Reflections on “It’s a Wonderful Life” January 05 2018

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

Although we are already a week into 2018, I could not resist a few comments on my rare viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” this past Christmas Eve. I’m not sure that I have ever watched the entire movie in one sitting (thanks to the multi-tasking we often get involved with over the holidays), but I did happen to watch about the last half of it this year (while wrapping some Christmas gifts). The American Film Institute ranks this 1946 classic as Number 1 on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has sought to help others in various ways in the little town of Bedford Falls. He saved his younger brother Harry from drowning in a frozen lake, but lost his hearing in one ear as a result.  His quest to travel and go to college was interrupted by the untimely death of his father, which meant that he had to take over his father’s building and loan business. George makes some additional sacrifices for Harry, but meanwhile, the building and loan business struggles to survive, made more difficult because of the dishonest business practices of George’s competitor, Henry Potter, the wealthiest man in town.

The problems are exacerbated by the mismanagement of funds from the business by George’s Uncle Billy, which threatens to land George in jail and send the business into bankruptcy. George takes much of his frustration out on his family, leading to the key scene in the movie when George walks onto a bridge over a river and is contemplating suicide.

Enter Clarence Odbody  (Henry Travers). Prayers for George reach Heaven, where Clarence, “Angel 2nd Class,” is assigned to save George, in return for which he will earn his angel wings. Before George can jump, Clarence dives into the river just before George does, causing George to rescue Clarence rather than kill himself.

When George says he wishes he had never been born, Clarence decides to grant his wish and show George an alternate timeline in which he never existed. No one, including his wife (whom he never married in this alternate universe), recognizes George, and Clarence goes on to show the ill fates that befall various people George had helped in his real life but for whom he was not there in his alternate timeline.

George, now convinced that Clarence really is his guardian angel, runs back to the bridge and begs for his life back, and the alternate timeline changes back to the original reality, whereupon George realizes that he actually had made a difference in peoples’ lives.  And, of course, a bell on the Christmas tree rings, meaning that Clarence, the angel, has just earned his wings.

All theological inconsistencies aside, the film is a heartwarming story about truth, honesty, and service being recognized. Most of us can relate to the story, because we have seen similar things in our lives. We have done things to help people that have gone unnoticed. We have been honest when others have profited from being dishonest.  We may also have been resentful when others benefitted from our sacrifice. George had to be thinking “this is not fair;” and we think that way sometimes as well.

The problem is that so-called happy endings like the one in “It’s a Wonderful Life” don’t always occur.  Movies have the luxury of tying plots together in nice, neat little bows. I can fully understand that about movies. If we didn’t have happy endings, with things neatly wrapped up, there would be a lot fewer movie-goers. But real life is not generally like that.

Our challenge, while living on earth, is that we sometimes have “happy-ending expectations” that are not or cannot be fulfilled, at least not in the way we think they should.  Sometimes this is even exacerbated during holidays, because our expectations can be a little higher.  However, a deeper examination of the Scriptures shows us where to look for our joy. And it’s not in the storybook endings produced by the entertainment industry.

God’s definition of happy endings is much deeper than the definition we find in Hollywood. All we have to do is turn to Hebrews 11 to see a great reminder of this. Verse 13 summarizes an important lesson from the lives of the Old Testament patriarchs:

These all died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

In other words, they didn’t get to experience the “happy ending” as we have come to know and enjoy it in the movies.  However, they knew that God was true to His Word.  They lived by faith, even though things may not have worked out like they expected them to in their lifetime.  Faith is not a passive, ethereal feeling.  Rather, it results in demonstrations of love for God and others, realizing that human recognition may or may not occur.  We can see this in Hebrews 11, where action verbs and decisions are associated with almost every reference to faith:

  • By faith Abel offered a sacrifice (verse 4)
  • By faith Noah prepared an ark (verse 7)
  • By faith Abraham obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance (verse 8)
  • By faith Abraham offered up Isaac (verse 17)
  • By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin (verses 23-25)

 Hebrews 11:37-40 goes on to recount what other heroes of the faith went through:

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.  And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised …”

“Not receiving what was promised” (in their lifetime) could be translated as “wow, this did not turn out the way it was supposed to.” George Bailey was thinking this way at one point, and it is tempting for us to think that way as well.  Those believers who struggle with this can learn from Hebrews 11 that:

  • We obey, act, and serve out of faith, but outcomes are in the Lord’s hands, not ours. And sometimes, like in Hebrews 11, outcomes also take time.  Our joy should be founded not in the outcome, but in the process of loving and serving, motivated by our gratitude for God’s love and forgiveness.
  • Our ultimate reward is not from receiving the praise of humans, or even recognition from them.  Colossians 3:24-25 summarizes this well:  “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.  It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”  That said, we should be involved in encouraging others in their walk with the Lord, even though our own joy does not depend on receiving encouragement or recognition from others.

 

Let’s face facts here.  This is not easy.  In fact, it is radical thinking and goes against the grain of our human nature.  But this is also where we have a hope that is far beyond what we would have from thinking only on a human plane.

I love a heartwarming story like “It’s a wonderful life.”  It is a beautiful thing to be reminded of how God may have used us in the lives of others.  It is encouraging, it is rewarding, it is even inspirational. But our hope is far superior to simply that reminder.  The point is, God’s peace and joy is possible, even if no one (on earth) notices what we have done. If we depend on the outcomes of earthly life for our joy, or on appreciation from others, we may find ourselves on George Bailey’s bridge.

You might also want to review a related blog from April 29, 2016 titled “It’s Not Fair” (https://bcfministries.myshopify.com/blogs/news/105538758-it-s-not-fair).  If you have questions about this or other blog posts, please e-mail blog@bcfministries.org. If you are benefiting from these blogs, you might want to consider joining us for a deeper study of biblical principles for living at our upcoming Self-Confrontation training courses in Indio, CA in late January 2017.  The Weekend Seminar, which teaches the 24 lessons in the last two weekends of the month, will be webcast for those who cannot be with us in person. See http://www.bcfministries.org/courses.html for details.

Steve Smith