Revisiting The Shack: Chapter 9 – “A Long Time Ago, In a Garden Far, Far Away”

As Mack accompanies Sarayu to a garden, he is ready for the really hard work to commence.  Previous encounters with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu have been hard on his head as the necessary work of deconstruction was done.  Reconstruction, however, cannot be done in the head.  It calls for the whole person, body, soul, and spirit, to engage with Papa and Friends in a total and extreme makeover.

A Mess of a Garden

After a trek Mack and Sarayu arrive at a garden.  But not a well-manicured, ordered garden as Mack expected.  Instead he found “chaos in color” (128).  He thinks it a mess and says so.  Surprisingly, Sarayu takes this as a compliment.  It is a mess she allows, but a mess that has a fractal in it.  In other words, there is an order and purpose in this mess (129).

The first task for the duo is to gather a bouquet and deliver to the door of a small garden shed hidden amid the chaos.  Next, they pick up some tools and make their way to an open spot surrounded by fruit trees on three sides with a breathtaking set of purple and yellow flowered bushes in the middle. 

Their task here is to clear the ground for a special planting the next day.  All the plants are snipped at the roots and cleared leaving what seems to Mack a “wound in the garden” (131).

Mack asks Sarayu if she created everything in the garden, including the “poisonous plants, stinging nettles, and mosquitoes too?” Yes, she answers.  But all was good when she created it because it reflects who she is, which is good (131).

Why has it gone bad, Mack wants to know.  Well, Sarayu replies, if you humans overestimate your ability to understand us (previous chapter), you underestimate your actual value and worth in our plans for you.  “Having chosen the ravaged path of independence, you don’t even comprehend that you are dragging the entire Creation along with you” (132).  Mack does not respond.

Sarayu continues, “For any created being, autonomy is lunacy. Freedom involves trust and obedience inside a relationship of love” (132). 

Mack next asks about the purpose of creating poisonous plants at all.

He is brought up short when Sarayu upbraids him for the human tendency to declare something good or evil without really knowing what they are talking about.  She tells him that many “so-called bad plants” have elements or properties with great potential for good (133).

“The Ravaged Path of Independence”

After a burst of work to finish clearing the plot, Mack ventures back to the topic of human independence.  When he broaches the matter Sarayu tells him she is talking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  That tree,” Mack asks.  Yes, that tree.

Mack tries a diversion by querying the historicity of that tree and the Garden of Eden (hence, the title of this chapter). Sarayu affirms that it is. When Mack says he has friends who deny this, Sarayu takes a page from C. S. Lewis and declares this a non-fatal error and that “that rumors of glory are often hidden inside of what many consider myths and tales” (134).

That Sarayu affirms the historicity of the Garden of Eden is important within the story of The Shack.  It’s reality as a place where Mack and Sarayu can do some of the work necessary for his healing is crucial.  This does not necessarily mean that Young is affirming a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, however.  I don’t know what he believes about that.  But in either case, the story line or human history, he is affirming the reality and truth, if not the historicity, of the garden in both settings.

This aside over, the two turn back to that tree.  Sarayu questions Mack as to how he makes his own moral decisions.  She pushes him till he has to admit he has no basis other than “how something or someone affects me” (134).  And that that has not always worked very well for him.

“Then it is you who determines good and evil. You become the judge.   And to make things more confusing, that which you determine to be good will change over time and circumstance.  And then beyond that and even worse, there are billions of you each determining what is good and what is evil.  So when your good and evil clashes with your neighbor’s, fights and arguments ensue and even wars break out” (135).

Moral language loses its mooring in reality and becomes just language; the words good and evil become interchangeable.

Most tragic of all, Sarayu tells Mack, is that the act of eating of the tree “tore the universe part divorcing the spiritual from the physical.  They died, expelling in the breath of their choice the very breath of God” (135).

Thus dualism, dividing the spiritual from the material, and declaring the latter to be real and truthful while dismissing the former to the status of personal preference or opinion, became the baseline for determining truth and reality.  Sarayu’s “That was a great sorrow day” (135) seems a quintessential understatement!

She presses the point home to Mack.  “It allows you to play God in your independence.  That’s why a part of you prefers not to see me.  And you don’t need me at all to create your list of good and evil” (136).

There is a way out, however, if Mack wishes to break this lethal habit of independence.  “It’s a hard pill to swallow,” she says.  It means choosing to “only live in me,” she continues. “You must know me enough to trust me and learn to rest in my inherent goodness” (136).

She follows with a crucial clarification for Mack:

“Mackenzie, evil is a word we use to describe the absence of Good, just as we use the word darkness to describe the absence of light or death to describe the absence of Life. Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they do not have any actual existence.  I am Light and I am Good.  I am Love and there is no darkness in me. Light and Good actually exist.  So, removing yourself from me will plunge you into darkness. Declaring independence will result in evil because apart from me, you can only draw on yourself.  That is death because you have separated yourself from me; Life” (136).


This is St. Augustine’s (5th century AD) famous definition of evil as privation.  Evil is lack which makes it parasitic on the presence or reality of that of which it is the lack.  Sin, then, empties us of all we were meant to be.  Thus, in his Confessions, Augustine writes, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5)."

Now we see why our desire or lust for autonomy, to do it ourselves and go our own way, to yell at God, “You are not the boss of me!” is death itself.  Nothing really makes sense or satisfies us in a way that fulfils us or enables us to share life with others.  And when life knocks us down and punctures our illusions and rationalizations and we hit bottom, only a Great Sadness is there to greet us. 

Mack struggles to process the idea of giving up his right to his independence, his autonomy.  “Rights”, Sarayu tells him, “is where survivors go, so that they won’t have to work out relationships” (137).  To surrender his “rights” would mean that Mack “would begin to know the wonder and adventure of living” in God (138).  This is, she continues, exactly what Jesus himself had done.

Papa walks up and greets the two “gardeners.”  And at this moment Sarayu delivers the “punch line” of the chapter. “Mackenzie . . . this garden is your soul.  This mess is you! Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it is wild and beautiful and perfectly in process.  To you it seems like a mess, but to me, I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive – a living fractal” (139).

This very nearly did Mack in.  This garden, this chaos of color, this unbelievably wonderful mess, was him.  And most wonderful of all, Papa and Sarayu were right there with him in his mess!  They loved this mess that was him.  And that love was starting to remake him.




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