Death. You know this feeling according to what you’ve been through. The death of a person. The death of a dream. The death of hope. I admit I probably haven’t experienced great tragedy compared to many of you reading this, but I know the feeling of death.
In fact, as I write this, tears well in my eyes at the fresh grief it has brewed in my heart this season. Loss comes in many shapes and colours. It could be disappointment when things don’t turn out the way you expect them to – in my case, coming to terms with relationships not panning out as I’d expected. Or when something too horrible to comprehend happens to someone you love.
In the recently released movie The Shack, originally written as a Christian novel by William P Young, loss for protagonist Mackenzie Phillips – or what he calls the Great Sadness – came in the form of the latter. As the book’s synopsis describes it: Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness.
The powerfully moving story that deals with the timeless question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”, finally made its way to Singapore on April 6 – just in time for Good Friday.
Much has been said and appreciated about Easter – from the tragedy of Good Friday to the triumph of Resurrection Sunday. But it is the day in between, what some term Silent Saturday, that usually falls out of our reflections.
Year after year, we mourn the painful journey to Gethsemane and the grave, rush through Saturday and jump for joy on the glorious Third Day. Just like periods of real grief, we are quick to want to move beyond the valley of the shadow of death – the insufferable in-between.
The very first Silent Saturday probably felt like the longest day in the world for those who’d loved Jesus. They didn’t know He was coming back to life the very next day. And if you’re in a season of grief yourself, every new day with your pain is a Silent Saturday. The longest day in the world.
To me, The Shack is a story about that day.
Even after four years, Mack is unable to move past the tragedy of his daughter’s horrific death. The day she died looms behind him at every moment, as if it was just yesterday. But The Shack is also a story about God meeting us in the centre of our pain, the pit of despair – our Silent Saturday.
Without giving away the plot, here are five things I believe God is saying to us who are grieving, based on actual quotes from the movie.
HEARING GOD IN OUR GRIEVING
1. “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU”
These were the first few words from God to Mack when they meet. Person to person, with a delight and sincerity that brings tears to his eyes – and mine.
It was as if they were meant for my ears as well, and I knew that although I’ve long understood that the God of the universe loves me as a fact, I don’t always allow that truth to permeate the depths of my heart. Instead, I constantly find myself feeling alone in my circumstances, their resulting emotions eating me alive. I get shaken. I get scared. How could this happen, why did this happen?
But perfect love drives out all fear (1 John 4:18). When we truly know how much God loves us, we realise that He is never out to hurt us. He did not bring the pain we’re feeling. He did not cause the tragedy we face. If we who are imperfect beings know how to give good gifts to our children, the ones we love dearly, how can God do any less (Matthew 7:11)?
His Love, when fully grasped, is the answer to all our doubts and fears and grief, no matter how big they are. God later tells Mack: Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust Me.
2. “WHEN ALL YOU SEE IS YOUR PAIN, YOU LOSE SIGHT OF ME”
Still crippled by the loss of his daughter, Mack accuses God of not being there for him when he needed Him through his years of grief.
In the valley of Silent Saturday, the pain is somehow always fresh and ready to be revisited. It follows us into the deep of night. It greets us in the morning. We can busy ourselves with responsibilities and the noise of the daily grind, but it lurks just below the surface, squeezing our hearts like an old ache that doesn’t want to be forgotten for long.
In the valley of Silent Saturday, the pain is somehow always fresh and ready to be revisited.
You’ll find it’s a lot easier to forget God – for the pain to feel greater than His presence. And when we fix our eyes on the winds and waves, they roar their way into our inner man, beating against our spirits and threatening to capsize our faith.
But they don’t have to. Look instead to Jesus. Invite Him into your darkest moments. Your night shines as a day to Him, for the darkness is as light to Him (Psalm 139:12). In Him there is all comfort and assurance; in His eyes the storms within are calmed.
3. “I HAVE NEVER LEFT YOU”
It seems you have a bad habit of turning Your back on those you supposedly love, Mack references Matthew 27:46, in which Jesus, dying on the cross, cries out at being forsaken by His Father. You abandoned him just like you abandoned my little girl, just like you abandoned me.
We remember Martha, tearful and indignant, saying to Jesus who arrived four days too late to save her now deceased brother Lazarus: If you’d been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:21).
In the course of our suffering, questions abound. Why didn’t an all-knowing and all-powerful God stop the death that has plunged us into this state? If He had been here, if He hadn’t abandoned us, none of this would have happened.
But like Mack, we misunderstand the mystery of Free Will. God cannot violate His own law of Free Will that He gave to the first man Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:16). Because we are free to choose Him – or not to – we are also each free to choose evil instead of good. If God were to step in to stop an act that hurts us, or force one beneficial to us, it would violate the same law that gives us the freedom to make our own decisions.
But one thing He promises: In that moment of great pain, I never left you (Deuteronomy 31:6). We were there together.
4. “TO YOU IT SEEMS LIKE A MESS, BUT I SEE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL”
A huge part of grief lies not just in the loss of something loved, but also in the loss of control. Things can no longer unfold the way we previously desired them to. Our plans have gone haywire. Life’s a mess. We’re a mess.
When God takes Mack on a walk through His garden, he is shocked by its chaos of colour and “blatant disregard for certainty”. This is wild, Mack tells God, avoiding a more honest description. That isn’t the word in your head, He replies knowingly. This is a mess and this mess is your soul – wild and beautiful and perfectly in process.
A huge part of grief lies not just in the loss of something loved, but also in the loss of control. Things can no longer unfold the way we previously desired them to.
When we’re in the pit of despair, the day after our life-altering plot twist, we cannot even begin to be able to see beauty in the brokenness that surrounds us like an overgrown hedge. The broken ideals. The broken spirit. The broken heart. We know we cannot possibly fix ourselves; not this mess for sure.
But God stands high above with perfect knowledge of the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and sees the living fractal our lives are – “confusing, stunning and incredibly beautiful”. He is in control and He makes all things beautiful in His time (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
5. “TRUST ME TO DO WHAT’S RIGHT AND KNOW WHAT’S BEST”
The most important step towards complete healing for our souls comes in the simple yet painfully difficult act of surrender. That could mean forgiving the person responsible for the grief, yourself included, and putting down our ideas of what judgment is due. Even if you shouldn’t have to. Even if the person in question murdered your daughter in cold blood.
In The Shack, Mack gawks at God’s seemingly absurd request that he forgive the man who killed Missy. Forgive him? I want to hurt him! I want You to hurt him. Redeem him? He should burn in hell!
We may not have experienced the same tragedy as Mack, but we can all recognise the resistance to surrendering all judgment and action plans to our Heavenly Father. Inside us, we’ve already formed strategies to get us out of the black hole of our Silent Saturdays. If only this happened to that person, I can move on. If God does this for me, things will be right again.
But in surrendering, God isn’t asking us to deny the presence of pain or excuse our perpetrators for what they’ve done. We’re just getting off the judgment seat and trusting Him to have the best plan in store, no matter how bad it looks to us – because He is good. As long as we know that He is always good, we can trust Him wherever He leads, and whatever He leads us to do.
HE IS COMING BACK FOR YOU
If you’re going through a season of personal grief this Easter, take heart. Because even in the silence of that first Saturday after His bitter, defeating death, Jesus was waging war in the grave for the salvation of our souls. Even as we wait in the thick of our pain, He is working. Working for our good.
Just like Mack, you might not be able to imagine any final outcome that would justify all that has happened to you. But as God replied with a loving embrace: I’m not justifying it. I am redeeming it.
And in His ultimate triumph over death, you have already overcome.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows … (Isaiah 53:4)