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It’s been 75 years. Does ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ still matter?


RKO Radio Pictures

Scott W. Thompson - published on 12/23/21

God gives all of us wonderful lives; we just need humility enough to see it.

Released this very week in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life still has much wisdom to impart to its viewers, which all metrics show is needed now more than ever. Frank Capra hoped his film would “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” Imagine what he could say now.

We are undeniably a more atheistic and more agnostic country than 75 years ago. So, did Capra fail to achieve his goal?  It certainly does appear so, especially in the aggregate. Perhaps it’s better to say he hasn’t succeeded … yet. We’re still watching It’s a Wonderful Life. What can the annual viewing (or reading) of this classic teach us so we can fully believe and lead others to believe in Him who gives us wonderful lives? 

From ambition to humility

At the onset of the film, George has a healthy ambition that pushes him to desire the extraordinary. He’s going to be important. He’s going to conquer the world. He’s going to make his first million by the time he’s 30. He’s going to shake the dust of his crummy little town off his feet and see the world. He refuses to be cooped up in some shabby little office trying to save three cents on a length of pipe. 

By the end, we see quite a different man. 

After his father’s death, George takes over the direction of their family business, the Bailey Building & Loan. And here George has a conversion—of sorts. He marries Mary Hatch, they start their family, and they live happily their quite ordinary life together. But then enter Uncle Billy and his loss of $8,000: this turns George’s world upside-down and offers him the climactic opportunity to grow in humility. For humility is the only means by which he could solve his quandary. 

A humble man appreciates his littleness and can therefore see beyond himself to the truth, however difficult or distasteful that truth may be. It is this littleness and the sight of what is true that saves George from “throwing away God’s greatest gift … his life.”

Humility begins with the smallest of steps. George visits Potter to beg him for help in solving his $8,000 (for perspective, that’s $114,000 in today’s dollars) problem. For it is undoubtedly an act of humility to swallow your pride and ask your worst enemy for that which you think only he can give. 


Turning to Another for help

Of course, there is Another who can and does help George solve his problem and so much more. George’s humility in prayer sets everything in motion that will rescue him. With his head hanging at the bar and mumbling under his breath, George begs God for help. “Show me the way, God.”

The film then exaggerates George’s littleness in humility to the point where he actually disappears! 

“You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”

Here, only when he is “totally gone,” does George see the truth that he was good, good for his business, good for his friends, good for his family. God had given George a wonderful life, although he lacked the humility to see it in his time of crisis. But it was always there. 

Discovering life is wonderful

A wonderful life is not necessarily an extraordinary life—by society’s standards, anyway. God gives all of us wonderful lives; we just need humility enough to see it. A wonderful life is not devoid of trials or suffering. Think of all the saints who suffered greatly. Would we not say they had wonderful lives? Even more so than George Bailey?

George had a wonderful, ordinary life despite being deaf in one ear, losing his father unexpectedly, and experiencing a business crisis that led him to the brink of suicide. His life was wonderful long before Clarence ever jumped into those icy waters, not because his friends and family fill the Granville house on Christmas Eve with fistfuls of cash. George just needed the humility to see it. 

In a world trending rapidly toward atheism and agnosticism, it is often difficult to see life as anything resembling wonderful. Humility is the key to seeing past those difficulties to the truth of the matter: life is a gift, a wonderful gift given by a loving God, despite all the trials and sufferings our sinful and fallen world can throw at us. 

George got some help in the humility department from his Guardian Angel, Clarence, who allowed him to see the truth of his life. To flourish in humility, we should pray for that same gift of sight for all that is true and good in our lives—always striving to emulate the humility of a God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Once we can recognize and appreciate that goodness, we can see clearly its source and summit—the Christ. No one and nothing else. It’s a Wonderful Life is a reminder of this saving message. Capra was right 75 years ago: this film is exactly what the world needed then—and what it needs now. 

Discover the full richness of Capra’s classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, in the original screenplay, available here from Cluny Media.

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