Nan, Mack’s wife, has always had a close relationship with God, as is exemplified by her affectionate nickname for him: Papa. It takes Mack much longer to realize that he, too, can relate to God on such a deep and intimate level. Over the course of his weekend at the shack, Mack has many conversations and special moments with the three incarnations of God, from gardening with Sarayu and cooking with Papa to stargazing with Jesus, that help him start to build a closer relationship with God. As Mack does so, he also learns about the true meaning and importance of relationships. Many human relationships are marred by the presence of power struggles or hierarchies, the novel argues. By embracing open, honest relationships built on love, humans are able to recreate the relationship that God hopes to have with all people.
As the three parts of God tell Mack, power has no place in relationships. Instead, relationships should always center love. Mack is confused by the relationship between the three personas of God at first, and asks them which one is in charge—a question they find baffling. Sarayu explains that authority and hierarchy are simply human inventions that infect relationships with abuse and power dynamics, and, more broadly, lead to hate and war. Misguided power dynamics are further reflected by gender: Jesus tells Mack that God intended for men and women to be equal, but, over the course of human history, men turned to work and women turned to relationships and sought protection from men. This led to men feeling superior to women, which has marred their relationship. Instead, both men and women should prioritize their relationship with God.
Papa further encourages Mack to embrace a love based on genuinely knowing another person. Just as Mack’s love expands to encompass each of his children because his relationship with each is unique, God is “especially fond” of each of his children and forgives them when they do wrong. Love is not predicated on expectations of reciprocity, but awareness and openness. It follows that another way to remove power dynamics from relationships is by openly and actively forgiving others. Failing to forgive infects relationships with power imbalances and expectations. Mack observes the love between Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu that is clearly present at all times—even in moments when Mack might turn to tension and fighting in his own relationships. For example, when Jesus drops a heavy bowl in the kitchen, everyone begins to laugh and help one another. Mack wonders if he could bring that same spirit of forgiveness to his own relationships.
More dramatically, forgiving those who have done serious wrongs is a way of removing the pressure of judgment from relationships and restoring a trusting relationship with God. By forgiving Missy’s killer, Mack relinquishes his own exhausting feelings of judgment in favor of a sense of peace. By forgiving his father, Mack is able to let go of the lingering pain he felt about his childhood. By judging Missy’s killer and his father, Papa argues, Mack had been attempting to take on the role of God, creating an exhausting imbalance of power. Forgiving Missy’s killer allows Mack to accept that God will judge the man. In this way, Mack can restore some of his trust in God.
Indeed, over the course of his weekend at the shack, Mack learns from the trinity that his spiritual relationship to God suffers from many of the same imbalances that plague his earthly relationships. As with his relationships to other people, Mack’s relationship to God will improve if he frees it of judgments, rules, and expectations. In this way, Mack’s encounter with God is surprising in how little it resembles his Christian upbringing. Strict religious doctrine and institutions like the church, Mack learns, are simply other ways of applying rules and value judgments to relationships—in this case, one’s relationship with God.
Likewise, the “devotion” that Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus perform after dinner one night surprises Mack because it bears little resemblance to the recitation of scriptures he remembers from his youth. Papa explains that devotion is about appreciation and honesty, not ritual. Similarly, Jesus explains that the institution of the church as Mack knows it is simply a human invention. All humans can form a direct connection to Jesus without bureaucratic intervention. Instead of religious practice, the actual way to achieve closeness with God is recognition of and trust in God’s love.
One reason that Mack has been unable to connect with God, then, is that he doesn’t understand what it truly means to be in a relationship with God. The Shack illustrates how this relationship, like all healthy relationships, centers love, knowing, and forgiveness over hierarchies, power struggles, and judgment.
Love and Relationships ThemeTracker
Love and Relationships Quotes in The Shack
For almost two days, tied to the big oak at the back of the house, he was beaten with a belt and Bible verses every time his dad woke from a stupor and put down the bottle.
“When we’re around family she seems to come out of her shell some, but then she disappears again. I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been praying and praying that Papa would help us find a way to reach her but”—she paused again—“it feels like he isn’t listening.”
“Sweetheart, Jesus didn’t think his Daddy was mean. He thought his Daddy was full of love and loved him very much. His Daddy didn’t make him die. Jesus chose to die because he and his Daddy love you and me and everyone in the world. He saved us from our sickness, like the princess.”
As he walked between tents and trailers, he was praying and promising. He knew in his heart that promising things to God was rather dumb and irrational, but he couldn’t help it. He was desperate to get Missy back, and surely God knew where she was.
“Oh”—now Jesus was serious—“don’t go because you feel obligated. That won’t get you any points around here. Go because it’s what you want to do.”
“For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me ‘Papa’ is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.”
So this was God in relationship? It was beautiful and so appealing. He knew that it didn’t matter whose fault it was—the mess from some bowl that had been broken, that a planned dish would not be shared. Obviously, what was truly important here was the love they had for one another and the fullness it brought them. He shook his head. How different this was from the way he sometimes treated the ones he loved!
“There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they're in. I don't like a lot of the choices they make, but that anger—especially for me—is an expression of love all the same. I love
the ones I am angry with just as much as those I'm not.”
“But—” Mack paused. “What about your wrath?”
“What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us.”
“The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us in order to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands and the sweat of their brows to find their identity, value, and security.”
“Mack, that’s because you’re seeing only the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their live, a living, breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs.”
“Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver,” answered Papa, “to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through?”