The King’s Speech: Healing Our Spiritual Stammer

The King’s Speech (2010, directed by Tom Hooper) raked in the most prestigious awards at this year’s Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. This film is a historical drama about King George VI’s reluctant ascendancy to the throne of England during the dawning of WWII. The king’s (formerly Prince Albert, Duke of York and best known as Elizabeth II’s father) reluctance stems from a speech impediment suffered since early childhood, a “stammer” (or what we would call stuttering), that renders him utterly inept as a public communicator. Prior to his father King George V’s sudden passing in 1936, Prince Albert, influenced by his lovingly supportive and loyal wife Elizabeth, secretly sought help for his stammering from an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue, after the best experts royal money could buy proved unsuccessful in curing him.

Lionel forms a sometimes turbulent friendship with Prince Albert and in the context of this friendship successfully uncovers the psychological roots of his impediment. This therapy helps the Prince, now as King George VI, deliver via radio to the entire British Empire the most important speech of his life, and arguably one of the most important of the 20th century: a message of courage and resolve to prevail over Germany in WWII.

The story suggests that the reason for the failure of the other doctors to help the prince is that they treated his problem as a mechanical one to be treated solely by external means. When Albert and Elizabeth first consult with Lionel, they are insistent that he do the same. But what makes Lionel’s approach unconventional, especially for his time, is that he aims to treat the problem by helping him deal with his heart. Albert’s stammering is a symptom of the insecurities in his heart stemming from growing up in shadow of his more dashing and handsome brother David, and from his lack of confidence in his father’s approval of him as a royal figure. Albert resists at first his attempts to expose these psychological frailties, like anyone would, but grows in his willingness to confront them as Lionel provides him with an open, totally committed, and gracious friendship – the kind of relationship Albert never had. This confidence of acceptance from a friend helps him discover his own “voice” as king, which unlocks the spiritual and emotional energy to overcome his speech impediment.

This story illustrates a profound Biblical truth that all people have a fundamental spiritual need to be known and accepted. In his book The Anatomy of the Soul, Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist, expounds on this truth, making fascinating connections to new discoveries in neuroscience and to his own breakthroughs in psychotherapy with his patients. Grounding his argument on such passages as 1 Corinthians 8:3 (“whoever loves God is known by God”), he builds a compelling case that the experience of being known is essential to our spiritual vitality and well-being:

If you allow yourself to be known by God, you invite a different and frankly more terrifying experience [from feeling isolated from others and alienated within ourselves]. You are now in a position of vulnerability. If you permit others to know you, they can make their own assessment of your worth. They can react to you. You give them power to be affected by you and in so doing to affect you. You grant them the option to love you or to reject you. In essence, you must – must – trust another with yourself…To be known is to be pursued, examined, and shaken. To be known is to be loved and to have hopes and even demands placed on you….To be known means that you allow your shame and guilt to be exposed – in order for them to be healed (emphasis mine).

The reason being known is so difficult is the fear we all carry that if people knew who we really are, they would reject us. This shame of vulnerability can be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve fled and covered themselves because they “realized they were naked and felt shame.” In order to be known, this fear of rejection must be overcome by the confidence of acceptance, such as we sometimes find in our spouses and close friends. But even these relationships are not powerful enough to free us from shame. Only the confidence from a relationship of secure acceptance with our Creator contains the power to free us and open our hearts to being known.

Though few of us struggle with a “stammer” that obstructs our speech in a way that is noticeable to all, we do suffer from a kind of spiritual stammer that is manifested in how we communicate with God. Jesus speaks to such an impediment in his teaching on prayer (Matthew 6:7-9, NKJV): “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name… “

The Greek word translated “vain repetitions” is battalogeo, which is sometimes translated “babblings” and means “to utter empty words.” It is composed of two Greek roots: logos – “word”; and battos – “stammerer.” Its etymology does not mean that Jesus is referring to literal, physical stuttering when talking to God, but it does suggest a hesitancy and anxiety of speaking before God, which arises out of fear of God’s disapproval. For in “heathen” religions, one can never be confident in God’s approval and thus cannot experience being truly known by God.

In contrast, Jesus instructs us to pray as children who are known by their Father. Such a father-child relationship with God, promised to us in the gospel, provides that unshakeable confidence of acceptance that heals us of our stammering and changes our identity from fearful slaves to secure children, indeed royal princes in God’s kingdom. Only from this new identity can we speak with confidence our true voice: the voice of children of the King.

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