though both men agree that such a communication doesn’t fit in with how they usually think about God.
Like Mack, Willie subscribes to a view of God as a distant, somewhat cold supernatural force, far removed from his daily concerns.
Mack says that despite himself, he feels like the missive really could be from God. That’s in part because he’s desperate: he worries that he’s losing Kate, and that Missy’s death was punishment for what he did to his father.
Mack believes that God causes tragedies like Missy’s death in order to teach lessons or mete out punishments for other crimes. In this way, he views God as vengeful and transactional.
Willie reluctantly lets Mack leave with the Jeep, but not before convincing him to take a gun. Willie is worried that Mack lied to Nan—the couple never keeps secrets from each other, he says. As Mack leaves, Willie says that he will pray for his friend, and Mack thinks that he needs all the prayers he can get.
Willie points out that, in avoiding sharing his confusion about the note with Nan, Mack injected an element of mistrust into their relationship.
Mack retraces the drive from a few years before, trying not to think of the previous visit to Multnomah falls and Missy’s disappearance. He feels as if he is driving straight into the heart of The Great Sadness, and the closer he gets, the more intense his desire to turn back.
Mack’s grief and depression center around his desire not to let go of the past but instead to dwell in Missy’s loss, so driving into the scene of the crime exacerbates his feelings of pain and emptiness.
Mack parks at the trailhead, about a mile from the shack itself. Panic overwhelms him, but so does a compulsion to push onwards. Shakily, he grabs the gun and a picture of Missy, thinking that at least if he dies those who find him will know he was thinking of her. Every rustle in the bushes feels like either a mortal threat or a sign of God himself. As he approaches the shack, it seems almost like a twisted, demonic face.
Everything about Mack’s trip to the shack so far, starting with the note in his mailbox, has shaken his sense of who God is and how He operates. Now, as Mack approaches the ostensible location of his meeting with God, he has no idea what to expect. It seems that God could take on any characteristics, even the evil of a demonic face. For Mack in this moment, God could just as easily be evil as good.
Mack enters the shack, which seems to be empty save for some old furniture. His eyes are drawn to a faded but still visible bloodstain near the fireplace. The sight of it fills him with anguish. He starts yelling and destroying the furniture, asking why God would bring him there and why he allowed Missy to die. He yells “I hate you!” and, touching the bloodstain, apologizes over and over again to Missy. Angry at God, he yells that God has never been there for him, even when he needed him most.
Confronted with evidence of Missy’s murder, Mack attributes the violence of the tragedy to God himself, blaming God for Missy’s death. God seems to have directly caused, or at least allowed, the tragedy of Missy’s death. Mack also believes that God was not only capable of abandoning him, but did so in his time of greatest need, for reasons that Mack cannot understand
As The Great Sadness descends, Mack considers suicide, thinking that it would be a release from the pain and a final way to spite God. But he does not want to cause his family any more hurt. Rousing himself from the floor, tells God that he’s done trying to find him. Wearily, he starts back towards the car.
Feeling that God has abandoned him, Mack’s grief descends to protect him from the raw emotions of confronting Missy’s death. But in some way, Mack is still sustained by his relationships to his family members, using those bonds as motivation to keep living in the face of great tragedy.
As Mack starts to walk away from the cabin, the snowy winter forest around him begins to transform: the snow melts and flowers and grasses begin to bloom. Within seconds, it looks like high spring and the air is heavy with the fragrance of flowers. He turns to see that the shack, too, has transformed into a beautiful log cabin. With mingled feelings of awe, fear, and, still, lingering anger, he approaches the cabin and prepares to knock.
As the world around him miraculously changes, Mack feels a surprising combination of feelings. The many and varied flowers blooming around Mack mirror the tangle of emotions he feels.
Before he can knock, the door is swept open by a large African American woman who sweeps Mack into a hug. She tells him excitedly that she’s delighted to see him and that she loves him. Mack is in shock. He notices that her floral scent reminds him of his mother, and he feels tears welling up in his eyes. As he fights his emotions, she takes his gun and puts it aside.
Mack’s response to the welling up of unexpected emotions is to try to suppress those feelings. His instinct, in other words, is to try to avoid strong emotions because they can be painful or hard to control. Mack does not immediately associate the African American woman with God because she looks and behaves so differently from his preconceived image of God, who is cold, aloof, white, and male.
Suddenly, a small Asian woman emerges and sweeps Mack’s tears into a small glass bottle. She gives him a sense of overwhelming warmth, but he finds it difficult to look at her directly, almost as if she is slightly transparent. She is dressed in gardening clothes. Behind her is a man in his thirties in work clothes who appears Middle Eastern. Mack finds his smile captivating.
Unlike Mack, the woman who collects Mack’s tears clearly values painful emotions and the catharsis they bring with them. Mack, who is himself reserved, is surprised by the warmth and openness with which these strangers greet him.
Mack finds himself confused but also enchanted by the three strangers. The first introduces herself as Elousia, but she also says it might make sense to call her “Papa,” like Nan does. The man introduces himself, saying he enjoys working and fixing things. He has many names but goes by Jesus to many. The second woman introduces herself as Sarayu, keeper of the gardens. Mack is confused by the three people, who do not match his expectations of God—but then, he also wonders what those expectations are founded on. When he asks which one of them is God, they all say, “I am,” in unison. It makes a strange kind of sense to Mack.
Mack is startled by the many challenges to his view of God that he has already experienced. He was not expecting three warm strangers to take a personal interest in him; but rather a single, inaccessible lord meting out justice from a distance. Yet the fact that Mack has preconceived notions of God shaped by his religious upbringing rather than his own ideas also suggests that his relationship to God is more defined by the bureaucracy of the church than his own personal feelings toward or relationship with God.