I have not done it every year, but nearly every year, since I first saw it while a youth minister during Bible college, I have watched Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In the December issue of Touchstone, Anthony Esolen writes about the lessons of the film. Let me quote his second paragraph:
Our lives seldom attain to any glory, not here. Only a few men can be war heroes, like Harry Bailey, or business magnates, like Sam Wainwright. The rest of us, just about everybody, will face the choice that the protagonist, George Bailey, faced all his life. We may recognize the duties that bind us to this spouse, these children, these neighbors, this family history, this utterly ordinary place called Bedford Falls, or we may go our own way, and pursue those objects of appetite that we commonly call “our dreams.”
Like most folks, especially young folks, I grew up with a notion of my life as one of “doing great things.” I would, in the words of my junior high English teacher, “write the great American novel.” Or, when I set my aspirations on ministry (with the romance of Elisabeth Elliot’s Gates of Splendor), I would either give my life for Christ or build some sort of huge ministry. But later, even as the years progressed and none of these things came true, and I’d set my sights on academia, those grandiose notions did not die away, after all, as a philosophy professor I’d write that ground-breaking study or publish that controversial book, and so on. And our society and culture promotes that wanderlust–for such it is–at every turn.
You see, it’s not that such “big dreams” are somehow wrong. They’re not. But, rather, they are symptomatic of a great danger: the unwillingness to accept the here and now as God’s vocation for us. You see, we live in a society that trains us in dissatisfaction. And it is a most cruel paedogogy, for it engenders appetites that are designed never to be satisfied. This year’s iPod will be replaced by next year’s iPhone. This year’s slim fit jeans will be replaced by next year’s roomier versions. The Jenny Craig industry will get us to achieve intentionally temporary results so that we ultimately have to keep coming back. We are trained for nothing else but to desire what we don’t have and–and here’s the cruelty–which we can never have. We are trained only to hunger, and never to be satisfied.
Thus, every small dissatisfaction sits in our heart like burning acid. We fill that fiery void with that which is close to hand, only to find the hole in our heart has grown larger and larger. The more we stuff inside, the more that gets eaten away. Relationships we once took comfort in, now irritate and frustrate us. Routines that once gave us order and a sense of freedom, now arouse in us a tedium that sets our teeth on edge. And we begin to look anywhere and everywhere else to ease the pain of such emptiness.
But while it could conceivably be the case that God does have greater things in store for us, even so, the preparation of our hearts and souls for that, on biblical terms, could take much longer. In the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey prepares nearly his whole life for his grand National Geographic adventure. He gets to the verge of embarkation, when his father dies, and he must, because he is the only man who can, take over his father’s role in the family business, the town Savings and Loan. And while he toils away–and it is toil–in the family business, he not only loses his grasp on his dreams, others, his friend and his brother, go on to achieve theirs. Moses herded smelly sheep for forty years, while the members of Pharaoh’s household lived in luxury. And then, just when Moses was on the verge of his dream, the settling of his people in the Promised Land, he wandered the desert for forty years.
God’s providence orders our lives in ways that we often do not see until many years later–if we ever see some of it at all. What we often think of as accidents or mistakes are, in fact, upon reflection, the handiwork of God. The marriage that is not what we dreamed of on our honeymoon, the children who have not turned out the way we had hoped, the career that has stagnated for years, the home that we had so desparately wanted, but is now filled with a long list of needed repairs, and has lost its value–all these things, and many others beside, can seem to be not the mercy of God but his punishment. We feel that all that has gone wrong is an indication of God’s displeasure. And we long to escape. As Esolen points out in his article, to leave for Potterville where our unfuflilled desires will be met.
But while we may well have done that which displeases God, and while we normally do not escape the consequences of our sins and failings, it is not God’s normal pattern that we should run from all this. Our pilgrimage, our vocation, is in the here and now. Have we failed in our career because we’ve settled in and stagnated? God’s grace comes to us in that plateau. We may well find our career revitalized by renewing ourselves in it, and reentering it with intentional discipline and chosen passion. Has our marriage become something like a prison of walls and silence? God’s grace is not a new partner, but the removal of our self-imposed walls and barriers. And so it goes.
God’s grace for us is not elsewhere. It is here. It is now. We do not find it by running away. We find it by standing still.
You see, as It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrates, George Bailey’s desire to leave Bedford Falls would have done harm not only to himself, but to his brother, his friends, even the woman who was to become his wife. And that desire to leave, in theological terms, a passion, was as deceptive as it was poisonous. The desire poisoned his heart against the good of his life. He could not be thankful for that which he had–not even Zuzu’s petals–and that led, not only by way of plot but by way of the truth in Christ, quite literally to death. In the plot, God forestalled the culimnation of that death through the intervention of Clarence, Henry Travers’ bumbling angel. And it was through being shown what his absence from Bedford Falls would have meant that George Bailey was brought again to the grace that had been his. He was restored to gratitude and therefore to a right mind.
It is, unfortunately, too often the case that we must have those things we most cherish taken from us before we can see that which we have missed. We could have met God in the here and now, instead of looking for him where he wasn’t: in our imagined future. You see, the danger of our society’s cultivation of dissatisfaction as a way of life is not so much our frenzied search for things to stuff in the holes in our heart and lives, as it is that such a cultivated dis-ease turns us away from the only thing that will satisfy: God’s love. Nothing else will fill that gaping hole in us except God. And the good news is, we need go nowhere to find him. For he is always right here, right now.