It’s a Wonderful Gospel

By Chaplain Mike

What do you need when you have spent your whole life giving to others, sacrificing your dreams to do the responsible thing, being the person others count on when the chips are down; when you are tired of being “that guy” that everyone looks to but no one appreciates?

What do you need when you are plagued by a continual low grade sense of frustration, disheartened over the mediocre hand life has dealt you, discontent with feeling stuck on the treadmill of a pedestrian, insignificant life?

And what do you need when, in a moment, out of nowhere, it looks like it might all fall apart; when you face a crisis, when it looks like you will lose everything you have worked for, when all the powerful elements of life are conspiring against you and you are backed into a corner from which you see no escape; when you realize that all the good you have done is impotent to help you now?

You need the Gospel.

That is right where George Bailey found himself on the fateful night portrayed in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Bailey was a giver. He was the ultimate Boy Scout, giving to others and helping his family, neighbors, and community. As a boy, he saved his little brother’s life when the lad plunged through a hole in the ice while sledding. Working at the local pharmacy, he helped avert a tragedy when he caught a mistake made by the alcoholic druggist. When his father died unexpectedly, George Bailey took over the family business, abandoning his own dreams in the process. As the head of the local savings and loan, he was generous to a fault, assisting neighbors in need and in trouble. When the bank rejected loan applications, George would approve them in order to help workers in the community make a life for their families.

This is not the life George had planned. He longed to travel, see the world, break out of the small town isolation of Bedford Falls. He wanted his life to count for something big. He longed to pursue great accomplishments and make a name for himself. He dreamed the American Dream.

However, one day an employee somehow lost a bundle of money while going to make a deposit. The business couldn’t cover the loss, and the money was nowhere to be found. It looked like the end of the savings and loan, bankruptcy, embezzlement charges, prison, scandal and shame. George Bailey became so desperate that he even went begging for a loan from Mr. Potter at the bank, his family’s long time hated competitor. He found no help from the old man, only mocking and scorn. Potter’s searing words, “You’re worth more dead than alive!” echoed in the beleaguered man’s head, and soon, George found himself standing on a bridge, contemplating a suicidal dive into the icy waters below.

And then . . . Gospel. Christmas-like good news, akin to that spoken by the angels to the shepherds concerning the Nativity, came to George Bailey.

As at Christmas, the Gospel came to him in disguise. The angels in Luke’s narrative spoke good news of a baby lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. How simple! How surprising! At the heart of Christmas is a God who comes to us in disguise to be with us that we might have abundant and eternal life.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, the good news comes to George Bailey in the form of Clarence, AS2 (“Angel, Second Class). A funny old guy, he grabs George’s attention by splashing down into the river and appealing to the downhearted man’s natural personality and instincts to help others. George rescues him, but in the process embraces the one who will ultimately bring God’s salvation to him.

And so we learn that God’s ways are not ours. When humans design a plan to change the world, we pull out all the stops and engineer huge projects for maximum impact. God visits us in the form of a baby. He sends a messenger we easily miss for his mundane appearance. As the song says, this is such a strange way to save the world.

As at Christmas, the Gospel came to George Bailey to bring him forgiveness and restoration. The angels told the shepherds that the baby would be the world’s Savior. Matthew’s account tells us they would name him “Jesus,” for he would save us from our sins. Of all the gifts we need from God, we need this most. Our sins have separated us from God. No matter how good and responsible we have been at sacrificing for others and fulfilling our duties, we all fall short. We need the word of forgiveness. We need to be restored. In our poverty, we need the riches of God’s grace and acceptance.

This poor man George Bailey was in crisis. Under his watch, the business had fallen apart. No matter how it had happened, the buck stopped with him and his name would be forever associated with crime and failure. Guilty. He had lost his temper and mercilessly berated the employee who made the mistake. Guilty. He had flown into a rage in the presence of his wife and family, frightening them and saying words he would forever regret. Guilty. He had angrily denounced a local teacher, taking out his inner chaos on her by falsely accusing her of neglecting his daughter. Then later got into a public spat with the teacher’s husband. Guilty. He sought refuge in a local bar, got drunk, and drove his car into a neighbor’s tree. Guilty. He prepared to end his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions. Guilty.

All the good deeds he had done were of no avail now. All the sacrifices he had made in the past could not make up for the failures of the present. No one could or would help him. He saw only one way out. Guilty, helpless, and hopeless.

He didn’t count on God intervening. Through a process of “conversion” that his angel buddy Clarence walked him through, George Bailey came to appreciate that God’s riches were available to reverse his poverty and transform his life.

As at Christmas, the Gospel came to George Bailey in the fellowship of others. The shepherds who heard good news went together to Bethlehem to see what the Lord had done. They went together, they saw together, they rejoiced together, they shared the good news with others together, they returned to their flocks together. The news that came to them from heaven bound their hearts together on earth.

The story of George Bailey’s downfall is the story of his gradual separation from the people in his life. His personal and spiritual crisis played out as a relational crisis. By the time he stands on the bridge in the blowing snow, ready to end his life, George is utterly alone. Step by step, he has shut out everyone around him — his employees, his neighbors, even his own wife and children. It takes a messenger from heaven — in human form — to restore this lonely man to fellowship with God and his human community.

The ending of It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the iconic scenes in movie history. How is George Bailey’s financial crisis averted? It happens through the generosity of his friends, who come to his house and give of their treasures to help the one who has been such a friend to them over the years. Fellowship is restored. A renewed appreciation is gained for the people in his life and how wonderful they are and how much they mean. Clarence says to him, “Remember George, No man is a failure who has friends.”And his younger brother raises “A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man I know.”

Finally, as at Christmas, the Gospel gives George a new perspective on his vocation. In the Christmas story, Luke tells us that the shepherds “returned,” that is, they went back to their work, to their flocks, back out into the fields to take care of the sheep. Their work hadn’t changed. They had. They still had the same calling for their work in the world. Now they approached it as transformed people. What had formerly been mundane and ordinary now became the arena in which they lived out their new life in Christ.

It’s possible to imagine George Bailey never did leave Bedford Falls. He had always dreamed of a wonderful life somewhere else, but his “conversion” experience helped him realize how truly extraordinary his ordinary surroundings and circumstances were. One imagines that he went right back to work at the savings and loan, that he sought forgiveness for his churlish behavior from those whom he had hurt, that he became an even more generous and giving man than he had been before, and that he and his family lived out a “wonderful life” for the rest of their days in that small town.

Life hadn’t changed. George Bailey had. And that made all the difference.

“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10) — good news of God who comes to us in disguise, to bring forgiveness and restoration, to transform our relationships with others, and to send us back to our “ordinary” lives with a renewed sense of vocation.

It’s a wonderful Gospel.

23 thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Gospel

  1. I think another message in the movie could be how God works through us. Through George’s life God bestowed blessings and answered prayers, sometimes in ways George didn’t even recognize at the time.

    I think that is a powerful part of the Gospel too.


  2. Took a break from college studies to watch an old movie I had never heard of.

    The old Roseway Theater in Portland, Oregon was a great place to take a break from the grind when necessary.

    It was1980.

    I’ll never forget that introduction to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

    I have never seen it again on the big screen, but it’s still my Christmas favorite.

    Our family has watched it already this year.



  3. “The world resists the Christian message of salvation and grace . . . . but it nonetheless craves to admit as much of the story as it dares. And that is why redemption slips through in so many cases.”

    Yes. I think you’re right.


  4. Last year I got to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the big screen, at the State Theater at Penn State. It was like seeing it for the first time all over again. I love the themes of generosity, redemption, and kindness. I love when Clarence gets his wings. I just love everything.


  5. I was thinking yesterday, that after being accused of being, left-wing, liberal, slippery slope sellouts, that we needed a post that emphasized that at the root of it all we are still about the centrality of the good news of Jesus Christ.

    And today, there it was!


  6. Capra was coming off years of making war-time propaganda films, and he was determined to make something different. He started Liberty Pictures so he could make the sort of movies he wanted without studio controls. A script called “The greatest gift” had been knocking around Hollywood for several years and Capra was intrigued but not satisfied with it. So he set three scriptwriters to work and they proposed many variations on the theme of a man discovering what the world would have been like without him. One of those variations even involved George Bailey in a mortal fistfight with his doppelganger. According to IMDB, the movie drew unfavorable FBI attention because its negative protrayal of banks was seen as communistic. So I don’t think it was seen as or intended to be a Christian movie from the start.

    But we should also ask the question the other way. Why are the three great secular Christmas stories: It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, all about spiritual redemption?

    And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
    Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
    “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
    Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

    The world resists the Christian message of salvation and grace . . . . but it nonetheless craves to admit as much of the story as it dares. And that is why redemption slips through in so many cases.


  7. “taking out his inner chaos on her….” – oh how I can relate. Sometimes it iis so hard to step back and instead get caught up in the struggle and not be able to see that there are always choices. I am going to paraphrase here and what’s even worse I am paraphrasing from second hand conversation…my wife tells me when I am stressed, feeling unappreciated and overwhelmed that Mother Theresa used to to tell her nuns if they felt overwhelmed or felt they did not have enough time in a day, to take an hour and pray. I used to laugh at that… I would think “I already don’t have enough time and now I’m going to have even less time – she’s crazy”… until I started doing it. Now most of the time I am not successful at it, but when I can pull myself away from that narrow view and realize all the good around me, and realize that in the scheme of things this particular situation is not really that important, that I always have choices, then in a sense it becomes easier. Because I am experiencing the moment, and things will be different in the next moment, the next day and the next week, and if I am not so focused in trying to control every moment of my destiny – well, maybe I might breathe a little easier.

    Looking back on those many episodes, when I thought things were hopeless and I felt powerless and unloved, its funny how, if I did not try to control, something would happen for me to go on for another day. I believe that is God’s intervention in my life, even though I don’t see it at the time.

    “Give us this day, our daily bread”… if I can just focus on each day instead of worriying about the ramifications which may or may not manefest in the future, well then that would be trust…

    I hope I’m not too far off tangent… this just happened to be what this article said to me…


  8. Simple story holding profound truth, just like the gospel. And one doesn’t have to be a theologian to understand it.



  9. Austin, I don’t think the filmmaker’s intention was to make a movie about the Gospel. The parallels described in the post are entirely my own take on the movie’s themes and how we can see the Gospel in them.


  10. What do we know of the folks behind this movie? Capra and all them. Was there an intentional parrallel to the Gospel or was this seen as a completely secular movie in its time?


  11. Flatrocker, I notice that it is the posts that we totally agree with and totally love that get the fewest responses. After all, I guess there would not be much to read if 300 of us all say, “Great post! Love it, Chaplain Mike” and so forth. But I DO love Chaplain Mike’s pastoral posts and I am here to say so.


  12. This movie has always been my favorite to watch at Christmas. You’ve captured so perfectly the essence of this, Chaplain Mike – the Gospel played out in one man’s life and the reminder that the seemingly insignificant events of life are often essential pieces of the story God is writing through each of us.


  13. It will be interesting to see if these thoughts pull over 300 comments like some of your other famous posts. Seems like there might be more to the story than just Disney and imitation arks after all.

    Brings to mind the words of that famous philosopher… “that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

    CM, thanks for a beautiful start to the day.


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