has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never had the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents him from doing so is George's modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George's Uncle Billy loses the business's $8,000 while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking of his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George, with the promise of earning his wings. He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. In a nightmarish vision in which the Potter-controlled town is sunk in sex and sin, those George loves are either dead, ruined, or miserable. He realizes that he has touched many people in a positive way and that his life has truly been a wonderful one.[i]
Maybe you’ve had moments like George Bailey, who wished he’d never been born. Maybe, like George, you feel so overwhelmed by the cumulative circumstances of life that all you can see is pain. The irony of Frank Capra’s movie is that this pivotal point of George’s life takes place at Christmas. While everybody else is celebrating, George’s life is falling apart. While everyone else seems so full of Christmas cheer, George is thinking of jumping off a bridge. Perhaps this holiday season you’re having a George Bailey moment, and you just wish that things had turned out differently. But I wonder—what about some of the most significant moments of history—what if they had turned out differently? Where might we be today?
Take, for example, the D-Day invasion of Normandy. So much devastation—so much pain! Nobody would say that they are glad that such a day happened, yet look at the result of that day. The tide was turned on Normandy beach, and that day marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, resulting in the saving of far more lives than were lost. But, you know, the Allied forces never would have won at Normandy if the US. hadn’t been part of that invasion. And the US. wouldn’t have been in Normandy if it hadn’t been for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the US declaring war on Japan and then the Axis powers declaring war on the US. So sometimes the most difficult things that we go through as individuals, or even as nations, end up resulting in something good. That doesn’t mean that those things are good, in and of themselves. Obviously, suffering is painful by definition. And personally, I don’t believe that God causes suffering in our lives just to bring about good things. But often we can see, like George Bailey, that despite the suffering, it really is a wonderful life. And maybe if the painful things hadn’t happened, some of the good things couldn’t happen, either.
In the Christmas story that we find in Matthew 1:18-24, we might ask, what if Mary had not become pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she was married? What if Joseph had refused to marry her? In Luke 2:1-7, we might wonder what might have happened on a larger scale—if, for example, Augustus had not been Caesar or if Quirinius had not been governor of Syria. What if there had been no edict from Caesar that a census should be taken of the whole Roman world? Then Joseph wouldn’t have traveled to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, and the birth of Jesus wouldn’t have been in that place. These events caused hardship for the Holy Family, but also for the entire population of the Roman empire. Yet hardship brought so many blessings. And without these difficulties, so many godsends might not have come about. The events leading up to Jesus’ birth fulfilled prophecy, substantiating the Christian claim that Jesus is the Christ. The sufferings that we go through in life are, by definition, painful. Yet when we find ourselves wishing that things were different it’s because we can’t see the either the big picture of how many of our past tragedies shape our current blessings, or how our current suffering may produce something good later on.
Romans 8:28 ESV says that “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” George Bailey didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand that the painful things of life produce good in the lives of others. He lost hearing in one ear in icy water, saving his brother Harry. But if George had never been born, Harry would have died—along with every man on the transport ship that Harry would later save in the war. If he hadn’t been there to save Harry, Harry wouldn’t have been there to save them. Joseph probably had plenty of George Bailey moments along the way as he lived out the Christmas story. Perhaps it would have been good if he’d had a guardian angel like Clarence who could say, “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” Perhaps you need to hear the same thing—that your life touches the lives of everyone around you, and that without you, there’d be an awful hole. This is why Jesus came—to save you and give your life meaning—to let you know that it really is a wonderful life (John 10:10). Merry Christmas!