Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is It a Wonderful Life?

This is the second entry in a series looking at some of our favorite movies/shows to watch during the lead-up to Christmas. Those who know me well may recognize some of this from a sermon series I did during last year's Advent season. For Part 1, click here.

Today: It's a Wonderful Life

Have you ever felt like your life is not going the way you’d like it to? Maybe life would have been better if you had finished college...if you'd gotten that promotion...if you'd married someone else...if you'd spent more time with your loved ones and less money on things that don’t matter..... Of course, we could play the game of “What ifs” all day if we want, but dwelling on the past will never change a thing about the future. Still, it’s hard not to think about it sometimes. Often, it can be particularly enticing to wonder “What if...?” during the holiday season - especially when Christmas seems to come faster every year, and the years begin to slip away!

George considers suicide © 1947 Republic Entertainment Inc
At the end of his rope, George Bailey considers the unthinkable
If you know what I'm talking about, George Bailey could definitely identify with you. George grew up in the small town of Bedford Falls, but he never planned to stay there. No, George wanted to travel, and he wanted to become a great architect and make a real difference in the world. That was the plan, but as my mom says, "If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans!"

George wanted to leave Bedford Falls, but every time he had a chance, something disastrous happened, and George just didn’t have the heart to leave his family and friends behind when he knew what they would be going through. He gave up up college and world traveling to save the family business after his dad died. He gave up his honeymoon to save the business again and help the community when the stock market crashed. And he more-or-less took these things in stride, but when his uncle lost a large sum of money, all seemed to be lost, and George finally had all he could take.  He'd been a good trooper all these years, but now there was no way out. The company would be lost, his family would be torn apart, he would go to prison - this wasn’t the wonderful life he had dreamed of! And when George had had all he could take, he decided it would be better to just end it. He would take his life in his own hands because he just couldn't bear the cruel hand God had dealt him any longer!

Jimmy Stewart does an excellent job bringing the fictional George Bailey to life. Maybe that's partly just because he was such a great actor. But I think at least part of the success here is also because, as with Charlie Brown last week, George is not all that far from reality.

I bet someone reading this knows just how George Bailey felt, and I bet you could find a George Bailey or two living in your own neighborhood: people who meant to grow up and get away from the coal mines, the factories, the family farms - but life got in the way. Obligations made them feel as if they had no choice, that staying and helping out was the best and only honorable thing to do in the circumstances. And for some, they may not be far from the ledge. Life has been too cruel, and they don't know how to handle it anymore. Even someone who seems fairly secure can be pushed to the edge when they feel like their world is about to come crashing down!

If you’ve ever felt trapped by your circumstances – whether they were the result of your own decisions or just the way life happened – then you know a little bit of what it’s like to be George Bailey.

Up until this point in the movie, it sure didn't seem like George had a wonderful life. But this is where things begin to change, and there are some great lessons for us in the second part of the story, when George was given an opportunity most of us will never get, and he was allowed to see what life would be like if he’d never been born – to understand why his life really was wonderful!

First, George got to see how interrelated our lives are. He saw what might have been if he hadn't been around to do certain good deeds as a child. He saw what would have happened if he hadn't worked at the family business and helped the people of the community withstand the oppression of mean Mr. Potter. And when he saw these things, he learned the truth in Clarence the angel's words: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole.”

George sacrifices for the good of others
The lesson here echoes what we find in Scripture:

“For we are God’s workmanship, 
created in Christ Jesus to do good works, 
which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
- Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

God’s plans for our lives are often not what we would have chosen, but his plans are much bigger than what we would have ever come up with. No, we might not always like our circumstances - and at times, they may not be good at all - but when we are struggling, sometimes those are the moments when we need to mentally step back and look around to see who else we can help. Often, when things look rough, if we take a deep breath, we'll see that it's not really as bad as we imagined... but we may see someone else whose trials really are that bad. Perhaps we'll see that, as the Brad Paisley song puts it, "It's been one of those days for me, but for them, it's been one of those lives."

It's not that our own problems aren’t bad - sometimes they really are! - and I don’t pretend this is the whole reason... but I think that, often, the reason we suffer is so we'll be in a better place to help someone who wouldn’t be able to make it on their own. It helps us to identify with them. Hopefully, it gives us a testimony to share when folks are down on their luck. And it helps us understand what's really wrong with this world. In our baptismal vows, we promise to resist oppression and injustice in every form as we come alongside those who need an advocate. God calls us to stand up and reject the evil in this world, and to help care for those who can't take care of themselves, even when it means great personal sacrifice, as it did in George's case.

In his vision, though, George had never been born, so he didn't get to do all those good works that changed people's lives. But what caused him the greatest pain was the realization that no one recognized who he was anymore. He began to realize how important relationships are - how important it is to care and to take care of one another when times get tough.

If life doesn’t seem all that wonderful to you right now, remember that God made you for a purpose, even if it’s not the purpose you always wanted. Remember that God loves you and has put others around you whom you can help and who can help you. You are never alone in your trials. As Clarence the angel put it near the end of the story, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

And what a friend we have in Jesus! Jesus loves us so much that he left his heavenly throne to be born in human form to a poor family. He was born in a barn and his first crib was a manger. If you’ve ever experienced poverty, Jesus knows all about it. As Jesus grew up, he worked with his father as a carpenter. If you’ve ever had to work hard for a living, Jesus knows all about it. He knows what it’s like to be an outcast,  to be hated, to be betrayed by the closest of friends. But he endured all that and even sacrificed his own life on the cross so he could be your friend (John 15:13).

You don't have to be happy about the circumstances of your life. But if you know Jesus as your Savior, then you have a reason for joy, and you have a reason for hope and love and peace. And as you begin to let these shine in you like a light in the darkness, it can even be contagious!

George's friends come to the rescue
George watches in amazement as his friends come to the rescue
At the end of the story, George realizes he wants to live, and he prays to God for life. You could say he has a born-again kind of experience! And even though he thinks he’s going back to face the hardest of circumstances, just seeing everything the way it should be puts a smile on his face!

George thinks he’s going to prison, but his friends come through for him. They remember all the loving things he's done for them over the years, and they return the favor. It’s a reminder that we, like George’s friends, need to be there for those we know who are going through hard times – and we need to pray for them, as we see George’s friends doing at the beginning of the picture – but as they gather for a feast and sing a hymn of praise at the end, it also reminds me of the glory we look forward to in Heaven, when our truest friend, Jesus, will make good on all his promises!

For those who know they’re headed for that great city – that new creation where everything is put back the way it should be – these present circumstances should matter not in the least. We may say with Paul:
"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength."
- Philippians 4:11b-13 (NLT)
Trust in the Lord - lean on him in both good times and bad - and help others along the way. Then you may just see that it truly is a wonderful life!


  1. A great and very timely reminder of a thought-provoking film. God bless you. C

  2. Just came across this post. Excellent job and excellent writing!

    1. Thank you! I hope it's a blessing to you! ;-)


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