Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Missy's Questions...and Ours

Over the next several weeks, I'll be writing and reflecting on The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, and the Scriptures that I believe underlie and help to clarify its main ideas. Young has been often asked why he chose something so painful as the premise for his book. Without giving away the plot, his answer was this: “The worst pain asks the best questions.” The Shack acknowledges what Scripture confirms…that pain often causes us to ask some big questions of God. We wrestle with God in our pain because we know that if God isn’t real in the most painful situation we can imagine…he isn’t real anywhere. In The Shack, Mack’s six year old daughter Missy had three big questions that needed answers….

The first big question that Missy raises with her dad is the truth question: Is God real? On the way up to the mountains of Northeastern Oregon for Labor Day, Mack and his kids stop at Multnomah falls (see picture), where he tells them the legend of the Multnomah Indian Princess.

As the story goes, the entire village is being ravaged by a terrible sickness. A prophecy says the sickness can only be stopped if a pure daughter of the tribe leaps from the top of the waterfall and gives her life away for her people; but as the tribal leaders gather no one can imagine asking his daughter to make such a sacrifice. When the Indian Princess discovers that her husband-to-be has also become deathly sick, she decides to climb to the top of the waterfall, pray and give herself to the Great Spirit, and then leap over the waterfall to her death. The next morning…there is grief and sorrow, but also awe and gratitude for what the Princess had done to save her people. That evening under the stars, Missy asks her Dad about the Indian Princess again…

“So, did it really happen? Did the Indian princess really die? Is the story really true?
“It might have, sweetie. Sometimes legends are built from real stories….”
“So, is Jesus’ dying a legend?”
“No honey, that’s a true story. And do you know what? I think the Indian princess story is probably true too”
[Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), pp. 32-34].
The author grew up in a missionary family that worked among a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. Many missionaries believe that there are “redemptive” keys in every culture that unlock the gospel. Don Richardson writes about the story of the Peace Child circulating among the Sawi Indians of New Guinea that enabled an entire tribe to understand how Jesus came to bring peace between God and humankind through his sacrifice. The story of the Indian Princess is similar to that; a tale of sacrificial love and redemption. The question that Missy asks…about the Indian Princess and, by extension, about Jesus’ death, is “Did it really happen?”

I think it’s always worth noting that scholars like Harvard historian Jarislov Pelikan have no trouble affirming that Jesus lived and that he had an unprecedented impact on human history. The Bible portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection not as a legend, but as an actual historical event. John has this to say about Jesus: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life” (John 1: 1).
In other words, John is saying, “We didn’t make this stuff up. Jesus was and is a real person whom we have heard, seen, and touched. And we have come to the conclusion that he was and is the One who is from the beginning, God come in the flesh… who lived among us, died on a cross, and rose from the dead .” The Bible invites us to wrestle with that claim…to accept it or to reject it, but not before looking at the evidence ourselves. If it is the truth, then it should be like the missing piece of a puzzle; the one fact that makes sense of everything else.

Some of us have doubts about the existence of God, the truth of the Bible, or what it claims about Jesus. The truth question is an important one for all of us, as it should be…but for many, like Missy, there is another question lurking behind it… the moral question: Is God good? The conversation between Missy and her dad continues:
“Is the Great Spirit another name for God – you know, Jesus’ Papa?” she asks.
“I would suppose so. It’s a good name for God because he is a spirit and he is great.”
“Then how come he’s so mean?”
“What do you mean, Missy?”
“Well, the Great Spirit makes the princess jump off the cliff and makes Jesus die on a cross. That seems pretty mean to me.”
Mack was stuck. He wasn’t sure how to answer. At six and a half years old, Missy was asking questions that wise people had wrestled with for centuries.”
A lot of people have stayed clear of God and organized religion because of the problem of pain. They see the God of the Bible as cruel or indifferent. The argument goes like this: “If God were truly all-powerful and all loving, there would be no suffering because a truly good God would not permit suffering and evil on the scale that we witness. Thus, the suffering we see in the world disproves the existence of an all-powerful God who loves or cares about us.”

To some, the Bible may indeed seem to portray a God who is capricious and cruel…a God who tells Abraham, for example, to take his son and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah; or a God who sends his only Son, Jesus to die on a cross. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, we read that “God tested Abraham. He said, “Abraham….Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22: 1-2).
Now this is a story that has troubled many people. Why would God ask Abraham and Sarah to sacrifice their one and only miracle son born to them in their old age, this child whom God had solemnly promised them twenty-five years before?! On the face of it, this sounds absolutely insane, but one thing we can say: Abraham knew God’s heart. Abraham knew that God had promised to bless him and make of him a great nation (Gen. 12). Abraham knew that God would never destroy the innocent, as was the case when he questioned God about his plan to destroy the City of Sodom (Gen. 18). And when Abraham went up to Mount Moriah with Isaac he said to his servant, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you" (Genesis 22: 5). I believe that Abraham held on to hope as he trusted that God would do the right thing...despite this strange command. Abraham knew God's heart.

And, of course, Abraham was not to be disappointed: In Gen. 22: 10-14, the angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son, and provides a ram for the offering. At a time in human history when child sacrifice was commonplace, this lesson would never be forgotten by Abraham or his descendents: It is God who will provide the atonement sacrifice for sin, not Abraham, and not his children. That’s a consistent message throughout Scripture…that the problem of evil will never be fixed by human beings alone; but by the mercy of God; and Christians see that mercy and love most powerfully visible in Jesus, God’s own Son.

The message of Scripture…and the message that The Shack will explore, is not that God intends evil but that God redeems it. In the words of Joseph to his brothers who had sold him into slavery years before: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50: 20).

Missy began by asking the truth question, “Did it really happen?” Did Jesus really live…and die for us? Is God real? Then she asked the moral question, “Is God really good, and if he is good why do bad things happen? The last question Missy asks is the hardest of all because it’s the personal question: Does God care about me? As a father of young girls, it's hard for me to read this paragraph without welling up with tears.
“Daddy, will I ever have to jump off a cliff?”
“No, honey, I will never ask you to jump off a cliff, never, ever, ever.”
“Then will God ever ask me to jump off a cliff?
“No, Missy. He would never ask you to do anything like that.”
Up until now, Missy’s questions had been theoretical and theological. But now they had moved from theology to biography… where the problem of pain becomes real and personal. Because it’s one thing to talk about God or suffering or the doctrine of the atonement, in the abstract…it’s another thing to persevere through trials and tribulations, or to come face to face with evil one’s self. Pat answers and trite phrases seem to wilt under the personal experience of suffering.
Psalm 10:1 begins with a painfully personal question for God, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in trouble?” All of us, at one time or another, feel this sense of forsakenness...even Jesus experienced it when he cried out, "My God, My God, why....?"

Pastor Bruce Humphrey of Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian Church tells about a time when his teenage boy was in the hospital: “I’m thinking of the words a pastor said to me in the hospital lobby while our oldest teenaged son lay in a coma. “You know Bruce, God has a purpose for this.” You want to know the truth? I wanted to hit him. Of course, I believed this at the level of head knowledge. I knew that God could redeem any tragic situation into something good. But his words seemed trite and unhelpful at the time. Contrast his theology words with another pastor friend who just wrapped his arms around me and held as I let down and began to weep. No words, we just wept together. One gave me theology. The other gave me connection.”

Lee Strobel writes, “The answer to suffering cannot be just an abstract idea, because this isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a personal issue. It requires a personal response….” Psalm 10 ends with the affirmation that though we may feel at times alone and abandoned by God...we are not: “You do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands….” I like that last phrase. It sounds to me like the God of our Lord Jesus Christ...a God who holds our troubles and our grief in his own hands, a "hands-on" God who is deeply and personally involved the pain of this world.

John describes this "hands-on" God when he says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son …..” (John 3:16). And Paul echoes this verse when he says that “In Christ, God was [personally] reconciling the world to himself….” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The Scriptures are all about God’s personal involvement in our hurts…and so is The Shack, which is why I'm interested in its fresh but familiar spin on this most important topic.

We can sum up Missy’s questions this way: First, is God real? Then, is God good? And finally, does God really care about me, and my deepest pain? If these questions are important to you as well…then I would invite you to join me in an exploration of The Shack, and the Scriptures as we journey together to the heart of God.

Join the conversation! Your questions, comments, and reflections as you read are valuable to me....

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