I don’t know what happens at your house the week before Christmas, but at the Whelchel house we end up watching Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life—every year. And apparently, we are not alone.
Although it was initially a disappointment at the box office, this American Christmas fantasy drama has become one of the most loved American films. It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is number 11 on the American Film Institute list of 100 best American films ever made. It is also number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time.
It is widely reported that the film was Frank Capra’s favorite among those he directed.
If you are the one person on the planet who has never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, it is a film starring James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who throughout his life has given up his own personal dreams in order to help others. Driven to despair on Christmas Eve because of a lost deposit for Bailey Building and Loan, George feels his life has been a waste and attempts suicide. But his efforts are interrupted by his guardian angel, Clarence.
George tells Clarence, “I wish I had never been born.” Clarence grants that wish and then shows George how dramatically different his community, Bedford Falls, would have been if George had never existed.
What is it in this film that has so captivated audiences for seven decades? I would like to suggest two things.
1. With the Daily Grind and Setbacks, It’s Easy to Believe We’re Getting Nowhere.
First, we all relate to George and have often felt as he does. We doubt if what we do and have accomplished really makes any difference. Deep down in every person, there is a desire for their work to matter. Throughout history, many have tried to tap into this desire. As Steve Garber of The Washington Institute observes:
What Marx promised the alienated workers of mid-19th century England was that the work of their hands mattered to history. While he profoundly misread the human heart, and countless heartaches came from his thesis, he did speak to a deep human longing, viz. that we all hunger for our work to matter…We all want that, everyone everywhere.
Another one of my favorite movies is Gladiator. In the opening scene, General Maximus Decimus Meridus is readying his troops for the upcoming battle with the German horde. From atop his horse, he issues a rallying cry: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” If there is truth in this statement for these Roman warriors, how much more true is it for those of us who follow Jesus?
When Christians do their jobs with excellence and accountability, in a distinctively Christian manner, they cannot help but have a profound effect on the world around them.
Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, tells how Christian monks in the Middle Ages moved out of Ireland and through pagan Europe. Along the way, they established academies, universities, and hospitals. The monks transformed local economies and cared for the poor and unfortunate through these new institutions.
Likewise, if we are inspired by the gospel, then it should change the way we carry out our work. As we work for the flourishing of communities, the work we do “echoes in eternity.”
2. Can We Ever Be Good Enough to Make A Difference?
The second reason we are so drawn to It’s a Wonderful Life is the selflessness of George Bailey. This is one of the most important themes in the storyline. George’s many selfless acts throughout his life made a difference in others’ lives. Yet, it sets up a tension in the movie. We all would like to be more like George, but we know, left to our own devices, it will never happen. This reinforces the fear that our work will not make a difference because we will never be as selfless as George Bailey.
In the final climactic Christmas Eve scene of the film, George’s daughter begins playing the Christmas carol written by Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” and everyone joins in. While not sung in the movie, the final verse is:
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
The song points to a baby who was born in a manger, whose work on our behalf would change everything. How he would selflessly lay his own glory by, and, through his work, life, death, and resurrection, would begin to put everything back to the way it is supposed to be. His work makes all of our work meaningful in the here and now and causes it to echo through eternity.
As Jesus told his disciples:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:34-36)
There is a counter-intuitiveness at the core of the gospel that turns worldly wisdom on its head. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we are transformed into people, like George Bailey, who work not for ourselves but for the master of the universe by serving the common good. Empowered by his Spirit, we go into the world to do the work that he has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). And that makes a difference for us and all the lives that we touch.
This Christmas, watch It’s a Wonderful Life one more time and let it remind you that all your work, paid and unpaid, in your vocation, home, church, and community, matters.
We would also ask you to prayerfully consider partnering with us so that more Christians might understand the truth that their work matters and what we do with all we have matters. So that we can continue to shed light on this biblical truth, would you consider giving an end-of-year gift to the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics?
Editor’s Note: Read more about the eternal value of your work in How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work by Hugh Whelchel.