Monday, October 5, 2009

Papa & the Trinity

“So what do you think God looks like?” Willie chuckled… Mack grinned at the thought. “I don’t know. Maybe he’s a really bright light, or a burning bush. I’ve always sort of pictured him as a really big grandpa with a long white flowing beard, sort of like Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (The Shack, p. 75). A. W. Tozer once observed that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." That's because our images of God not only effect how we feel about God but how we feel about ourselves and those around us. Like Mack, in Wm. Paul Young’s book, The Shack, many of us have distorted images of God…distortions that can only be changed by an encounter with the true God at the point of our deepest hurts and disappointments.

One of these distortions is the God who is abusive and cruel. On a cold winter day, Mack stumbles down his icy driveway to retrieve the mail and finds a cryptic note waiting for him: “Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa.” The note seems to be a sick joke because the shack is the symbol of Mack's great sadness, the focus of his nightmares -- where his 6 year old daughter was brutally murdered. That the note is signed by “Papa” makes it seem all the more painful. Let's just say that “Papa” may be his wife's favorite name for God…but it was never Mack’s. That’s because there is another great sadness rooted in Mack’s soul…a sadness much older than the tragic death of his daughter, and that's the painful memory of his drunken, abusive father who used to beat him senseless with a belt and Bible verses.

When Mack decides to return to the shack in response to the strange note; he finds it empty and unleashes all his rage on the hateful place until he falls asleep in exhaustion. But it’s as he rises to leave and return to the car that the shack and the woods all around him are suddenly and beautifully transformed. He is drawn back to the front porch…and after a knock on the door, meets Papa…but in a way he never would have expected. For Papa appears to him as a large African American woman with an irresistible loving embrace. Later, Papa asks him, “Why do you think it’s hard for you [to call me Papa]. Is it because it’s too familiar…or because I am showing myself as a woman, a mother or…maybe it’s because of the failures of your own papa? Mack gasped…. “Maybe it’s because I’ve never known anyone I could really call ‘Papa.’” “If you let me,” Papa replies, “I’ll be the papa you never had” (The Shack, pp. 93-94).

In some theological circles, one of the criticisms of The Shack is that it pictures Papa for much of the book as a mother figure. Is the author simply trying to be edgy for edginess’ sake? I don’t think so. For as the book makes clear, the image of God as a good and loving Father is vital. But the reality is that for some (like Mack) seeing God as Father is also painful. The healing of Mack’s image of God will take time; so Papa reveals “himself” first as a loving mother. Can this be Biblical or helpful? Let's think about it. In Genesis 1:27 we read that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The image of God is reflected not just in man, nor only in woman, but man and woman together. In Deuteronomy 32:18 Israel is urged not to forget “the God who gave you birth." In Isaiah 49:15 God’s love for Israel is compared to that of a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child….even these may forget yet I will not forget you.” Then, in Isaiah 66: 13, God assures Israel that “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”

These images of God as a comforting mother must be joined with Jesus’ revelation of God as Father: “When you pray, say “Our Father" (see Matt. 6:9, 23:9, cf. Rom. 8: 15-16); for God is “the Father of all compassion” (2 Cor. 1:3); the merciful Father who welcomes his runaway son home with open arms (Luke 15) and blesses us with “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). Jesus’ revelation of God as merciful Father is well known…but what do we do when our own image of father has been spoiled by past hurts? In The Shack, it’s the mother image of God that helps Mack come to know God as a loving Father too.

My maternal grandfather was beaten by his father until he finally ran away from home at age 16. As is often the case, the abused became the abuser. He treated his daughters and his wife in hurtful ways; but it was my mother’s loving care of my grandpa in his old age that changed him. It was the love of my mom, not his father…that finally helped him experience and receive his heavenly Father’s love. Praise God for that! Some of us have been treated in hurtful ways; but the spiritual truth we have learned is that God wants to be the Papa you never had; that God is the father of all compassion; and like a mother God promises to comforts her children.

Another distorted image we have is the God who is distant and unapproachable. One of the most helpful things about The Shack, is how it illustrates the love relationship between the three persons of the Trinity: Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (a Hindi word for wind, representing the Holy Spirit). I want to talk more about Jesus and the Holy Spirit over the next two weeks, but for now let me share a more general word about the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God. It's important to understand that this doctrine was born not of abstract theological discussion, but the disciples’ real life experience of the One True God, whom they found to be physically present in the person of Jesus -- in his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the Holy Spirit. Thus Jesus’ disciples, who were good Jewish monotheists, came to believe by experience that the one true God is over us (the Father), that God is beside us (Jesus), and that God is within us (the Holy Spirit)!

This idea of the three-personal God is not stated directly in Scripture… but it is strongly implied; as when Jesus is baptized in Matthew 3: 13-16. “When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus' great commission is that his disciples "Go and make disicples....baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28: 16-20). Paul reminds us that "There is one Spirit....one Lord...[and] one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4: 4-6). Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father…all present…and in loving inter-relationship. The ancient blessing of Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:13 that we hear every Sunday underscores this relationship: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

Papa tells Mack that "All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me, within God myself" (The Shack, p. 103); and later: “Mack…we want you to share the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourselves. We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love” (The Shack, p. 126). For some of us, feeling a closeness in our families was not possible. Due to bitter division or unresolved anger, we felt distant from our parents or siblings. Our home didn’t feel like a “circle of love” but an empty shack, cold, and unwelcoming. But the spiritual truth is that we were created to share in the loving fellowship of the three-personal God. Can we truly be part of this fellowship, this circle of love? That’s Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17: 23: For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

Perhaps the worst distorted image we have is the God who will abandon us and forget us. I referred earlier to a scene just before Mack meets Papa, when he is taking out all his anger on the shack with his fists. He cries out to God in his sorrow: “So where are you? I thought you wanted to meet me here. Well, I’m here God. And you? You’re no where to be found! You’ve never been around when I’ve needed you – not when I was a little boy, not when I lost Missy. Not now! Some ‘Papa’ you are!” (The Shack, pp. 80-81). That’s the way he feels, but is it true? The Shack (and Scripture) seeks to convey a very different spiritual truth; that The true God will never forsake us; and, when we feel lost, God knows exactly where we are. “It is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you,” says Moses (Deut. 31:6); and David writes in Psalm 9:10, that “you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” It is Jesus who compares God to a Shepherd who diligently searches for the one lost sheep until he finds it (Luke 15, 19:10).

But how do we square this truth with Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It seems that God did forsake and turn his back on his own Son. How can we be sure he won’t do the same to us? In The Shack, Mack brings this very point up to Papa, “How can you really know how I feel?” Then, Papa looks down at her wrists…and Mack sees the scars that are identical to those Jesus has on his hands. “We were together” says Papa.
Mack objects. “At the cross? Now wait, I thought you left him – you know – ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” Papa responds: “Mackenzie, regardless of what he felt at the moment, I never left him…I never left him, and I have never left you” (The Shack, p.98).

In fact, the Bible never says that the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross as our sin bearer, only that Jesus asked the question. Emphasizing the unbreakable bond between Father and Son, Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14: 9-10); and Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” When I finally realized that the Father suffered for us in Christ, it transformed my view of the cross and Jesus’ pain.

I was about five years old when I badly cut my finger in an accident, and had to be taken to the hospital for some stitches. Perhaps many of you can remember something similar happening to you or to one of your own children or, as I'm painfully aware, something much worse. I’ll never forget the doctor putting me under some bed sheets and making them very tight so that I couldn’t struggle. My dad was in the room…but I was screaming and crying for him. Finally, the frustrated doctor asked him to step outside. “Daddy, don’t leave me!” I cried, as I watched him walk outside the room. As a parent, I know now more than ever that not for a minute did my dad stop loving me, even though he had to put me in the hands of the doctor who would temporarily cause me pain. He never abandoned me; he was with me in his heart; and years later told me about how painful it was for him to leave me there.

Papa never abandoned his Son…even in his moment of greatest suffering; and Papa will never abandon us either. Papa and Jesus were together that day in the Holy Spirit. Papa gave himself for us on the cross in his Son to show us forever and for all time that his forgiveness and love is greater than this world’s greatest sadness or our greatest sin. Let God heal the distorted images you have of him that are based on demonic lies, past hurts and disappointments. “If you let me,” our Lord promises, “I’ll be the papa you never had." And, may I add, he'll be the Papa every single one of us really needs.

1 comment:

Adam Pastor said...

Greetings Steve Craig

As you rightly state,
This idea of the three-personal God is not stated directly in Scripture.
Therefore,
On the subject of the Trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you in your quest for truth.

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor