This Christmas, many families will be sitting down to watch the 1946 classic film It's a Wonderful Life. In the process of writing an Advent course on the film, I learned so much about God. Here are five highlights:
1. It taught me to remember God’s grace. The film features the amusing character, Clarence Odbody – angel, second class. But nowhere in the Bible does it speak of dead people becoming angels of any class. We don’t have to ‘earn our wings’ to get into heaven. It made me think again about the amazing free, unmerited, unearned favour of God - that we don’t have to work for our salvation; we don’t need angelic mediators, either; when we receive Jesus, he gives us the right to become God’s children.
2. God cares about my heart. We all have dreams of how we would like our lives to turn out. But sometimes, things just don’t work out the way we’d hoped; we may spend time thinking we’re in control, but then something happens and we realise we actually have very little power over life’s events and crises.
At the start of the film, we see the hero saving his brother from drowning in an icy pond. He loses his hearing in one ear, but he doesn’t seem bitter about it. It challenged me – have I let life’s knocks make me bitter? The whole issue of forgiveness is such a big one. Jesus calls us to ‘let it go’, and move on with him. I need to continually guard my heart against bitterness and unforgiveness – the continual challenge to stop pouring poison for my enemy and drinking it myself. Forgiveness is the key to peace. I’m so grateful to God for forgiving me.
3. It reminded me that God is good. In the film, George Bailey never gets away to live the life he’d always wanted; the life that he thought would make him happy. But heaven shows him the enormous value of the life he hasn’t chosen.
Can I really thank God for choices he may have stopped me from making? My dreams, like George’s, have often had ‘self’ at the centre. But God’s plans are not my plans. Can I let go of my dreams, to Someone who has bigger and better ideas? Am I really content with God’s Plan A? God loves me and his plans for me are good. He’s a protective Father.
4. Be thankful. In the dark times, can I still fix my eyes on Jesus – and thank him for what he allows me to go through? Can I thank him that this will be used for my good – even though I don’t see it? How grateful am I for the good things I already have? I need to remember, sometimes a primrose path can end in a sheer drop while a rocky track can lead to a beautiful beach. God doesn’t promise an easy life, but he does promise never to leave me. When I walk through the valley, I need a shepherd.
5. The film challenged me to trust God more. We as humans don’t have the whole picture. We see from a skewed perspective; we have part of the jigsaw puzzle, but we don’t see the whole. However, God sees everything as it really is – including people’s hearts.
When I came to Jesus in my mid-20s I thought I’d change the world for him. Instead, he changed me, and perhaps through that, changed my own world, inner and outer, more than I realised. This gentle outworking continues as he uses all of the stuff we go through on our journey – stuff we didn’t expect, but that he knew would happen – stuff that he allows, to transform us into his likeness, and also to persuade and affect others for his kingdom. God’s ultimate plan for us is to make us like his Son, and he uses everything we go through for that purpose.
Maybe it takes a lifetime to realise, as George Bailey did, that our supposedly insignificant lives are more powerful than we think – they have the power to touch and influence other people for good or ill, every day; whatever our circumstances, we can bring kingdom life to the person in front of us.
We may never know until we reach heaven just how we have affected others – even in small ways. We may have been stepping stones on a path that led them to Jesus.
Sheila Jacobs is the author of To Live Again: An Advent Journey using the Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life