The Gospel According To The Lion King
“Faith without art is dead,” is a saying of mine. It reflects the fact that (for me, at least) art can be used by God to awaken faith in a person. It was a movie I watched at the age of 11 that helped me cross the line of faith in Christ, and another movie I watched as a freshman in college (the classic Ben-Hur) that sealed the deal.
Paul Gould, in his book Cultural Apologetics, writes, “One of the best ways to begin reawakening the religious impulse is through imagination. Art, music, poetry, and story can awaken a desire for transcendence by shocking people into engagement with reality.”
Not surprisingly then, throughout my life I have found illustrations of the gospel imbedded in books and movies. It should stand to reason that the best stories will always carry echoes in them of the Greatest Story.
So there I was the other day watching the original The Lion King, knowing that Disney was about to release a new “live-animation” version of it. And I fell on the floor laughing as there it was again – the Christian journey home retold in the story of Simba.
In case you’re one of the 17 Americans alive who still hasn’t seen The Lion King, Simba is the son of Mufasa, who is the king of the beasts, at Pride Rock. Simba idolizes his father, and early in the story, Simba, who is still a young cub, watches his father die, murdered by his wicked uncle Scar.
When Scar manages to convince Simba that he is the one responsible for the death of his father, in his shame Simba flees. Scar takes over the kingdom, and along with his companions, the evil hyenas, he soon turns the garden paradise of Pride Rock into a wasteland.
Meanwhile Simba grows up in the wild, haunted by his past. He befriends two harmless but lazy animals, a warthog named Pumba and a meerkat named Timon, who teach Simba to just take life as it comes. Akuna Matada. Even though he is the heir to the throne, and his calling is to be the king, Simba just sleepwalks through his life, not caring about anything.
Simba is a perfect picture of a person who lives outside of Christ, or a person who is in Christ, but is living a dull, apathetic spiritual life. You were made with a far greater destiny than what you are living. But how will you ever experience it?
The Lion King shows the way by outlining five steps to the revival of faith.
First, you must Wake Up.
The spiritual journey home always begins with grace. Here you are spiritually asleep. But that’s the problem. When you’re sound asleep, you can’t wake yourself up. Someone or something has to do it for you.
In the story, two messengers come to Simba in the wild to wake him up and call him home. First, his childhood friend Nala, who comes and shares with him the devastation Scar has brought to the kingdom. Then Rafiki, a mentor from his youth, attempts to wake him with a literal club to his head.
At first, Simba finds both of them annoying. Because this is usually how we are when the alarm clock first goes off, or we feel the tug on our shoulder. No one likes to be stirred from their slumber. The first few times you attempt to have a spiritual conversation with an unbeliever, they’ll likely find you annoying. But don’t stop trying! Chances are good that before you came to Christ, you rebuffed more than a few attempts people made to wake you up.
Once you stir to life though, the next step to spiritual revival is you Look Up.
Rafiki gets Simba’s attention when he tells him that he knows he is Mufasa’s boy, then runs off. Once Simba chases him down, Rafiki directs him to gaze at his reflection in a pool of water. At first he sees nothing. “It’s only me,” he says with disgust.
“Look harder,” Rafiki says. Simba looks at the water again, and as he peers down intently, he sees Mufasa in the reflection. Amazed, Simba looks up to the sky and sees his father-in-heaven looking down on him from above.
The image is not unlike that of us, when we first awaken to God’s reality. We look up.
Long before you do anything else, this is what you must do first: You must seek God. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. Then everything else will follow from there.
God through the prophet Jeremiah said, “You will seek me, and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer.29:13). That’s the key. With all your heart. The first time Simba looked, he saw nothing. He had to look harder, deeper, more intently.
You can’t just flip open the Bible, read for a few seconds, then say, “That’s dumb.” Or throw up a prayer, and listen for a second. “Nope. I knew it. Nothing there.”
I’ve usually found that those who are waking up spiritually suddenly can’t put the Bible down. They “binge watch” the Bible. What’s more, they suddenly love being in church. It was never like that before. They used to be so bored to be in church. But now they can’t wait to get there. That’s what it means to look up.
The next step to experiencing revival is we Look Back.
It’s the part of the movie that sends chills down my spine every time. In the vision, Mufasa tells his son, “You have forgotten me…You are more than you have become.” Then as the vision fades away, he summons Simba (as only James Earl Jones can do) to, “Remember who you are.”
Simba must look back honestly at the past he has spent his life trying to forget. And every child of God must teach themselves to look back at their past as well, and see it through the eyes of faith.
When Jesus speaks to the church in Ephesus, which had lost its ‘first love’ for him, he tells them: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first.” (Rev.2:5).
For a Christian or a church that has backslidden into apathy, the way forward begins by looking back, at what you were before, when you were at your best. And also remembering why you were like that. You were madly in love with Jesus Christ! Don’t you remember?
But you have forgotten. So look back and remember. Cry out to God with King David, “Restore to me the joy of salvation.” (Ps.51:12)
If you’re a new follower of Christ, then Jesus wants you to look back and take a hard look at what your life was like without him. Look at the wreckage, and the darkness, and the shame, and the confusion, and the emptiness. Look at it all. And never forget that this is what Jesus Christ wants to save you from.
Why remember that? Because the road ahead as a Christian, while glorious and good, will also be challenging and hard. It’s harder than anything you could imagine right now. If you go all in with Jesus, friends may forsake you. Culture will come after you. Your own body will file lawsuits against you, for trying to resist temptations you used to wilt before.
Wake up. Look up. Look back. Then comes the back half of revival. The best part of revival.
God has a high calling for your life. A holy purpose. A great mission. God wants to use you to increase his goodness, beauty and love on the earth.
For that to occur then you must take the fourth step: Look Around You.
After we look back at all the pain that Christ has saved us from, or wants to save us from, we can’t help but see the world around us differently.
When Mufasa died, and Scar took over the kingdom, evil had its way. When Simba returns to Pride Rock, he can’t believe what his eyes see. The entire landscape of Pride Rock, which had once been like the Garden of Eden, is now a ruin. It’s a rule: Where Jesus Christ, the King of kings, is not permitted to rule, there will be an increase in darkness, in ugliness, in pain.
When you look around you today at our world, what do you feel? When you see all the broken homes, all the fatherless children, the tsunami of pornography, all the sexual confusion, the epidemic of opioids, skyrocketing rates of depression and a disturbing increase in suicide, what do you feel? Do you feel compassion? And do you have the thought deep in your bones that if only Jesus Christ could enter into these lives, and these situations, it could change things for the better?
What’s needed then? Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matt.9:37).
What’s missing is us: Christians who aren’t afraid to stand up for what’s good, true, right and just.
I’ve been watching it for 25 years as a pastor: Christians, churches, entire denominations, and Christian colleges, backpedaling before an arrogant, militant culture that demands that we change our values, views and morals, when it is precisely those values, views and morals that have been a blessing to this earth, and to the human race for thousands of years.
When Simba first takes in what’s happened to his homeland, his first expression is shock. Followed by sorrow. But then swiftly overtaken by anger. (The animation is brilliant.) Where’s the fire in our eyes? It’s time to stop apologizing that we follow Christ, and start defending his supremacy.
It’s time to stop feeling embarrassed that we use the Bible as our moral roadmap, and start defending its authority as the greatest book ever written.
It’s time to start pushing back at the pagan moralists of our time, and asking “And where are you coming up with these values and morals of yours? Sexuality is a spectrum?! Where did you come up with that? Abortion is fine all the way through birth now. Says who? What authority do you stand on in deciding what’s right and wrong? Well I’ve got an authority I’m standing on! Its time-tested. It’s prophecy-proven. It’s life-giving. It’s shaped the very foundation of our civilization. And until you show me something better, I’m standing on this!”
Look around you my friends. See your world through Jesus’ eyes. Let your awakened hearts be broken.
And then, take the fifth step: Look Within You, and hear God’s call to make a difference with your life.
Timon comes up to Simba as he gazes across the lifeless, colorless land and says, “We’re going to fight your uncle for this?” But Timon got it right. He knew a fight was coming.
When Simba at last confronts Scar, his uncle sneers, “Must it always end in violence?”
Yes, Scar, it must end up in violence. Jesus said as much, when he said, “The kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matt.11:21).
Since the beginning of this fallen order, there is a battle between good and evil in this world. And for the good to prevail, then those who are good must be prepared to fight. To sacrifice. To give their all. To push back the darkness.
Not the way most Muslims are taught to do it – with jihad. We can’t terrorize people into the kingdom of God. Not the way Antifa protestors do it – with mobs and vandalism and venomous screaming.
The weapons of our warfare are not worldly, the Bible says (2 Cor.10:4). We fight with the weapons of love, truth, grace, sacrifice, prayer, service. And our enemies are not people. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). We’re trying to rescue flesh and blood. But have no doubt, it’s a war, dear friends.
With real casualties. And real consequences to who wins the day. The man who chooses the affair and abandons his family leaves a trail of wreckage behind him in his sin. The woman who goes ahead with the abortion ends a life and damages her own. The confused teen who goes ahead and gives her body away to anyone who asks, thinking she’ll find love that way, only discovers more devastation.
It’s time to look within you my friend, and decide, do you want to be counted among those who will stand up, speak out, and push back. Forget Akuna Matada. If that’s your life philosophy, then you’re wasting your life. God put you on this earth to do more than just take up space. You are more than you have become!
Once the final battle occurs, it wasn’t just Simba who was doing the fighting either. Everyone was involved. On his own, mighty Simba would have been defeated. He needed each one of his friends to do their part.
It’s the same way in the kingdom of God. Everyone of you has been uniquely called and gifted by God to serve his kingdom by serving his church. But if you choose to sit on your hands, then we all suffer. And if we suffer, then the neighborhood and town around us suffers. Because whether they realize it or not, they need us to be as strong as Christ made us to be. And to be as holy as Christ died for us to be.
The final scene of The Lion King tells us why it all matters. Simba fulfills his calling and takes the throne. As a result, order, peace and beauty is restored to Pride Rock. And new life is born, as Rafiki presents Simba and Nala’s new cub to all the animal kingdom.
So look within you my friend. Jesus has placed his gifts there. And his calling too. He’s promised to be with you to the end of the age. So be the son or daughter of the King which God has called you to be. And allow him to bring about peace, beauty and life…by working through you.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. He’s just released his latest book, “Living Under The Cross: A 40-Day Devotional Journey”. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.