William Paul Young and C. Baxter Kruger, New Relationship With God
William Paul Young is the author of the best-selling novel The Shack; C. Baxter Kruger earned a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. Together, they discuss religion and the hope for a new understanding of relationship with God.
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J. Michael Feazell: Great to have you guys with us.
William Paul Young: It’s an honor to be here.
C. Baxter Kruger: Good to be back, Mike.
JMF: You’ve been traveling together in Australia and other places, talking about The Shack, talking about your personal story, Paul, and talking about the theology of The Shack, Baxter. After you tell your story, people line up. Baxter, you mentioned long lines of people who want to talk. What’s on their mind? What is it that you said that has touched them, and what is it they want to talk about?
WPY: It’s not just the lines. I’ve received more than 100,000 emails from all over the world. A few years ago, I was shipping out soldering tips and cleaning toilets. People ask me what I do now, and I tell them I get to hang around burning bushes all day. It’s because I get invited into people’s stories. There’s so much that unites us, that religion has divided us over, and one of them is authenticity – what people hear in my story, because I’m no different than anybody else.
I’ve got great sadness in my history. I had a very difficult relationship with my father. I have sexual abuse in my history, not from family but from the tribe that I grew up in. I went to boarding school when I was six, and abuse took place there. All those things tend to destroy the house on the inside, the shack. It’s a shack, not a really habitable place.
That becomes the place where you hide all your addictions and you store your secrets, and it’s the place of shame. You don’t want anything to do with it. You hate yourself. You hate this place, which is your own soul. Then religion comes along and tells you that God also hates it, and God wants a nice building. You don’t know what to do with the shack, so you build a façade outside – a little quarter-inch piece of plywood you can paint, as fast as you can pick up people’s expectations, and you begin to perform. Religion is about performance.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rededicated my life to the Lord, and prayed all night, and fasted, and on and on the list goes. I’m trying to earn my way into the affection and approval of God. Because God was largely like my dad, someone whose acceptance I couldn’t ever quite win, and whose approval I never won.
It took me 50 years to wipe the face of my father completely off the face of God. It was a process that went into the inside world of the façade I had created, the façade that I presented to everybody, known as the spiritual man. The person who “had it together” was the façade, and God doesn’t love the façade. He loves the shack, which I didn’t know. I thought he hated it. I hated it. It seemed like my dad hated it. Why would I ever think that he would love that?
I performed well. It wasn’t until my façade came crashing down, and that’s what I talked about, in part – this struggle, and the damage that the religious paradigm of performance (of trying to please God) brought into my life.
To find out it’s not about pleasing God, it’s about learning to trust God, that’s like, “that can’t be right.” That would mean that God would have to be of such a character that I could actually trust God. Let’s go back to pleasing God, because then that’s about me, and how good I’m performing. Every religion is about pleasing God – it’s just the rules are different, or the criteria are different. But as soon as you have it, you know how to compare your criteria against somebody else’s and how good your performance is, and how you can be self-righteous because you’re better than somebody.
You get a false sense of value, and a false sense of worth and significance, and all these things that you think are righteous and biblical. You say, “Yeah, I trust God.” Yeah, because religion taught me to use that language. Do I really trust him? No. Just let the economy go sideways and I’ll start screaming. Because, fundamentally, I don’t trust anybody.
McKenzie, in the book, spends a weekend in the shack, which is the dismantling of his entire existence and the reforming of it within the truth. That weekend represents eleven years for me. When I talk to people, a lot of us grew up in the religious community. We didn’t even know that people could come to healing. Because anytime their crap showed up, we kicked them out – which meant the rest of us didn’t want to be transparent and honest about our stuff. We got this performance orientation. We’re hidden. We’re not authentic.
When I talk, people hear a couple things. God loves the shack. A lot of people don’t know that. He crawled inside of it. He’s there already, knowing everything there is to know about me. Authenticity, this drive I have to be real, is there, because that’s the way I was created to be, and healing is possible. The healing of the soul, the shack, rather than this performance.
God doesn’t care about the performance, and the façade has to come crashing down at some point, so that real healing comes to me. But we will hold on to that façade because that’s what we’ve been told that real righteousness, real spirituality, is. It’s a lie, but it’s all based on the fact that you don’t believe God is good. I didn’t, but I knew the language. I can tell you that I did believe that God is good. But I didn’t even know that I didn’t trust anybody else except myself. That’s because I had no reason to know it.
When people come and they talk, they tell me their stories. They tell me how the book (The Shack) has landed in the middle of their great sadnesses of one sort or another. They tell me about their histories and their abuse and the fact that maybe this is the first time that they have hope. Some of them tell me they’re terrified, that if they take some little incremental steps of trust, that the God that I’m telling them about may not turn out to be the one that’s really there.
Why should they take that risk? Faith is about that risk. It’s about beginning to believe in the certainty of his character, to believe that God is love, that there is no deeper reality than the character and nature of God, of love and relationship. And that God, by nature, is not able to act in any other way than the deepest way that we would sense love is.
That’s the way I love my kids. That’s the touch point for me. As a father, I would die for my kids. If God isn’t at least that good, then what kind of a God do we have? A lot of times, we think we know how to love our kids better than God knows how to love his. I mean, he’s asking us to forgive in a way that he can’t forgive.
That either means that I’m wrong, or the character of God is wrong, so why then should I trust him? The question goes back to, Who is this God? He is, in essence, good and loving all the time. That means that judgment and wrath and all these words, hell and all this stuff, have got to be understood within this commitment to his goodness and love. Everything else is defined out of that, not from us out here.
CBK: Goodness and love is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. If you’ve got a single isolated deity from all eternity, then that deity is alone, and is self-centered, because there’s no “other” to be centered on. It’s unapproachable. It’s impersonal. It’s not good, because good is a relational word. It cannot be love, because there’s no other object to be loved, unless it loves itself, and that’s self-centered love, a long way from agape. One of the reasons that the Trinity is so important is that it grounds the relation out – it says that the core of God’s being from all eternity, his fellowship, his other-centeredness, his approachability, his communion, is giving and self-sacrifice before the other.
What is so foundational when it comes to trust (I’m not an expert on it, but I see it and I’m beginning to feel it) is that I can begin to trust the Father, Son and Spirit because the only way they know how to be is the way they have been toward one another from all eternity. That’s the way they relate to me. If the Holy Spirit has doubts about the Father’s heart, if the Father has doubts about Jesus or the Holy Spirit, then that introduces some kind of reason for me to not trust them.
But when you see that the way the Father-Son-Spirit love one another, as is portrayed for us in the New Testament (the Father loves the Son, Jesus says that it shows in all things that he is doing, and the Son can do nothing except what he sees the Father doing), this is other-centered, and it’s beautiful and good. That’s the way they relate to all of us.
Now we have a basis, within the being of God, of knowing that he’s trustworthy and good, and is just towards us. The God of all is good – Athanasius said he is “supremely noble by nature,” because that’s the way God is. When Athanasius says that, he’s not talking about a solitary isolated person – he’s talking about the Trinity.
The God of all is good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore, this God is the lover of the human race. That’s the only way we’ll ever have trust. If somebody’s introducing doubt into that (which is what we do 24-7 many times in the Christian church and in the way we practice the gospel), you can’t trust that God.
When I get the chance to travel with Paul, I’m watching the people. They’re feeling, “You mean I may not be totally disgusting to God? He may like me? And stuff comes up and I cannot talk to him.” Then they begin to have that meeting and hope that “maybe I can be loved like McKenzie was loved. Maybe I can be included like Paul is included.” It’s evangelistic. It is beautiful.
WPY: Before there’s any time and space and matter, what is there? What is there before time and space and matter, is what all time and space and matter is inside of. So what do you find before time and space and matter? You have a relationship of other-centered love, that’s all you have. That’s everything, and everything that is created is created inside of that and an expression of that. God hasn’t changed. We are not powerful enough as human beings to change the nature of God. Religion tells us we are. Religion says that we can make God not like us, we can make God hate us, we can do all kinds of things and then change the nature of the way God relates to us.
CBK: It’s windshield-wiper theology. It’s just that we have the power. God’s our judge, he’s our Father, he’s our judge, he’s our Father. Back and forth. If the windshield wiper is going, you can’t have any peace. What I say is: God is our Father, therefore he will judge us to the core of our being, because he loves us so much.
One of [George] MacDonald’s great lines is, “He’s not about to allow us into heaven with a little bit of Satan in our pocket.” That is not for his benefit, but because it keeps us from being able to be free to have the run of the house. It keeps us from being able to be free to know him and to live towards one another in and out of that love. It’s all rooted in that very simple thing about the goodness of God and the love, and whether the Trinity is the eternal truth of God’s being. That’s where we went off in Western theology: we split the being of God away from the Trinity – that’s another subject.
WPY: A lot of times, we will define our religious language not based in this relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but based in the projection of our own pain. For example, we’ll take a word like holiness, which is an important word, and we’ll define it in respect to sin. That’s our fundamental definition. Guess what? God was holy before there was any sin. So holiness has to be defined in a way that has nothing to do with sin, because God was holy before there was any sin. But again, we want to define our terms over here, in the midst of our pain, our loss, our great sadness.
Baxter and Athanasius and Irenaeus and MacDonald are saying, “This is where the action is. We have to begin here.” The first part of our systematic theology is to say, “What is the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”
Jesus says, “Nobody knows the Father.” He says that right before he says, “So come to me, all of you who are weary and heavy-laden.” We were talking about the impact of religion and how it generally drives us into the ground. The basis of Jesus saying that, is that you don’t know the Father, but if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. You’ve seen me playing with the kids; you’ve seen the Father. You’ve seen me with the woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery.
CBK: Or seen me, outstretched arms, being crucified and beaten by the human race. You’re looking at the Father. That’s his character, exactly pictured for us in Jesus.
JMF: He said, “And this is eternal life, that you may know the Father, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. Having to do with knowing, is the definition of eternal life.
CBK: When you know that you are that loved, by that Father, it baptizes your soul with what the New Testament calls parrēsia – unearthly assurance, freedom, boldness, confidence. When that is going on inside of our soul, real healing, we can be honest and we can be real with our Father in heaven. Real healing begins to happen. That gives us, maybe for the first time, freedom from our self-centeredness long enough to begin to notice people around us. We notice that other people around us don’t necessarily know anything about it.
To know the Father is to be put to peace, and to be put to peace in our inner world means that striving and churning (as Papa talks to McKenzie about it) begins to go away, which means that I now can begin to notice others, and I’m free to give myself to their benefit, which creates fellowship. That’s life. Eternal life is the life that the Father, Son and Spirit live together. It’s God’s life. It’s other-centered. As we know the Father, then it works its way through us in community, in relationships.
WPY: That only makes sense, because the healthier you become as a human being, the more other-centered you become – the better father you become, the better spouse you become, the better wife you become. In terms of other-centeredness, if God was this lone solitary being who then defines the universe based on that aloneness, then the healthier you got, the more self-centered you’d become, because that would be the character and nature of God.
CBK: Which seems to be what some people are trying to say – for God to be self-centered.
JMF: If he does some of the things that people say he does, he would have to be awfully self-centered, wouldn’t he?
WPY: Yeah, and he would be acting out of need of some sort. We’re saying that everything that God would need is inside the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is totally fulfilled within himself, and now creates in order to share that life and include us in that life.
CBK: [C.S.] Lewis is saying that in this circle there’s no emptiness, but a plentiousness, that creates us for one reason, and that is to lavish us with love so that we could share in that life. There’s no list-keeping to see if we make the cut so we can get into this place called heaven. The Trinitarian life is being shared with us so that we can share in it. It’s for our benefit, that’s the way God loves us.
WPY: That goes to what Baxter says all the time. This is not about asking Jesus to come into our life. It’s about Jesus including us into his – his life of the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A lot of times we believe in a distant God, and so everything becomes transactional. It’s about us asking this God to come into our lives and then proving by our righteousness that he can stay there – rather than understanding (as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes) what Father, Son and Holy Spirit have already included us into.
CBK: That means that the question of the Christian life is, “Who is this Jesus who has included me? What is his life about, and how do I go about participating in being a part of his? I’m included in that family. What are the dynamics? How does this work? Somebody show me.” Jesus says, “I’ll show you. Here’s how it works: Abide in my love. Let me love you.”
JMF: Trust. He speaks of trust, belief, constantly. We want to say that he speaks of obedience, or law keeping, but in fact he talks about “Believe me, trust me. Trust the Father who sent me.” He uses that kind of language constantly.
WPY: A surprising chapter where trust comes up over and over is Psalm 22, which starts off with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You read that psalm and it says, “trust, trust, trust.” At one point it says, “Because I know you will not turn your face from me.” We’ve come up with a theology where you can’t trust God, he’s turned his face, he can’t look on sin. He’s gone somewhere and he’s abandoned his son. Like every father would abandon his son. Come on. I’m a father. There’s no way.
JMF: He’s so righteous [in that erroneous view] that he abandons.
CBK: Unlike his own Son, because his Son doesn’t abandon us…
JMF: There’s something wrong with our definition of righteousness.
CBK: [In that view], there’s a split between the character of the Father and the Son, because the Father can’t even look at us. He’s disgusted. Jesus can not only look at us – he can enter our world and become one of us. The apostle Paul says, “He who knew no sin became sin.” [2 Corinthians 5:21] You have two fundamentally different kind of characters in the Father and the Son, and who knows what the Holy Spirit’s doing in there – torn between two lovers or something? Where does the Holy Spirit come down on this? The Father can’t look at us; Jesus enters into our world. So where does the Holy Spirit fit into that?
JMF: Shuttle diplomacy.
CBK: Back to the windshield wiper. I’m with Jesus today, but I’m going back over.
WPY: To even make matters worse, ultimately then, Jesus becomes the one who protects us from the Father.
JMF: Shields us from the angry Father.
CBK: That’s like living in a house where the father’s a drunk. The boy wakes up in the morning and doesn’t know which dad’s coming out the door. The mother’s standing there on the side thinking, am I going to have to defend my son, or is this going to be a good day? That doesn’t create relationships…
JMF: Or the older sibling protecting the younger.
CBK: It’s remarkably sad in a sick framework. That doesn’t mean everybody’s propagating this idea is therefore nuts, that’s not the point – we’re part of a family conversation. But we’ve been brought in this family conversation to a place where we can see this is sad and broken and sick, and we don’t have to hand it over to the next generation. That’s not disparaging to our fathers in the faith, or our modern brothers and sisters in the faith – this is just saying we don’t have to pass along the family dysfunction this time. We can stop this here and move forward.
You never have trust if that trust is not rooted in the character of God. When you’ve got the being of God ripped apart at that moment in two different characters, and a third character that’s kind of in-between, there’s nothing there to trust.
JMF: Recently, the two of you gave an interview about the nature of hell. Can you talk about…
CBK: With John McMurray – the three of us. The documentary called Hellbound? They’ve been interviewing a lot of folks.
JMF: Who’s doing it?
WPY: There’s a group of 20s-30s out of Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s funded by a B.C. guy. He felt like we need to get all the different looks at this on the table. A lot of people within the religious community, the Christian community, think that there’s just one view, which is Dante’s Inferno – or as you called it, the giant rotisserie. That’s infernalism, that’s the view that is the traditional view, which it’s not, but it’s the one that most of us are familiar with. So they’re trying to ask the question, “What’s this conversation about? What does it need to be about, and what frames this conversation?”
CBK: Where we started, and this is really beautiful, is that in any given part of theology, but especially when you’re talking about judgment, suffering and hell, the real question is: What is the nature of the character of God? For me, I think Athanasius in early church answered that the nature and character of God is Father-Son-Spirit relationship, and the purpose of this God in creating is to include us in that life. Now that we’ve been included in it through Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s task is to bring us to the place where there’s no darkness in us, where we want to participate in that life with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.
To bring us to that place is what judgment is. It’s the grace of God saying, “I will divide here. I will penetrate down into the core of your being and help begin to divide out the darkness and the sin and the evil (because that’s not going to be able to participate) from the real Baxter, or the real Mike or the real Paul.” That’s the way I would pull it through. I would see hell as a fiery metaphor for the purification, whatever form that may take.
I think that not everybody gets the same kind of fire. There’s some real differences. People who gave themselves to participate in Jesus their whole lives, and are not in a different place [24:35, undecipherable], they’ve been giving themselves, they’ve been working through this, they’ve been in the process of judgment and liberation all along. People who have resisted it their whole lives, maybe a couple million people winning in the process, there’s a lot of refinement and transformation that has to happen for that. But we’re not in a position to call those shots. Jesus is in charge of that.
WPY: It’s like the concept of wrath. You can put it inside the G-O-D model, of the distant omni-being God.
JMF: And by G-O-D, you mean the traditional understanding of God?
CBK: No, no, no.
WPY: Not the traditional – it’s the modern understanding of God.
CBK: It’s the faceless, nameless, omni-being who watches us from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart.
JMF: And that’s how people traditionally tend to look at God.
CBK: That’s not how they saw him in the early church.
WPY: We would say, the early church people were traditional.
JMF: So we’re talking about definitions of “traditional.” Traditionalists…
CBK: And traditionalism. Traditionalism is the…
JMF: The popular view.
WPY: The current popular view in Western culture [CBK: In North America.] is G-O-D. If you have that, then you’ve got the distant God who needs to be appeased, which sounds like the Old Testament Baal or anybody else.
JMF: Or the volcano.
WPY: Or the volcano god or whoever that has to be appeased, and so he is going to have this sense of separation.
When you deal with wrath, is that God acting in retribution? But if you put wrath inside of this relationship of Father, Son, Holy Spirit, does God do anything that is not motivated by love? Anything? The answer is no, because love is the nature of God’s being. Love, light, spirit. Everything God does is motivated by love, which would include wrath. Now you have the wrath of God couched in an absolutely different framework.
I have a friend whose oldest son was a methamphetamine addict. My friend would have died for him. In loving his son, if he had the power, he’d have gone after every piece of that addiction that was damaging, hurting and keeping his son from being free, keeping his son from experiencing life, keeping his son from being authentic. If you were a father, you would go after that. You would want to be this fire that would burn out every piece of that. I believe that that is the fire of God’s love, that wrath is an expression of love, not this retribution, this distant volcano god that requires certain sacrifices in order to be appeased.
CBK: This is a quote from George MacDonald again – it figures into the basic perspective Paul and I are talking about. He says “Therefore [given who God really is, and the character of God as Father, Son and Spirit and their love for us, therefore, because that’s who they are], all that is not beautiful in the beloved [that’s us – we are the beloved], all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.”
That destruction is not the destruction of our being – it’s the destruction of the darkness in which we’re participating in, and it’s not fun. It’s not fun now, and it’s not fun for however long it has to happen. All that is not of love, all that is not of love’s kind, all that comes between us (that is, the Father’s heart in us) has to be removed. That to me is what judgment is. It’s redemptive.
WPY: If you know God loves you…. If I know that, I will run and say, “Please, do what you need to do to get the crap out of me. Because I don’t want it. I don’t want how I hurt people because of it. I don’t want what it does to me. I don’t like what it does to this world. So please, do what you need to do, because I want to be free. I want to be whole.” I’m saying, “Come on.”
CBK: The Lord will never be satisfied with anything less than that from us. He’s not satisfied by legal satisfaction of some law. He is satisfied by having us full participants because we are sons and daughters of God. We must become that in our experience, and that’s what he’s talking about.
JMF: It’s something like going to the physician for cancer, isn’t it, a little bit? Let’s pretend you’re going to the best cancer physician in the world. You want to get rid of the cancer. You want to be free of it.
CBK: Because you know it’s going to kill you, and you’re not going to get to participate in life anymore if this is not excised and discerned – the fundamental meaning of judgment is to discern, to see into, to divide.
JMF: The process may be difficult.
WPY: It can be hell.
JMF: But it’s better than the end product. Of course, it’s a physical analogy.
CBK: You have two different doctrines of God at work there. In one, there is this idea that God has to have someone hurt. Someone has to pay.
JMF: A blood sacrifice.
CBK: A blood sacrifice. That to me is just paganism. What our Father is after is how in the world we’re going to reach them. How in the world we are going to reach Mike, and how we are going to reach people who are so broken and so damaged and so hurt, they think we’re like that? In order to bring them to be able to enjoy life in our house, how are we going to do this? There’s a lot of tenderness in the Holy Spirit’s work with people.
That’s why I said there’s differences. I don’t think everybody needs to be hit in the head with a 2x4 board. Some people just need to be held for about 15 years and know “it’s okay, this is good, I can trust this,” to come through their pain into liberation. It’s always about coming to see the Father’s heart. He loves us forever.
When we finally get to there, we will not need laws, we will not need barbed-wire fences (my friend Ken Courtney says), because we will love anything that is alien to the life and other-centered care of the Father, Son and Spirit. We would do anything for one another to better their lives. It’s so much more than fulfilling a law. It’s actually sharing in the life of the Father, Son and Spirit. But we’re so blind and so broken, we don’t even know how to discern life from death, light from darkness, heaven and hell, right now. We keep reaching, and we’ve got to be educated, properly understood educated, and brought to the place to where we can discern those things and learn them.
The Holy Spirit’s not going to violate our personhood and just flip a switch and say, “That’s it. Now you got enlightenment.” One of the things I love about The Shack is that there must be ten or fifteen places where he makes the point, “without violating your will, without violating your will,” because God wants us in our hearts. If he’d just wave the wand, then we’d cease to be real people. We’d be “computers with Jesus software,” and that’s not why he created us.
WPY: No. It’s not a relationship.
CBK: There’s a huge patience of God in this. I love this part of The Shack, as this figures into the discussion: when Papa’s talking about not ever being disappointed. Who in the world doesn’t think they’re a disappointment to God? But Papa’s saying, “Well, it’s going to take you 175 times, or events or situations or traumas or things, before you’re finally going to begin to see who I am. So I’m not disappointed on the first two. We’ve only got this much more to go.”
Paul and I were talking about this on the plane, about our children, and what father is not thrilled the first time their child stands up to try to walk, even when they fall? They fall and that’s number one, so you’re not disappointed that they fail. You’re thrilled that they took the step. What father’s ever going to be content to leave it there, until they can run?
That disappointed sense comes from that value with that judge that’s watching, keeping the list and said “oops, cross off, sorry.” They created us out of nothing. They formed us out of the dirt in the ground, and their goal is to bring us to be at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, anointed with the Holy Spirit. You don’t think the Father, Son, and Spirit know that we’re going to botch this up in the long run? They see the larger picture. I think that’s beautiful. I love that. That’s one of my favorite things in this chapter. Three different times he brings that up – once with each of the three persons in the Trinity. It’s beautiful.
JMF: Baxter, you’ve done some work on a book, The Shack Revisited, which is in the final manuscript form. We need to get together and talk about that and we can do theology.
CBK: Love to. You got three days?
JMF: Let’s get together and do that.
CBK: That’d be great. Fantastic.
JMF: Thanks for being here.
WPY: Great to be here.