When Mack’s daughter Missy is kidnapped and murdered, Mack can’t stop thinking that God has abandoned him in his time of greatest need. A big part of why Mack initially suffers so much and feels so disconnected from God is that he labors under a number of false assumptions about the nature of God: he assumes that God is unsympathetic to Mack’s life; he assumes that God abandons people in their times of need; and he assumes that God is calculating and vengeful, shaming and punishing people when they do wrong. By presenting himself in the unlikely form of three friendly strangers—God as a black woman named Papa, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu, and Jesus as a carpenter—God breaks down those assumptions and shows Mack that God is a benevolent force that will always be with him and will never abandon him.
Mack is surprised to see God (Papa) as a black woman, because Mack had always vaguely pictured God as an old white man. Papa explains that it is important to break down his assumptions of what God looks like so Mack can move past his association of God with religious practices, which he has always felt uncomfortable with, and instead connect to God directly. Mack is similarly surprised that Jesus isn’t more handsome. In response, Jesus says that attractiveness, like race and gender, is just a tool that Mack and other people use for judging one another. In this way, God points out that Mack’s discomfort with God stems from preconceived notions about what God is like that mostly come from external sources, like his religious upbringing and society in general. The challenging of those notions starts to open the door for Mack to have a more personal relationship with God.
Mack also initially believes that God is cold and all-powerful, sometimes abandoning humans in their times of need. By appearing as three complementary personas, however, God challenges those assumptions. Papa explains that it is necessary for God to exist as three components so that love and relationships can exist within God. In this way, Young again shows that the way to achieve oneness with God is by embracing relationships, because God himself is comprised of a relationship between three beings.
The Trinity of God is also significant because it points to the way that God lives in human beings at all times. Mack always thought that God had abandoned Jesus when he was crucified on the cross, just as God had abandoned Missy. However, the nature of the three-part God is that these parts are never really separate from one another. Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus demonstrate this notion over the course of the weekend by showing Mack that a conversation he has with one of them is simultaneously perceived by the others. Furthermore, Papa has scars on her hands from when Jesus was nailed to the cross, demonstrating that God does not abandon humans in times of crisis. Papa’s constant presence in Jesus is a way of demonstrating that God lives in humans and is with them always. Because it is impossible for Papa to abandon Jesus, the human embodiment of God, it is impossible for God to abandon humans.
Mack is at first mistrustful of God because he perceives God as being an angry and vengeful force. Instead, God explains that he operates from a place of forgiveness, not vengeance. Mack worries that Missy’s death was punishment for Mack poisoning his own father when he was young, and also that Papa caused Missy’s death in order to teach Mack about faith. Papa explains that in both these cases, she is able to use pain for good—but that she doesn’t cause such pain. When Mack asks Papa if she enjoys punishing those who disappoint her, she is adamant that her power doesn’t work in that way. She tells Mack that the basis of God’s relationship to all humans is love, not shame or vengeance.
At the beginning of The Shack, Mack does not trust God or let him into his life. However, this is largely because Mack misunderstands the nature of God, assuming that he is a vengeful, powerful force who punishes all who anger him. During his weekend at the shack with Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus, Mack comes to understand that God actually exists in three complementary parts, and that the basis of God is love and relationships. By having God deliberately appear in ways that challenge Mack’s mental image of him, the novel highlights the misconceptions that Mack holds and argues that overcoming such narrow-minded or misguided assumptions is vital to understanding and embracing the true nature of divinity.
The Nature of God ThemeTracker
The Nature of God 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.
Turning his eyes heavenward, he began screaming his anguished questions. “Why? Why did you let this happen? Why did you bring me here? Of all places to meet you—why here? Wasn’t it enough to kill my baby? Do you have to toy with me too?”
“If you couldn’t take care of Missy, how can I trust you to take care of me?” There, he’d said it—the question that had tormented him every day of The Great Sadness. Mack felt his face flush angry red as he stared at what he now considered to be some odd characterization of God, and he realized his hands were knotted into fists.
“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.”
He let out a deep, heavy sigh. And if God was really here, why hadn’t he taken his nightmares away?
“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?”
“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes.”