One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.
Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date. It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well. But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.
Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey. George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life. His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear. While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father. He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter. Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough. The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll. When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates. After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown. In desperation, he prays. It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst. It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”
What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him. We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers. And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George. But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.
Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer. He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab. Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at. Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.
While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view. Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive. But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.
And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness. And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”
There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.” George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s. But George’s choices, while “right” were not in his own immediate best interest. What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life. What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices! God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life. But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment. George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.” But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*
God answered George’s prayer. And He answered the prayers of his friends and family. But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect. In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw. But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself. God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000. He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful. But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”
- For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death. God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine. Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..