'It's a Wonderful Life': a Classic film with a Timeless Message

by Dr. Carla Cornelius , Christian Examiner Contributor |

(Screenshot: Wikimedia Commons)Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in the American film It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

At this season of festivity and sentimentality, it's easy to forget that there are those who struggle emotionally and financially around Christmas. This film reminds us that despite the tragedies and broken dreams that life invariably dishes out, it's still a wonderful life. We all can do with a change of perspective, and renewed appreciation for the lives we've been given, flawed though they may be. Often we don't grasp the fact that our lives are wonderful until we are faced with losing the things we take for granted. This film demonstrates that, even the most optimistic amongst us, could at any point be faced with a turnaround in our fortunes resulting in life itself losing its appeal.

The film is based on the original short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern which was penned quite prophetically on a Christmas card (https://www.filmsite.org/itsa.html). It is an exploration of the life of George Bailey who was the paragon citizen of Bedford Falls town. He was always looking out for the welfare of others and helping those in distress. His crisis is triggered by the careless loss of money by his partner, Uncle Billy – an oversight which threatens to bring George's Building and Loan Society to its knees. George is faced with a trifecta of disasters – scandal, bankruptcy and disappointing so many of the town's folk who looked to him to provide affordable housing. The evil Mr. Potter insinuates to George that he is better off dead than alive after refusing to issue him a loan on the money he has lost.

Thus begins a downward spiral of despair. He recalls the childhood dreams he forfeited in order to take over the company after his father's death. He had wanted to travel the world, study architecture and build lots of buildings. Instead he only manages to build low cost homes and provide finance for the citizens of Bedford Falls. Even his honeymoon was cancelled to help prop up the Building and Loan company when the rival, Mr. Potter, came up with a scheme to steal all of George's customers.

In his moment of greatest frustration, George unleashes his frustration on his family. "We should leave this crumby town," he fumes. "Why did we have to have so many children?" he remonstrates with his wife before stomping out of the house into the dead cold of winter. It soon gets around the town that something's the matter with George. It's the prayers of members of the community for George Bailey which touch heaven and persuades God to intervene by sending his guardian angel.

On Christmas eve, George has an encounter with his guardian angel, Clarence. After George declares that he wished he had never been born, Clarence grants him his wish. The film poses the ultimate existential question – what would life have been like for the people I love had I never lived? It also offers three enduring life lessons.

Life Lesson 1: Each life touches countless others

The problem with being human is that we can only see life from our own perspective and rarely take note of how others are seeing us. George was the bedrock of his community, and if he had not lived, Bedford Falls would have been taken over by the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter. "Old man," Mr. Gower, who owned the local drugstore, was eternally indebted to him, for spotting that he had absent-mindedly put cyanide into one of his prescriptions. This would have caused death to the patient but would also have caused Mr. Gower to lose his reputation and license as a pharmacist at the very least, and possibly landed him in prison.

Life Lesson 2: Life is invaluable

There is no monetary value that can be put on a life. As Jesus asked "what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26, NKJV). George's life insurance payout on his death would have paid a few expenses but would have never soothed the aching loss and sense of grief his surviving wife and children would have felt. The debt which drove George Bailey to the brink of suicide, could not come close to replacing his value to the family and community he served so instinctively to the extent of putting his personal ambitions on hold for so long.

Life Lesson 3: Giving requires sacrifice but God sees and rewards

George's attempt to save his brother's life in their early youth is successful but it leaves him with partial deafness in one ear.

His decision to stay in Bedford Falls to take over the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan society following his father's sudden death means that his dreams of travelling the world and studying abroad are suddenly scuppered. In the end, in George's moment of greatest need, the citizens of Bedford Falls rally to his aid by raising more than enough funding to cover George's debt. The innumerable seeds of kindness he has sown in his life bore fruit in the most amazing and timely fashion. The Bible reminds us, "... let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Galatians 6:9, NKJV).

Not only are George's financial problems resolved by the end of the film, but he discovers a new zest for life, and that his life has meaning after all. He finally embraces his life as a gift from God. All its demanding facets as a husband, father, brother and businessman, suddenly bring joy and not burden. He is freed from despair and considerations of premature death become a distant memory. Would that this season of goodwill bring us all a fresh serving of hope for the new year which beckons.

—Carla Cornelius, ph.D. gained her doctorate from Trinity School of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana. Her dissertation proposed a biblical model of counseling the suicidal based on the book of Ecclesiastes. Because the causes of suicide are multifactorial, she endeavors to bring a psycho-spiritual perspective to this complex and ever-pressing issue. She is the author of five books including Culture Detox: Cleansing our minds from toxic thinking, Captive Daughters: Breaking the chains and No Way Out: Keys to avoiding suicide.