The recent Disney movie Cruella highlights questions which any thinking person has wrestled with, “How much do circumstances beyond our control determine our fate?” “How much can we change our lives through the choices we make?” The movie tells the story of how Cruella, the villain in the earlier 101 Dalmatians Disney film, became evil . In the new movie we learn that it was because of her biological mother’s villainy. Cruella was apparently not able to overcome her inherited genetic makeup or maternal deprivation or whatever other evil was thrust upon her in early childhood. Eventually, she becomes her mother, renaming the estate she’s inherited to Hell Hall.
The storyline of Cruella echoes our culture’s message that we are helpless in the face of interior forces. To be sure, the movie has some truth in it. The effects of both our DNA and our early years’ experiences are significant and sometimes daunting. In my work I regularly encounter people severely damaged by childhood trauma and/or genetically-inherited mental illness. Is our fate sealed by the cards we’re dealt? Are we really in the end just helpless victims? In a similar vein, our culture tells us our passions are too strong for us and the answer is to give expression to any sexual desire you may have. Only repressed prudes don’t surrender to them. But is this really true? Are we just, after all, weak, pathetic slaves?
Despite the strength of these forces, none of us really believes this cultural narrative. No matter what we might say, we all act like we do have a choice. That is, in our practical lives we believe we are exercising free will and that others are also. If I were to punch you in the head, you don’t blame my DNA or my upbringing or the fixed laws of the universe. You blame me. You instinctively feel I had a choice and I made a bad moral decision.
So while these circumstances can shape us, they don’t have to be the last word. When we turn our attention toward Jesus, he can enable us to have a better life. We may never have the success we would have had without the bad DNA or childhood abuse, but we can have a much better life. We still have choices to make and they will determine a better or worse future for us. To put it negatively, as Jordan Peterson does, no matter how screwed up your life is, you can screw it up more!
Yes, these forces are formidable. Yes, we can’t stand against them by our own willpower. However, our will can be used in another way besides direct combat with the dark powers that assault us. The gospel says our will does have a small part to play. That part is described as simply “opening the door” as we hear Jesus’ knocking at it, wanting to come in (Rev. 3:20).
Another way our minimal part is described is as a mere “looking”–looking to Jesus and his death and resurrection. Before the most famous verse in the Bible, Jesus explains he will be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole (Jn. 3:14-16). In that story, those who had been bitten by a plague of poisonous snakes were healed by just looking at the bronze serpent. Charles Spurgeon tells us to make sure we stay focused on our part which is “looking,” not “seeing.” The two are different. In a dark room, we can look, but we cannot see. Reminding us of the all-sufficiency of Christ, he plays the Christian’s trump card, “Jesus in the dark is just as good as Jesus in the light!” And he is the one who ultimately delivers us from all powers that seek to enslave us!