It’s a Wonderful Life, unlike many of its contemporaries, never descends into mawkishness: it says it like it is and distills genuinely good news in doing so. It’s such a hallowed holiday staple though that its very familiarity risks drowning out its confrontational address: the film diagnoses our theologies of glory and prescribes the gospel as the only remedy.
It sets this in motion by introducing us to George Bailey, an affable dreamer, reflexively giving and impossible to dislike. He has a serious problem though: he’s saddled with a do-or-die theology of glory that robs him of real peace. A theology of glory tells us that we have to be something, have to work to stand out as an individual and make our existence worthwhile. All it can really do though is breed expectations which blossom into exhaustion and resentment. It shrinks our horizons and curves them in on themselves so that we rule out the possibility of grace’s intervention; it refuses contentment until its demands are met. This is the hopelessness that George Bailey finds himself in as imminent disaster (his uncle Billy’s loss of a crucial deposit) brings his existential crisis to a head.
George is already worn out with his lifelong holding pattern of deferring his interests to the needs of others. His family, his home, his profession: none of this is what he ever wanted. He’s been hemmed in on all sides, shoved into a calling he would never choose for himself (yet never fails to choose for himself!) and his theology of glory reasoning cannot fathom how this can be anything other than the death of him. He’s half right, of course: the pattern of service he’s called to means the death of his ambitions, but in his bitterness he can’t recognize how this can be a merciful gift. Apart from revelation and the softening of heart that entails it sounds like pure nonsense to him that love should be as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6). Loving others and serving them is always a kind of death, but a death qualitatively different from what we see ascendant in the world. That death is a degrading ruin, exemplified in the biologically alive but spiritually desolate Mr. Potter; this other death is the necessary passage out of living death into to true life. The allure of that other pseudo-life is so powerful though, so matched to our spiritual numbness, it’s impossible for glory addicts to desire anything else. This is why it takes nothing less than a vision of the death of all he has ever loved to undermine George’s inward curvature and expose it as a deception.
When George’s wish to have never been born is granted he discovers not the relief of non-being but the misery of self-exclusion. In a world without George Bailey as a conduit of grace, death reigns. Mr. Potter, that arachnid embodiment of all that the world values, parasitically subsists upon the life of the world’s outcasts and undesirables, ruthlessly enforcing the closed, capitalistic loop of Law, sin, and dividends. Without George’s stand for for “the rabble” (as Mr. Potter contemptuously dismisses them) Bedford Falls ceases to exist; Pottersville takes its place and degenerates into a squalid hive of wasted zombie existence. This glimpse into a reality bereft of George’s merciful intercession disabuses him of his desire to escape and “be” somebody. It affords the viewer a glimpse into something that extends beyond the man George Bailey, encompassing all of Adam’s race: getting our way when we’re locked in a theology of glory only bears fruit for death. The most chilling illustration of this comes in the film’s climactic scene: George has all this time seen Bedford Falls as his grave; now, in this alternative reality, he searches for his friend Martini in Bailey Park, that community of second chances and new life, and finds only a massive graveyard.
This unravelling of George’s illusions, terrifying as it is, is the sweetest gift granted him in the film, for through it he can discern with the eyes of faith that the death of his dreams can actually be the life of him. Now he can exult in the truth: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He is transformed. The dismantling of all his demands rehabilitates his self-pity and directs his love outward to the city he used to hate. The joy of salvation explodes within him, overflowing in an ecstatic joy that’s willing to take the fall for Uncle Billy’s mistake. Grace intrudes itself once more, however, and spares him as those he has died to serve now reciprocate and pour out everything they have to ransom his freedom. It’s rapturously beautiful; how can his brother Harry do anything else but raise a toast to George, “the richest man in town”?
Brothers, sisters: I know that we all can see ourselves in George’s plight. His anguish is ours; we’ve all felt that constriction of being forced past what we’ve envisioned for ourselves into a life that looks more like death. We’ve all felt like we’ve been held back, stifled. We’ve all shaken our fists and sobbed, “This isn’t what I signed up for!” Contrary to what the world will tell you, however, freedom and fulfillment aren’t to be found in kicking against the pricks. Belligerent resistance suffocates our souls and strips us of the joy of mediating God’s grace. The God of the gospel doesn’t relate to you on the basis of who you think you need to be, only on the basis of who you already are. The gospel tells you that freedom is bestowed by the Author of life, not self-manufactured. Let Him soak up and bear away your angst and bitterness, and through that He will show you exactly where you’re needed. And more than that, it will be life to you. Grace and peace to you, and a happy new year!