In the Spotlight
By Richard Allen – November 29th, 2021
Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film of the same title, “It’s A Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey, a talented young man who always dreamed of leaving his simple home town, Bedford Falls to travel the globe, build great skyscrapers, and become famous in the process. Spoiler alert for those of you who have not seen the movie, George never leaves Bedford Falls, but rather stays behind to marry his sweetheart Mary, have a bunch of kids and run the Bailey Building & Loan with his befuddled Uncle Billy, making affordable homes available to the poor and immigrant classes in Bedford Falls. As the story progresses, we learn that while George never achieves the greatness he thinks he wants, he does attain a degree of contentment from his work, being a loving husband and father, and faithfully attending church to both weep and pray during the major events of his time – all of which seem to always be happening to others. His friend Sam Wainwright becomes mega-rich over the years, and even his own brother Harry (whom George saved from drowning as a child) becomes an Ace Fighter Pilot saving a Transport Ship of Soldiers and receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor in WWII! But poor old George, he ends up fighting the Battle of Bedford Falls during the war, tirelessly performing life’s mundane but necessary tasks. To most people’s ways of thinking, George is not a success by worldly standards.
But after Uncle Billy fails to make an $8,000 deposit for Bailey Building & Loan, George is accused of malfeasance – and hits rock bottom, contemplating suicide just to allow his family to collect on his life insurance policy. Then as the drama builds, we find George ready to jump off a bridge into raging waters during a storm, and George laments: “I wish I’d never been born.” Enter George’s guardian angel Clarence Oddbody, to actually grant (with Senior Angel, Joseph’s permission) George’s wish to see “what life would have been like without him.” Then through a series of events, George learns that his life was more wonderful and impactful than he could ever have imagined! His existence, connecting and interacting with everyone else ACTUALLY HAD A PROFOUND IMPACT ON OTHERS, FOR GOOD! And as the movie reaches its climax, George cries out to Clarence, his guardian angel: “I want to live again, I want to live again,” and things re-set back to his ordinary but important life – all attended with trials, bank shortages, and the mundane, that HE THOUGHT HE NEEDED TO BE SET FREE FROM. NOW REALIZING, HE HAD A WONDERFUL LIFE!
I’m giving you this movie background as my canvas to paint a biblical picture of how God measures success, and how we should evaluate our lives and fortunes. Let me start with a verse, often called the “divine cordial” in scripture:
“And we know that for those who love God – all things work together for good, for those who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
This verse in Romans has been quoted, and misquoted for nearly two millennia. Many mistakenly reading this verse to say: “Everything will turn out OK in life for those who are God’s faithful.” While this is kind of right, it’s also kind of wrong. Many things in this life MAY NOT TURN OUT OK, but in God’s plan all things will turn out for our eternal good, and His glory! This verse does not mean that we won’t suffer hardships, setbacks or trials – but rather that in spite of those things, God’s plan for us will still find it’s ultimate resolution in our eternal destiny. This isn’t the more popular opinion among Evangelical Christians. It’s much easier to believe that God has our back in all earthly matters (as He often does), and that we won’t suffer at all, or very much – and that all of our stories will have a “happily ever after ending.” While these are comforting thoughts, they’re just not realistic, or the way that God’s providence actually works.
Closely akin to this faulty understanding of Romans 8:28, many Christians are actually victims of what I call “Job’s Original Theory,” that is – we believe that “God puts a hedge of protection around his obedient people and keeps them from any serious temporal harm or trials.” THAT EVERYTHING WILL TURN OUT OK. And many also misunderstand I Corinthians 10:13 where it says: “God will not let Christians be tempted beyond their ability, but with each temptation will actually provide a way of escape.” Sadly, many leave off the last phrase: “That we might endure it” – believing that we’ll miraculously be given a lifeline at the last second, and be pulled to safety, as we escape another close call!
Don’t get me wrong, most mature Christians don’t expect this life to be perfect, and they acknowledge that they’ll have a few trials. They reason that “as long as we live obedient (not perfect) Christian lives – we’ll be immune from the painful consequences that many sinful people often incur,” like being arrested for armed robbery, drug addiction, broken marriages from infidelity, etc. They also confess freely that “Life isn’t Always Fair,” that both the just and the unjust go through tough times, for a variety of reasons! (Matt 5:45). But the righteous will still get the “happily ever after ending” in this life as well. The bible teaches that God in His mercy often provides an escape, but not always.
So as you read through both the Old and New Testaments, you’ll realize that this too is a faulty reading of scripture. God’s people are not immune from the normal calamities in life (disease, wayward children, bankruptcy, death of a loved one, divorce), nor are we immune from the consequences of our own failures and sins (being fired, arrested, or suffering from bad choices). While it’s easier for Christians to accept that we can be persecuted for righteous behavior, or hated for our faithfulness to Jesus – it’s much harder to see that God even uses chastisement for our own Sins, Failures, Weaknesses and flat-out Disobedience to accomplish His purposes in us! If this is not the case, then David, Jacob & Peter’s life experiences make no sense! And to make matters even more confusing – there’s the Story of Job!
I can remember reading the Book of Job as a young Christian, and coming away even more confused about God’s providential dealing as He willingly led Job into severe trials and suffering. Why would God allow a good man like Job suffer at the hands of the Devil? God himself stated to Satan that “there was none like my servant Job.” Yet even so, God allowed Satan to destroy Job’s whole life: Family, Property and ultimately his health – all to show that Job willingly honored and loved God. So instead of putting “A Hedge of Protection” around Job, God allowed Job to suffer and endure severe emotional and physical trials. This didn’t make sense to Job, partly because he didn’t grasp how trials in his life could be used for anything good by God. But this is exactly the same conclusion that Paul made in stating that “all things worked together for our good” in Romans 8:28. And then Paul says this in the very next verse, Romans 8:29.
“And we know that for those who love God – all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom He foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28-29)
So there you have it, suffering and trials are a tool to make us more like Jesus Christ! And so we don’t misunderstand what Paul meant by the “all things that work together for our good,” Paul later lists them in Romans 8:31-35.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
This expanded passage from Romans 8:31-35 makes it clear that the trials and troubles of life are all a part of God’s plan to conform us to the image of His Son, Jesus! They are the very “things” that God uses to craft and mold us to be thankful overcoming saints, not cowering sinners constantly complaining “Why Me?” So this explains why Paul opened this entire discussion in Romans 8:18 by teaching us that our current sufferings could not be compared with the future glory and blessings that await us:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
The teaching of the New Testament should now be in clear focus, and for the believer in JESUS CHRIST – IT IS A WONDERFUL LIFE! Our trials and struggles in this temporary sphere of existence work an “eternal weight of glory” (II Cor 4:17) for us – getting us ready for the next life, THE PERMANENT ONE! Don’t get me wrong, as Christians, we are not oblivious to human suffering, just the opposite! It has been the Church of Jesus Christ that has been at the forefront working to provide relief from hunger, poverty, slavery, being orphaned, disease and war! But we do so – not believing that by our efforts we’ll be able to create utopia, or establish heaven on earth, but rather, because “the love of God constrains us to love and do good, to all men, especially those from the household of faith!” (Gal 6:10)
Like father Abraham of old, we are all on pilgrimage, “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God!” (Heb. 11:10) The writer of Hebrews goes on to say – that just like the saints of old, faithful believers in this age are NOT IMUNE FROM THE TRIALS IN THIS LIFE, BUT FAITHFULLY FOLLOW THE GOD WHO IS LEADING THEM ON TO THE PRIZE, A HEAVENLY COUNTRY!
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Heb. 11:32-40)
What makes this passage all the more profound is that it’s usually called: “Faith’s Hall of Fame,” because it recounts the behavior of God’s faithful servants, whose faith actually WORKS BY LOVE! The writer goes on to admonish us all:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)
So, let me close by paraphrasing the wisdom above, while making the same point:
“With Jesus, It Is A Wonderful Life!”