The Shack, Hurting People, and the Sovereignty of God

Last fall, I skimmed through The Shack for a paper I was writing on the topic of the sovereignty of God. I went into that book prepared to disagree with much of what I read in those pages, as how could there be very much good or helpful material in a book that had such an odd portrayal of the Trinity and God himself? But what I wasn’t prepared for was how God would use that book to help soften my heart to hurting people who are simply trying to make sense of God and love people in the midst of incredible pain. God is sovereign, but the sovereignty of God should never make us heartless.

For some of us, an understanding of the sovereignty of God saved our faith. Maybe even our lives. The sovereignty of God gave us something sturdy to cling to in the immense brokenness of our lives. It directed our eyes to heaven and while we may not have received any concrete answers for the pain in our lives, we realized that Jesus is answer enough.

But the sovereignty of God is not an easy doctrine to chew, much less swallow. It is a struggle to attempt to make sense of a God who is both all-powerful and all-good. A God who sovereignly ordains each and every one of our days, allowing both the beautifully good and the bitterly gritty things to fall into our days. We fight this oft-times felt contradiction when orphans die of starvation or AIDS, when passionate followers of Jesus receive a cancer diagnosis that does not go into remission, when our bodies fail us or our minds break, or when any number of sin’s contortions destroy relationships and lives.

Where is God? Does he see what is happening? Did he ordain it to come into our lives? And if so, how could he possibly be good when what seems apparent to us is only sorrow and horror?

The Bible has many verses supporting the arguments for a sovereign and good God, but that is not what this post is about. Nor is this post about The Shack, though the pages of that book affected my heart and helped me see more clearly through the eyes of another.

Rather, this post is about how believing in the sovereignty of God should affect our responses to people who are either struggling to believe this doctrine or have entirely different ideas on the goodness and sovereignty of God.

A Gentle People

Instead of making us arrogantly confident or cut-and-dried in our conversations with people who are struggling through the pain of life, we should be the most gentle, loving people around. If we are strong at the moment, we are obligated to “bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). It can be easy to want to supply theological answers when people haven’t requested them or give them a string of Bible references, because we know how helpful the sovereignty of God is in our painful, unexplainable circumstances. Helpful for us, but it may not seem encouraging at the time to the one who is overwhelmed by the brokenness of life. So more than that and often before that, we simply need to be kind.

When suffering and loss strike people we know and love, we need to respond by mourning with them and sharing in their sufferings (Rom. 12:15, 2 Tim. 2:3). Often the most helpful thing any of us can do is to simply sit in silence and cry with our friends (Job 2:12-13). In our “fix everything” society, this is a hard thing to do, but the best love does the hardest thing. Loving others well is often at the expense of our own personal comfort. We do our best loving when Jesus has our hearts, and our love flows out of that love to meet the needs of people. And often what they first and mostly need to receive is a gentle heart from us.

A Gracious People

The sovereignty of God should also make us a gracious people. Without the love of Christ, we will only be a banging gong that adds to the distress of the wounded (1 Cor. 13:1). We can understand all theological mysteries and have great faith, but if we are not characterized by love and kindness, all the theological answers in the world will be empty drivel. If the love of Jesus is not overflowing to the people in our lives, everything we say and do will be worth nothing. While we must be people of truth, we also must be gracious. People were astonished at the gracious words coming from Jesus’ mouth (Luke 4:22), but they also said that “no one spoke like this man!” after hearing his hard but true words (John 7:46). Jesus was full of grace and truth—both.

We must recognize that life is hard and should not be covered over with fluffy, puffy nonsense. People need truth and they need the truth about God, as found in his word. But this truth will wound and hurt people in the worst of ways, if our words have no grace, no love. Our friends need the truth and grace of Jesus—truth that reflects the ultimate Truth, and overwhelming grace that loves in the hardest places. The sovereignty of God must make us gracious, or all truth will be worth nothing.

A God-Centered People

Finally, the sovereignty of God should make us a God-centered people. Our aim should not be focused so much on having theological categories and sturdy doctrines that we miss Jesus in the midst of our knowledge. All of our lives should be colored and layered with Jesus or we will miss the Savior in our study (1 Cor. 2:2). He must have the first place and he must be the center of all of our words, thoughts, and actions (Col. 1:18).

In the pain of life, we must give people the fullness of the gospel and supremacy of Christ—not just right words, good doctrine, or theological answers. Theology on its own is never enough, if the risen and reigning Christ does not have our hearts (Luke 10:27). We can learn much about God, speak about God, and do many things in the name of Christ, but it will all be worthless at the last day if it was not driven by a deep love for Jesus (Matt. 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 3). All of us need Scripture’s depths and the Spirit’s heights. We dare not isolate one at the expense of the other. God must be all, in the fullness of the Trinity and as revealed in his word. When we speak to people and love on people, what we must be giving them is all of Jesus. We do not give them just a doctrine—we give them Jesus. We do not simply give them a category for their suffering—we give them Jesus. We give them grace and truth—Christ. Nothing else will do.

If the sovereignty of God does not make us a gentle, gracious, and God-centered people, something is missing in our lives and hearts. And likely what is missing is Jesus. Love for Jesus and love from Jesus for others.

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