Flawed Faith: It’s a Wonderful Life, Expectations, and God’s Will

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28

Not to start out this Christmas article on a bleak note, but I’ve spent the last few years in an emotional rut. I don’t mean to say I’m suffering from depression or a lack of emotional wellness. I just mean to say the state of the life I’ve always wanted to live isn’t the life I’m living. I had been under the impression as a teenager that life blossoms and opens up to you as you grow older and things just naturally fall into place. Upon reaching adulthood, there’s nothing further from the truth. Your career only happens through a combination of backbreaking mental and physical labor. Relationships don’t just happen naturally to you. Even God himself demands a level of personal sacrifice and submission most people don’t care to give him. If you aren’t an active participant in your life at a young age, then your adult life will respond likewise.

As a young millennial high schooler, I wasn’t terribly ambitious. I didn’t have a career dream, so I let life drag me along to a school I was passively interested in and then to a career I was passively interested in until I realized it was a dead end. Now I’m here. I work a decent job and I live a fairly comfortable life, but it’s not the life I want or need. I’ve prayed for years for God to completely throw my life on its head and wondered if I should purposely try to do something to break the mechanism. I’ve considered many ways to try and radically change my circumstances from going to grad school to becoming a history professor or a journalist to joining the U.S. Navy. Ultimately, I decided against most of the ideas I’ve had. I already have student debt I’ve yet to pay off, and the people I’ve consulted about making these sorts of life changes have suggested against them.

The only major decision I’ve made in life as of late has been finally getting baptized after nearly a decade flirtation with the church. Sadly, that’s opened my heart up to a spiritual vulnerability I wasn’t expecting. It shouldn’t be surprising that spiritual attacks from the enemy come hard at the moment you publicly declare yourself a Christian.

All this hassle and frustration with life has led me to spend some time in and out of prayer over the past few months. It’s easy to get frustrated and go weeks without praying, and when you do, things return to banality quickly. Praying helps, but it’s difficult. It’s hard to wake up early enough to do a devotional first thing every morning. It’s also hard to know if you’re giving enough of your time each day to the Lord to truly honor him. If I spent three minutes reading in prayer, does that mean I’m worshipping the podcasts and music I listen to which I give hours of my day too? More prayer is clearly necessary.

Having talked through my circumstances with others, praying to God, and waiting, I’ve fully realized a lesson I’ve suspected for years. It’s not a realization I have come to lightly or happily, but it’s one I feel God continues to repeat to me over and over again asking me to understand.

God wants me to stay where I am right now.

That’s not a fun answer in the grand scheme of things. It’s actually an infuriating answer that’s led me to weeks and weeks of discontent with my creator as I pray earnestly about why I’m being expected to wait for my dreams while the life I desire seems to come naturally amongst many of my peers. Dreams of marriage, a good career, and having children seem vital to the human experience, yet they feel as far away to me right now as my eventual retirement party. I have married Christian friends my age with two year old children, and I’m only 24 years old. The frustration is enough to make a sensible person lonely, impudent, and bitter. I will be the first to say I haven’t handled it with the most amount of grace. I’m not right to rage against the heavens as loudly as I have. That emotion is something I think a lot of people my age will probably understand.

God doesn’t necessarily call all Christians to marry themselves to the church. Some people are called to lives of immense suffering, sacrifice, and dedication, but the average Christian isn’t called to do something so harrowing. Most of us merely have the difficult job of navigating a normal life in a fallen world. Our duty is to individually take up our own crosses and find ways to bear the burden of a banal life. In the grand scheme of things, God places us where we are because he wants us to affect those who we most immediately contact.

“And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” -Mark 16:15 NLT

We as Christians ought to be lights in an otherwise dark world. It can be a horrible burden to bear, but God has asked his people to endure much worse. He doesn’t call us to lives of comfort, although most Western Christians are born with a level of comfort and ease because of our immense wealth. Most of us are lucky in that respect. Still, trials exist for all Christians. The enemy knows our hearts and how to twist them in subtle and petty ways. As normal Christians, we need to be exemplars of the Christian life in normal conversation. We don’t need to be pushy, but others should understand who we are and what we believe. It’s easy to live in this culture and lose perspective on faith. At this very moment, Christianity is declining in wealthy nations like mine and thriving in oppressive nations like China where following Christ can get you killed or arrested. Decadence is a problem only a wealthy nation and church can suffer from, but it’s deadly and threatens the very body of Christianity.

In a society where you can have everything instantly, the simplest instruction from God, like “be patient,” becomes a burden so great that a human heart would flee from it. God may put us where he wants us, but often that place isn’t where we want to be. I’m immensely blessed in my life that I’ve never had to deal with some of the trials some of my other friends have had to. I try my best to be thankful for that reality, but seeing what others have in their lives makes it easy to be angry.

So here I am. I’m momentarily resentful of a Creator who has given me life because the life he’s given me isn’t the one I wanted. I would never pretend I’m owed anything or that this has left me emotionally broken, but stronger faiths have been broken by pettier grievances. Such frustrations must be addressed before they metastasize.

The question I’m left with is how do I proceed with finding contentment in a temporary position in life that I hope will eventually pass? 

With this series, Flawed Faith, I’ve long sought to parse out the nuances of Christian life in the midst of our modern world. I believe we can find the seeds of faith in all things, even in the hearts of people who resent the Lord. If all things work for the good of those who love God, then even the most strident atheist works to forward the kingdom in some respect. Maybe an answer to my question, though, can be found in a piece of art that isn’t so much a flawed masterpiece as much as it is a masterpiece about being flawed. 

Towards the end of the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, we find the story’s main character George Bailey in a state of utter despair. His life has been nothing but a series of compromises. He lost his hearing in one ear as a child because he selflessly saved his brother from freezing to death in a frozen lake. He gave up his dreams to become a career banker in a town he hates. His house is in disrepair. The one blessing in his life, his family, is still a burden that reminds him of the life he’s now permanently separated from despite his love for them. Now, on Christmas Eve, he’s being threatened with prison time because his business rival stole money from and framed him. Fed up to the point of collapse, he decides to take his own life by jumping from the town bridge into a freezing river. 

In a moment which J.R.R. Tolkien would call a eucatastrophe, an angel appears before him on the side of the bridge and answers his prayer. As a result, George is briefly thrust into a world where he experiences what would’ve happened if he never existed. That world is a cold, cruel place. The once pristine small town American streets of Bedford Falls have been replaced with a red light district lined with drunken patrons. The people are more cruel. The city has been totally co-opted by his business rival and renamed after him: Pottersville. Lamenting the hellish nightmare that is the world without him, he begs to return home and he finds himself back in Bedford Falls with a renewed sense of his life. Because of his selflessness over the decades, the entire town comes together and raises the funds to replace what was stolen to save him. Because he did the right thing so much and so selflessly, he’s earned the eternal love and loyalty of the town and they repay it. 

It’s A Wonderful Life is an expression of the virtues of Christian lovingkindness. It doesn’t just show us that love is important, but that love is necessary for a civil society. Without the love and sacrifice of normal people doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, the world degenerates into a hellish, greedy, and nasty place. Fundamentally, it’s a story about the cost of a world with and without good people in it. It makes that case unflinchingly and with a moral seriousness that doesn’t fail to address the fundamental problem at the core of it’s story.

It’s extremely hard to be a good person. 

It’s a Wonderful Life was actually the second thing I reviewed for Geeks Under Grace when I started here two years ago. It wasn’t a movie I grew up with, so my feelings for it that I’ve discovered over the past decade have been developing as I’ve grown into an adult. I remember an afternoon where my late grandmother bought me a copy while we were shopping at Target that I still rewatch every year. In all honesty, I can’t think of many other films that more clearly speak to my moral vision of the world. It’s a deeply saccharine film that famously flopped at the time of its release despite Capra feeling it was his strongest film. It only gained its now legendary reputation because it was inexpensive to rent the film for television reruns. As I and many others have come to discover, it’s one of the most profound pieces of Christian art produced in the last century. 

Frank Capra might be the greatest Christian filmmaker in history. I don’t say that lightly. There have been many directors in the history of the art form who were properly Christian. Many, like John Ford, were technically better filmmakers than Capra. I’ll admit I haven’t even seen every major Capra film. I’ve owned copies of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Lost Horizon for years now and neglected to watch them. Still, every one of his films I’ve seen is a revelation. Meet John Doe might be the greatest contemporary retelling of the Christ-story in the medium. Arsenic and Old Lace may be one of the greatest comedies ever written, taking us through a story about the madness induced by a sudden and radical change of your worldview. It Happened One Night is undoubtably one of the funniest screwball comedies of all time. Then, of course, there’s his perennial masterpiece Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. What hasn’t been said about that masterpiece of satire and moral clarity?

Regardless, Capra was a man who knew himself and his values and he embodied it deeply in his work. As an Italian immigrant who rose to become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, he understood the difficulties and blessings of American life as profoundly as anyone. His life experience from rags to riches followed by his experience in World War II gave him a deep sense of what the world was. His unique talent as a comedic storyteller often allowed him to capture the moments of joy and meaning in the midst of darkness, corruption, and compromise. His work is unabashedly Christian in its moral dimensions and presuppositions. It reflects the nature of a fallen world where we still have to be good people.

It’s a Wonderful Life possibly captures this tension more beautifully than any other film he ever produced. George Bailey does the right thing at every point and only suffers. He doesn’t see the dense web of relationships, good deeds, and love he’s crafted in Bedford Falls until the moment it comes to save him. When the chips are down, the town saves him because he’s done nothing but serve the town. Most of us should be so lucky to have produced such goodwill in the lives of others.

The best Christians I know aren’t the ones who have the most resolved inner life. The strongest Christians are the ones who live out their faith in spite of their immense inner turmoil. Sadly, our rewards in life often aren’t ones that reflect our choices. My late grandmother who recently passed away was one of the most dedicated and thoughtful Christians I’ve ever met. For reasons I’ll never understand, the lord made her live the final decade of her life with a debilitating disease that destroyed her life and made all of her immediate family suffer as they watched it dissolve her. Even so, her faith never broke under the immense pain she was in. Even in her worst moments, she called out to God for relief. Who are we to judge what purpose this serves? At her funeral she was celebrated by hundreds of people whose lives she touched. Not a soul there didn’t believe she wasn’t finally at peace with her creator. She is certainly with God now.

George Bailey suffers constantly because that’s what life is. Life is a long series of compromises and choices that define us. The things we do under pressure reveal our truest selves and George’s life showed the town of Bedford Falls that he loved them in spite of his dreams. It’s painful to want and dream only for God to directly close the door on those desires. Yet those moments are there for a reason. God uses us where we are in small, invisible ways. If you obey and serve Him even in a place of deep dread and pain, God will use you to do his kingdom’s work. That’s the tension that It’s a Wonderful Life captures so beautifully. 
 
I wish I could find the actual quote, but I once read that Frank Capra famously said he directed the film as a repudiation of then encroaching modern secularism. At its face, that appears to be quite a shallow execution. Having an angel show up in your film in the flesh comes off as zany and corny in the face of such a bleak world. Such miracles are what our faith is built on. For most of us, these moments won’t come in such a direct fashion, but in a moment of second guessing and quiet contemplation. God is not the sound and fury of life, but the quiet voice behind it.

“Then the Lord sent a mighty wind which broke the rocks in pieces; then He sent an earthquake and a fire, but His voice was in none of them. After all that, the Lord spoke to Elijah in the still small voice”. 1 Kings 19:12

That quiet unwavering voice in our conscience is the one we must learn to follow. To be born again in Christ is to be transformed into a new person. The transformational stage is long and painful, though. We must become agents of peace in a buzzing, chaotic world that bribes against it. Such a rebirth also doesn’t rob us of worldly consequence and suffering. It puts us at odds with the world more. It is, however, more than necessary to maintain the world.

We are but the accumulation of a lifetime of decisions. My life has accumulated much passiveness. I’m too easily placated and too easily frustrated because of the limited challenges of such a life. The first step in changing that direction was my baptism. From there, the challenge becomes how to live a Christian life. We have to play the long game and that means cutting off the appendages that cause us to sin. Such times are when we must take stock of life, make difficult choices, and affirm the Godly path. Life is hard, but the only life worth living is one that works for good. A person can live for this world and die with nothing accumulated for the next life. Such journeys require affirmative decisions, but they must be lived out in the most mundane parts of life.

The invisible connections you make by living for Christ will do more than you ever see to encourage those around you to support you. They are that which makes this life worth living. That we should be blessed with the privilege of God’s words, “well done my good and faithful servant,” is enough. Whether in this life or the next, we will be rewarded.

I’d like to end this piece with a quick thank you to a friend of mine working in ministry. Emily Urban helped me with some aspects of this piece and her ministry has helped shape the direction of the last several months of my spiritual life through her prayers, support, podcast, discussions, and writing. She runs an amazing ministry providing support to young women. I would recommend giving a meager amount of support to her this holiday season. She also asked me to mention she’s a freelance editor

Merry Christmas to all, and to all of you a bright new year to renew yourselves and your faith! 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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