As someone who has suffered the loss of a child (in my case 2 children) I approach such movies with caution. Will I come away with an uplifting message or will my grief be exacerbated?
It helped that I had read the book several years ago, so I knew what to expect from the plot. The father of a murdered child receives a mysterious invitation to return the scene of the crime—a shack in the woods where he encounters the holy trinity. In the movie the father, Mack, is played by Sam Worthington, and God the father “Papa” is played by Octavia Spencer. Jesus, who is played by Aviv Alush, is a closer biblical match with his dark hair and beard, and the Holy Spirit, played by actress Samire Matsubara, manages to be both earthy and ethereal at the same time.
The over-riding theme is forgiveness. Mack must learn to forgive the murderer in order to free himself from the anger that grips his heart. I am no stranger to anger, but I have come to realize that it is a normal part of the grieving process.
After our Jarrod’s death we met with the young man who accidentally shot him. We told him that we forgave him and that we were praying for him. Forgiving him was a conscious choice that we made, and it is correctly portrayed in the movie as a difficult process. But our job of forgiving is much easier than the parent who loses a child to a deliberate act of violence. It is my hope that this movie speaks to them in a positive way.
Cancer took our other son, Chris. How do you forgive a disease? Does it go back to Adam and Eve and their original act of defiance that introduced sin in the world? Most biblical scholars say so. Cancer is a by product of a fallen world. How do you forgive God for allowing a teenager to die?
This issue is addressed in the movie when Mack becomes angry with Papa, not understanding how She could allow his innocent child to die. Oh how many of us have had that conversation with God!
This scene with Mack yelling at God and storming off the porch was very validating for me. It tells me that it is okay to get angry with God. People in intimate relationships do get angry. I think that is why grieving parents sometimes hate it when people say “It was God’s will” or “They’re in a better place.” The message is don’t get angry—just accept. Well, like Mack, we aren’t always ready to do that, and God understands.
Papa’s response was to keep loving Mack through his anger. Her answer is that God doesn’t promise to fix everything. He does promise, however, that He will never leave us. He reminds us that we can’t see the big picture, and that He can create good from evil. Papa encourages Mack to trust Her.
Another theme in the movie is that God can manifest himself in any form. In the Old Testament he appears as pillar of fire to guide the Israelites through the dessert, and later, as a burning bush. So why not a 40-something African American woman? Omniscience can coexist with warmth and humor.
How many of us have had encounters that we cannot explain? Perhaps someone appeared out of nowhere when we were desperate for help, or we received a unique sign from our departed loved one. Our Chris is fond of sending feathers. He certainly couldn’t do that without God’s cooperation. The movie lends credence to the endless possibilities of the divine.
So what was the hardest part of the movie for me? It was the scene where Mack is allowed to gaze through a waterfall and glimpse his daughter frolicking happily in heaven. One peek at my boys enjoying eternity would energize my soul for years to come! Please please, somebody take me to that waterfall! I sat in the theater, tears in my eyes, like a slighted child, murmuring “No fair.”
And that is always the risk when we encounter heaven through the eyes of Hollywood. The loose ends are usually tied up much neater than they are in real life. Overall, as a grieving Christian, I found that the movie did not stray from my basic biblical beliefs, and it tickled my imagination reminding me that God is always with me, but not always in ways that I can fathom.