It’s a weary world, isn’t it? Often woeful, sometimes wacky, and perhaps, we ponder, worthless. But not to dishearten you! It’s a wonderful world too, which is why every Christmas Eve I give myself the lovely gift of watching the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
Because, in spite of everything, life itself comes to us as a wonderful and amazing gift from God.
I’m sure you’re busy this Christmas morning and may not even glance at this blog post, let alone read it, until you collapse on the couch after the turkey—or even later in the day or week. However, whenever you take the time to catch up here, let’s meditate together: What exactly makes a wonderful life instead of a worrisome and disappointing one?
All Your Dreams Come True… Or Not
It’s a Wonderful Life holds first place on the list of the most inspirational American films of all time. Today, it’s much more highly acclaimed than at its original release in 1946. Back then, it not only flopped at the box office but also received lukewarm comments from the critics. Not exactly a studio’s dream picture.
But everything changed three decades later when the movie’s copyright lapsed. Television broadcasters could now show it royalty-free. Within a short time, It’s a Wonderful Life evolved into the beloved holiday classic that it is today. A cousin sent me a copy in Chile (in the late ’90’s, I’m guessing), and watching it annually has become a family tradition.
The film is based on the short story “The Greatest Gift,” which is itself based loosely on Charles Dickens’ 1843 masterpiece A Christmas Carol. The movie stars James Stewart as George Bailey, an ambitious young man who longs to travel the world and then build magnificent architecture. But before he can even start to accomplish his grand goals, life gets in the way.
His father’s sudden death and his own sense of duty force him to put his plans on hold and manage the family business. His younger brother, offered a superb job elsewhere, fails to return after college to take up the reins of responsibility. Then there’s a depression and a bank run, the war, and finally his often-tipsy uncle’s misplacement of money just before an audit.
“It is a most mortifying reflection for a man to consider what he has done, compared to what he might have done.” –Samuel Johnson
Needless to say, George never does great things. After giving up his personal dreams to help others in his community, he’s continually tempted and taunted by a warped and greedy banker (think Scrooge here). On Christmas Eve, in fear of prison and disgrace, George’s thoughts edge toward suicide.
Despite his beautiful wife and children, he’s disappointed in the way his life’s turned out. He feels like a loser. A wonderful life? He questions whether his life has any worth at all.
Rich and Famous… Or Not
Enter George’s guardian angel, Clarence (think the ghost of Marley or the three spirits in A Christmas Carol). Clarence must change George’s mind by showing him all the lives he touched and what the world would be like had he never existed. And George discovers that he had a wonderful life, after all.
One of the reasons why It’s a Wonderful Life resonates now more than ever is because so many disillusioned baby boomers also feel, like George Bailey, that life didn’t work out the way they’d hoped. They too yearn for the reassurance that what they’ve done matters whether or not they fulfilled all—or any—of their dreams. They want to know that even when things didn’t turn out perfectly, their lives have worth and value.
After all, the baby boomers aren’t the Greatest Generation. We are the rebels and the hippies who once set out to change the world but dried up, faded, and settled for affluence and the status quo along the way. Perhaps, even, we are the yuppies who wanted it all and ended up with so little. When all is said and done, we pray the life we live isn’t all there is.
“I meet many faithful Christians who, in spite of their faith, are deeply disappointed in how their lives have turned out. Sometimes it is simply a matter of how they experience aging, which they take to mean they no longer have a future.” –Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
And sometimes, we believers too fall into the aspirational trap. What if you had never been born? What about your life truly stands the test?
George’s story reminds me of Joseph in the Bible, a young guy who literally had dreams of grandeur. He reached a low point when I’m sure he assumed they were nothing more than delusions. When you’re sold into slavery, then imprisoned under false accusations, it’s pretty hard to call it a wonderful life.
Until the accounts come due. The moment of truth arrives. The prizes are given out.
Every Wrong Vindicated… Or Not
No, life didn’t happen the way Joseph imagined. It turned out even better. Everything bad became unimaginably good.
In George’s story, the whole town stands behind him. We never find out whether the villain gets his comeuppance, but George certainly receives his reward and realizes the true value of his seemingly modest life.
Amid the storms of life, we don’t always see this. It’s not easy to believe everything will play out right in the end. Sometimes it seems that horrible news and wicked men, Satan and evil, oppression and injustice, others’ poor opinions or just plain ignoring us…will all win and claim the last word.
Maybe it feels like we’re just telling ourselves stories and cheering each other up with pie-in-the-sky platitudes about what a wonderful life we enjoy—or might enjoy someday. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the greatest story of the most wonderful life ever lived didn’t look so marvelous at the midpoint, should it?
When God sent His own Son into this weary world, that baby deserved to be born in a palace instead of a barn. Instead, He grew up in relative poverty and obscurity. Later, this young man’s words were twisted, His heart was tormented, His body tortured and broken for us.
But was His life a frustrating failure? Rather than regret, a glorious resurrection and a reign “forever and ever” (cue the Hallelujah Chorus) lay in store for God’s Son.
Disappointment? You tell me.
And ever since His third-day vindication, we can rejoice because the dawn of a new and wonderful life hovers just at the cusp of the horizon. Really. Always. Life’s worst moments have no power to destroy or separate us from the love of God.
The Best Lies Behind… Or Not
Like George Bailey, we may often wonder aloud if life has passed us by. Have I poured out the best years of my life for something or someone totally not worth it?
Or why do the good times always remain just out of reach? How can the poet say, “The best is yet to be”? It is, of course, but in the meantime, the wait stretches on, long and hard.
“If God is sovereign, we can’t be too young, too old, too timid, or too bad.” –Mark Batterson, Whisper
My friends, it’s not too late for a wonderful life. And that life is not too boring or banal or insignificant.
“All the best stuff is in the present, the now. If there’s a formula for a happy life, it’s quite simple—inhabit the moment.” –John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of
Much of our stress and distress arises from a failure to realize that our real lives do still lie before us. This past week, I attended two funerals within three days. In the last couple of years, I’ve lost (in physical death) an aunt, an uncle, a niece, three in-laws, two pastoral colleagues, and several church friends. For some, a finish-line victory; for others, a life cut short, a too-early tragedy.
But the ultimate significance and success…
…of each life on earth depends on Jesus and the kind of people they (and we) become through a relationship with Him. Rotten circumstances and unreasonable people can’t—or shouldn’t—control an individual’s character. Or attitude. Or future.
“There really is no higher definition of success than pursuing all of life with God. Start there and you’ll live from a place of success rather than chasing after it.” –Allen Arnold, The Eden Option
The world’s whims and woes don’t make us or break us. Not the foolish father or jealous siblings, the unfair boss and his floozy wife, or the faithless friend of Joseph’s story. Not the senseless tragedy, economic insecurity, thoughtless family, or unscrupulous miser—all present in George Bailey’s story.
In the cynical words of the detective character Lord Edgington: “The world is unfair and the place you are born makes a far greater difference to a life than the brains in your head or the nature of your character” (Benedict Brown, The Mystery of Mistletoe Hall).
On the other hand, a wonderful life is built of both days of pain and days of joy. We are to “receive the good as a gift. Accept the hard as a gift” (John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of
Hurry). The faithfulness of God can transform our greatest trials into a testimony.
“God could have designated your time on earth to be decades or even centuries ago… but he chose now. For such a time as this… Your gifting isn’t meant to sit on the sidelines, waiting until things are less chaotic. (It’s) meant to counter the chaos, changing the atmosphere for good.” –Allen Arnold, The Eden Option
Perhaps the message of It’s a Wonderful Life has surged in popularity because we so desperately need the reminder of what matters. In all our hopes and dreams, may God guide us to firm foundations and help us to live the kind of lives that mark a difference now and in the future.
In the kingdom of God, there is a life that cannot defraud us, that rolls endlessly before us and is infinitely worth living. And it’s a wonderful life.
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees…” –Placide Cappeau