When it comes to Christmas movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) surpasses all other favorites. Why? Because it’s a story about man’s greatest need (conversion) and the most formidable force standing against it (ourselves). It’s about the battle between virtue and vice that rages in us all.
George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) has big dreams that repeatedly get trampled over by real life in a not so wonderful world. George’s unselfishness enables others to fulfill their dreams, like going to college, seeing the world and owning homes, but he remains stuck in stuffy old Bedford Falls.
As a boy George learns that doing the right thing can get you into trouble. When his boss Mr. Gower, the town druggist, learns that George failed to make a delivery, he slapped him so hard that his ear began to bleed. Actually, George had prevented his boss from inadvertently poisoning a customer. Mr. Gower had just learned of his son’s death and his profound sorrow led him to make an unintended but serious misstep. George understood how such grief in others calls for grace from him.
As a newly-wed, George again puts his own happiness on hold for the sake of others. On the way to their honeymoon, George and Mary see a panicking crowd making a run on the bank. They stop to deal with the problem. Then, in the bank, George shows grace and understanding to people who refuse to show it to him.
George’s virtues often go unrewarded. Instead, the vices of others eventually draw him into deep trouble and take him to the breaking point. It is at this point that we realize that even a “good” man needs conversion.
We all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by adversity. Under stress, we are tempted to put virtues and vices into a blender and do whatever we think will work to our best advantage. It’s called moral compromise. In a moment of weakness, George is confronted by old man Potter with a temptation to compromise. If George would just sell short his aspirations and principles a little bit, everything would work out fine. If he could just be a little selfish this one time, his problems would immediately resolve into a secure and cushy life.
When George did the right thing and turned down the cushy life, life did not suddenly get wonderful. After a long string of unselfish choices, George is blind-sided by unexpected and undeserved twists of fate and the prospect of financial ruin and scandal looms large. He goes to Mr. Potter with his life insurance policy begging for a loan and the miserly old man tells him he’s better off dead than alive. Convinced the world would be better off had he never lived, George is on the verge of suicide. That’s when an angel is assigned to convert him from a floundering failure, a dejected dad, and a hopeless husband into a confident friend, father and spouse who realizes how richly blessed he is. This will take some work.
I won’t reveal the ending here, except to say that if money is the point in life, then this holiday classic ends with Mr. Potter as the winner. Already the richest man in town, he ended up with thousands more in money he never earned. But money is not what makes life wonderful. Neither are external circumstances, be they pleasant or not. Virtue is. And virtue is not contingent on money or circumstances. As Robert Duvall said in the movie, “Broken trail,” “Never use money to measure wealth.”
The angel assigned to George did nothing to change his circumstances. He merely helped George see a bigger picture. He showed him that his life had made a far bigger difference for good than he knew. This changed him. It finally enabled him to meet a horrible fate (which nearly drove him to suicide before his conversion) head on without compromise. He found what he really needed and it was not just money or a good lawyer. That’s when his brother Harry declared poor George, “the richest man in town.”
I believe God is the ultimate source of the kind of virtue that transcends money and circumstances. I also believe that trusting in God is essential for seeing a picture big enough to offer hope in the face of wretched irreversible circumstances. Suffering from spiritual myopia, we often lose sight of the impact our lives have on others (for good or for ill). The good of our goodness can be much better than we think it is and the bad of our badness can be worse than we think it is. This truth can be life-changing.