It’s one of the most beloved movies of all time. But I wonder how many people miss the gospel message in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
I love the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My family watches it every Christmas. I sometimes think about how much fun it would be to visit Bedford Falls, and meet all those delightful characters—even Old Man Potter.
My friend and long-time BreakPoint colleague, Anne Morse, recently did just that: well, almost. She visited Seneca Falls, New York, which, legend has it, is the town on which Frank Capra based his fictional Bedford Falls. It really does look amazingly like Bedford Falls, and every December the town holds an “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival. Festival-goers can’t resist running down the street yelling “Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”—just like Jimmy Stewart did. They can also chat with “Uncle Billy,” “Old Man Potter,” and other characters.
My friend Anne Morse is so fond of the film that she wrote a sequel to it, titled Bedford Falls: The Story Continues, in which she imagines what happened to the Bailey family after the Christmas of 1945. Anne also wrote a wonderful piece about her experiences in the “real” Bedford Falls for The Christian Post—and about the gospel message the film contains that many viewers miss.
As Anne puts it, “It’s a Wonderful Life” “is a magnificent cinematic depiction of the words of Jesus: ‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?’ ” (Matthew 16:26)
In the New Testament, the devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world, if he will only bow down and worship him. In the movie, Anne writes, “We see a similar scenario: The tempter, in the form of Henry Potter, offers George Bailey everything he has ever wanted: travel to Europe, lots of money . . . and a far more interesting job than he has at the Building and Loan.”George is tempted. But he ultimately realizes what Potter is really asking him to do: sacrifice the Building and Loan, which means sacrificing his neighbors to Potter’s greed. And so he turns him down, calling Potter “nothing but a scurvy little spider.”
But just as Satan continues to tempt Christ, Potter continues to tempt George Bailey.
For instance, after his father’s death, George must choose between going to college or staying in Bedford Falls to run the Building and Loan. George reluctantly stays because, as he puts it, Bedford Falls needs at least one place where people don’t have to go crawling to Potter.
Later, George must choose between his honeymoon and protecting the town from another effort by Potter to shut down the Building and Loan.
When George’s brother Harry and his bride come home with big plans for the future, George sacrifices his own dreams so that Harry can have his. And when Uncle Billy loses $8,000—thanks in part to Old Man Potter—George takes the blame in order to keep Uncle Billy out of trouble.
“George Bailey’s soul was not for sale,” Anne notes. “Without realizing it, George, through his many sacrifices for others, spent his life imitating Christ. And Potter, by forfeiting his soul for earthly wealth, becomes, as George puts it, a “warped, frustrated old man.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” invites us to ask ourselves, every day, what the consequences of our decisions might be. “At a deeper, more subtle level,” Anne says, “the film reminds us that living a good life means consistently imitating the Lord we claim to serve.”
Anne’s book “Bedford Falls” is available at the BreakPoint.org book store. So, why not curl up with the book right after you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with your family? Both the film and the book teach us one of the greatest lessons we can learn: that to live for Christ is to die to self.