Thursday, September 19, 2013

Simba and Shame

The other night I was watching my childhood favorite movie The Lion King with my husband and a friend. I watch it fairly often (which probably says a lot about my progress-- or lack thereof-- at becoming a “grown up”), and I’m increasingly noticing that I perpetually bring something new away from it. Some stories are like that-- they grow up with you.

So if you can forget for just a few moments that I’m talking about animated lions here, I’ll try to capture the theological parallels I carried away from it this time around.

Let’s set the stage in case you haven’t seen it in a while: in perhaps the darkest and most emotionally traumatic scene of my 90s childhood, lion cub Simba’s father and king, Mufasa, is trampled to death attempting to save Simba from stampeding wildebeest (set in motion by Mufasa’s murderously jealous brother Scar). 

In the aftermath, Simba’s first reaction is simply grief. But in mere moments Scar appears on the scene, and he instantly starts implying that the weight of what has happened rests on Simba’s shoulders. With subtle statements like "if it weren’t for you, he would still be alive" and "what will your mother think?" Scar infiltrates the grieving kid’s thoughts. Soon Scar has Simba utterly convinced that not only does he bear the weight of witnessing his father’s death-- he caused it, making him no better than a murderer.

So Simba runs. For years. The shame drives him to irresponsibility, to recklessness, to turn his back on everyone who has ever loved him. Eventually, the honest but stern words of a friend and the spiritual reminder of his identity drive him to return to his homeland. And when he does, his absence has left his beloved kingdom in ruin, his family and his friends oppressed and starving.

Of course we know the ending by default of it being a Disney movie: the bad guy is brought to justice, the kingdom is reclaimed and healed, Simba gets the throne-- and the girl. And there is a turning point in this climax process where Simba realizes for the first time that Scar lied to him. Scar set all the weight of the murder on Simba’s shoulders, but in reality it was Scar who did the killing. And in the moment when Simba realizes that he’s been lied to, his shame completely falls to pieces, and that freedom is what gives him the strength to defeat Scar once and for all.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably starting to get some ideas of why this matters (beyond the fact that it’s actually some pretty epic storytelling for an animated feature).

I have a history of making really destructive decisions. I hold the belief with a certainty stronger than death that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, I am not the same person that I was (2 Corinthians 5:17). Those things no longer have the power to name me. But I also believe that there is an Enemy who will try as hard as he can to tell me otherwise.

Now that I’ve been following Christ for a while, I find that often my struggle is less directly with obvious sin (though I would not in any way claim to be immune), and much more with shame. No one can make me sin anymore. That is an idea I reject on the basis of 1 Corinthians 10:13. I have a choice, even in the face of being tempted towards vices that once owned me. I might not always choose well (and I am so needy of grace), but I will always have a choice. 

So now what paralyzes me is much more often these thoughts which so often refuse to let me rest: what if I did this wrong? What if I hurt someone unknowingly? What if I didn’t love well where I was supposed to? What if I wrongly invested my time? What if my past really isn’t behind me? And the “what if’s” drive me to a crippling sense of guilt. 

Back to The Lion King. The funny thing is, in this case Simba didn’t actually do anything wrong-- it was a horribly broken situation manufactured by someone else that he was thrust into. But he was accused, and the accusation made him believe he was dirty and evil beyond repair. Had he not bought the lie, he would have stayed with his people, become king, and presumably saved his people a lot of starvation and suffering. Even if Simba had been guilty of his father’s death, that still would have been less potentially destructive than his years of running and letting his people starve in slavery. 

Sometimes shame itself is infinitely more destructive than any mistake it suggests we've made.

Because of the reality of the life and death of Jesus Christ, the weight of any sin we’ve committed, any mistake we made, was forgiven as completely as if it never existed. "You’re still dirty" is a lie. "You’ll never be more than this" is a lie. "No one will love you after this" is a lie. And Satan’s subtle whispered accusations and prompts towards shame are just an empty echo of a world that will never be.

So the question may be now how do we combat it? Though this is of course simplified tremendously, maybe there is something to be said for the way that happened in the movie.

Shame is combated with being reminded who you are. Shame is countered by turning to face it in battle instead of running. And shame is put to death by letting the blazing light of truth collide with and conquer the murky dark of the lies.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
Romans 8:1

So there you go. Theology and The Lion King. Let’s live unashamed today, friends.