There is a scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” in which George Bailey is wanting to buy a suitcase. Excited, he tells the salesman, “I don’t want something for one night, I want something for a thousand and one nights!” (Or something along those lines…I’m working from memory here.) The salesman shows him a second-hand piece of luggage and George remarks about how there is plenty of space for stickers from all the places he will go and see. He asks how much it is and he is told, “No charge.” “What’s that? That’s my trick ear…” He is then told his old employer, “Old man Gower” bought it for him. I can see and hear George say, “He did?!” And then he heads over to the drugstore Old man Gower owns and where George used to work.
This is a powerful scene. I have watched this movie more than any other movie and in my opinion this is the most meaningful scene in the whole film. Here we have George bursting with excitement and on the edge of adventure. We are thrilled with him. But only the first time we watch the film.
For now we know.
We know the torment that is coming. We know he must shelve his trip because of his father’s death. And then he will once again be disappointed, watching his dreams shatter on the craggy rocks of reality. His brother Harry will not be coming home to take the reins of the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan.
Another scene. He is standing outside of his home. Inside is a celebration of his brother’s marriage. He has had to feign joy while harboring defeat. Before his mother comes out to push him in the direction of Mary Hatch’s home, we watch him look with distress at the brochure’s representing his dreams of leaving behind the mundane life he leads in Bedford Falls. And Jimmy Stewart, in a beautiful piece of acting, tosses those dreams of escape and adventure away and the brochures are thrown on the ground to be trod by those who could never know his disappointment.
And it’s not over. He is now married to Mary Hatch. They have a triumphant handful of cash and are on their way out of town in Bert’s Taxi. They are on the edge of a dream Honeymoon. Not only is George Bailey about to escape the mundanity of his hometown, the only environs he has known, but he is about to leave with his new wife. But again the dream is squelched and he, in a gorgeous moment, uses his own money meant for his honeymoon to save the business he runs and cares for. The life he pictured has once again been thrown to the threshing floor of things beyond his control.
Everyone focuses on the end of this movie. In the end the viewer sees his life was used to help people and change the lives of not only the people of his town but the effects of his everyday decisions starting in childhood reverberate with significance throughout the world. He realizes this because Heaven has entered into his life in the form of an angel named Clarence. Once he sees what he has accomplished in the midst of such a mundane existence, there is joy and a new lust for life that had left him – and left him to the point of contemplating suicide. Everyone loves this part of the movie, as do I.
The end of the picture is when we get God’s perspective, of course. Heaven has burst in and George is now able to see clearly. We see clearly. Previously we all saw in a glass darkly. But now, clear. We like this. We want to be the George Bailey whose significance has been revealed. However, we do not want to be the George Bailey who leads a mundane life void of the excitement of the wider world which he longed for. We identify with his frustrations. We run away from the mundane. Or we tolerate it in expectation of something…other. No one really wants to be George Bailey. Wanting to have the same kind of impact on people’s lives is not the same as wanting to be George Bailey.
The movie is profound on a level we rarely ever operate on. Let’s look at another scene. George and Clarence (the angel) are sitting in a little building by the bridge George was about to jump off of. Of course, Clarence jumps in first because he knows the character and history of George and jumps in knowing he would be saved by him. George’s clothes are now drying out. Our suicidal subject is lamenting his life and Clarence utters the very statement that sums up the message of the movie. He says, “you just don’t know all that you’ve done.”
All his dreams are crashing around him and George is staring in the face the horrific idea he has done nothing in his life. We get this, don’t we? No one wants to grow up and be a nobody who lived a mundane life. We want to be rock stars. We want to be the kind of people books get written about. We want to leave our mark on the world. Obscurity is rarely the stuff of daydreams. Since the only people we celebrate are celebrities (singers, actors, writers, and in the church – celebrity pastors and biography-worthy missionaries) we of course want to be worthy of such talk ourselves. And this is what we want for our kids. No one wants to be George Bailey, really.
We don’t want to be clerks toiling away in obscurity without notice of the wider world. And those who are fine with that, let’s be honest, something is wrong with them. A quiet and peaceful life where nothing of significance can be seen with the naked eye stands in disdain inside and outside the church.
Christians could learn a lot here. We are guilty of not knowing what all we have done. Actually, that is not where the real guilt lies. It is where we feel it. But the actual guilt lies in our thinking because we do not know all that we have done, therefore we must have done nothing. We assume some kind of godlike posture as if we know the ends and implications of all our actions and then we make judgments based thereupon. Foolish, isn’t it – this idea we have no significance because we have not seen it? We wallow in some kind of faux humility never realizing it is really ego which thinks, “If I cannot see it, it must not be there.”
If there’s no place in the halls of heroic Christian faith for unknown housewives and clerks, then we have not believed the gospel nor read the Word aright. Most people live mundane lives that will never be remembered beyond a couple generations and only then by their family members. This can be painful. Again, every Christian wants to do something wonderful in the name of Jesus. And to come to the end of your rope or life and not see you did anything at all worthy enough to be called significant can be devastating.
Of course, it’s a lie. And it’s a lie if only because the two greatest commands Jesus gave are more often than not going to look very mundane. Often our loving God will not be very noticeable and our loving our neighbor will not be memorable. Sometimes they may be, but more often than not, forgettable and forgotten. But it is also a lie simply because we do not know. Who could know the effects of daily living out of the depths of belief in the killed and risen God for those who rebelled against him?
Since we cannot see that in our day-in and day-out faithfulness to God, we are accomplishing something, we then begin to reevaluate our lives. “I cannot see that I have done anything at all with my life. Therefore I must do something significant.” So we then go into the ministry or do something giving you the immediate satisfaction of seeing significance done. Finished. And done by us. This is not to say we should never take stock of what our lives are made up of. But we must face the fact there is a latent arrogance in this line of thinking. The arrogance of presumed omniscience. The arrogance of needing immediacy for validation. The problem and the difficulty is this just does not look anything like the conceit we are used to. This looks like ambition and single-mindedness. This is a cataclysmic forgetting of where our real significance is: Another, who rescued us from sin and death.
However, this is not all. There is a third stage. And it is the worst of all. The first is painful. The second is dangerous. But the last is repugnant. Stage one: I feel guilty about doing nothing. Stage 2: Therefore I must get on with something obviously significant. What comes next is absolutely natural but utterly reprehensible. Now we judge others by this standard. If they are not doing something obviously significant then we automatically say to ourself…or to them…and certainly to others, “They are not serious about their faith! If they were, they would do…” We can just finish the rest of the sentence with at the very least what we have done in the quest for making our mark on the world. And now as if there is not enough in the Scriptures given to us by God, we churn out new laws – in this case, the law of “do something big” – to prop up our own righteousness and judge another’s by. And it gets worse, it now becomes the gospel. No longer are joy, assurance and hope lodged in the work of Christ on our behalf. All hope is now located in what we are doing that is so awesome for God.
And it all started with the very first lie, “You will be like God, knowing…”
A huge part of all this is the belief that nothing so mundane as “a peaceful and quiet life” can be significant. The idea that God can take the seemingly small, mundane tasks and responsibilities and turn them into something significant, while a strange way of thinking for us, is a common thread divinely woven throughout the gospel story. This is crucial. So not only have we forgotten the hope and assurance of the gospel of grace by trading it in for “significant” works but we have forgotten the very content of the story. The irony is how when Paul is counseling the churches he started in pagan lands he counsels them to lead quiet lives (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:12; 1 Tim. 2:2) and never does he say “do something big!”
We should be the people most willing to buy into the view of life that sees work and making babies and caring for them as significant. These after all are what we were originally called to be doing. When we watch the lives of George Baileys lived out in front us, frustrated and tempted to think they have done little, we ought to be the representatives of the Kingdom most anxious to comfort them with, “You just don’t know all that you’ve done!”
Of course, we must be doing something. And as believers we do something because of the gospel of grace in Jesus. We must be loving others: spouses, children, friends, family, neighbors. We must be holy – set apart – living lives that communicate to the watching world we live in allegiance to a King who has rescued us from something greater than the terrors of this world and its systems has to offer. Everyone has lives of fairly mundane parts and most everyone lives a fairly mundane life. And here is the irony. Christians often, and sometimes with pure hearts, are moved to acts of world-staggering significance because of the significance of their salvation. But even here, the heart only remains pure if their significance is in what Christ has done for them. On the cross.
This is not a call to insignificance. Actually it is the opposite. This is a call to the belief the Sovereign God of the Universe makes every moment significant and this is more true for those who have placed all the hope of significance in the work of Someone Else.