When Christmas Joy Feels Far Away: A Lesson from George Bailey

In the Christmas classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gets a rather unique kick in the pants. Through desperate circumstances, an angelic visit, and a trip into an alternate timeline where he never existed, George finally gets the message that his life matters. He has made a difference in the lives of his friends and neighbors, who have in turn made a difference to countless others.

If you’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life, you probably picked up on this message pretty quickly. But there’s another message I find woven throughout the storyline—one I think is just as important.

George needed the bleakness of Pottersville to understand how great things were in Bedford Falls. The hopelessness he experienced in this alternate reality enabled him to enter more fully into the joy of Christmas with his family and friends.

Where does this Christmas find you? Are you hanging out in Bedford Falls, celebrating all things merry and bright? Are you living in Pottersville, feeling hopeless, that any joy is too far out of reach? Or maybe you’re somewhere in-between.

Wherever we are on the spectrum, we can learn the same lesson as George Bailey (without having to jump into an icy river). That the sorrow and trials in life help us better appreciate the good things—particularly the joy we’ll have in the presence of God one day.

Despite what social media, sappy movies, or catchy music on the radio might tell us, we all struggle in some way to find joy during the Christmas season. But as we go throughout December, it can be helpful to remember that at the very center of Christmas is a message of joy mixed with threads of sorrow.

The True Meaning of the Season

You don’t have to read too far in the first few chapters of Luke to find examples of joy. Consider John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb at the presence of the unborn Savior, Mary’s Magnificat praising her Lord, and the angel choir filling the skies with a song of praise. And what about the joys not specifically talked about in Scripture? The relief of Joseph, as they finally find a place to rest and for Mary to safely deliver the baby. The wonder of a tired mama, reveling in ten perfect little fingers and ten perfect toes.

In the midst of the story of the first Christmas, however, there’s also a shadow of the sorrow to come. When Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the temple, Simeon was there. This man had been waiting to see the Savior for years, and when he did, he couldn’t help but shout praises to the Lord. But amidst his joyful words over the baby Jesus, he also has a surprising message for Mary:

“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).

A sword? Why would someone bring up weapons and pain as they celebrate the birth of this longed-awaited child? Because the Holy Spirit was speaking through Simeon to Mary about the pain of watching Jesus hang on the cross. As Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth points out:

When those nails pierced through His hands and feet at Calvary, a sword pierced through [Mary’s] own soul, as well. This was her Son that she was giving up for the salvation of the world.

We celebrate Jesus come to earth at Christmas—Immanuel, God with us. This God of the universe humbled Himself and came to earth. For forty weeks, He restricted Himself to the womb of a woman, then for thirty-three years to the confinement of a human body. The story of Christmas, of God living as one of us, here with us, lets us know we are not alone!

But in the midst of the joy of the season, a sword cuts through. Jesus came to earth as a baby to one day die. To suffer. To take the punishment of our sins upon Him (Isa. 53:5; Rom. 5:8). And “the reason for the season” includes both Jesus’ birth and His crucifixion.

To help my family keep this in mind, we have a special tradition as we put up our Christmas tree. Before we hang the first Hallmark ornament or get out the homemade decorations, we place a unique item amidst the branches—the Christmas nail. This six-inch nail tied with red ribbon is just something I picked up at a local hardware store. When we place it on the tree, only my family knows the location; it’s not visible to any guests. But its presence serves as reminder that Christ put Himself on a tree to give His life for our sake.

The Joy Will Come

While knowing and remembering the purpose of Christmas can help us experience its joy more fully, it doesn’t take away the pain. The holidays almost seem to shine a spotlight on our struggles—at least in our own hearts. Everyone else is enjoying the magic of the season, we say to ourselves. But I’m lonely; I’m hurting; I’m desperate.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of specific people in my community who are struggling this Christmas with marital strife, severe health issues, deep financial concerns, parental worries. And as I look around at the shopping mall, the school concert, and even at church on Sunday, I know there are countless more people who are hurting.

We may not have the stereotypical holiday gladness of songs and movies, but God can use the pain we go through now to point us to an even greater joy—the one we will one day experience when we are finally in His presence. Even Jesus remembered this joy as He endured agonizing physical and spiritual pain when He bore our sin: “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).

We don’t understand it all now. We can’t see the big picture of how this pain can ever lead to something good. But as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, as Christ-followers, one day we will stand before Him and see the big picture: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (13:12).

Three years ago on Christmas, I stood by the hospital bed of my mother, who was dying of brain cancer. My family and I didn’t have the normal holiday celebrations. Instead we packed up our gifts, hung out in the lobby, and took turns holding my mother’s hand. Two weeks later, she was gone.

There wasn’t much joy in our celebrations that year. This hospital stay was the culmination of a two-year downward spiral as I watched my mother slip away, not even having the ability to communicate anymore. Knowing that at times she didn’t recognize my face.

In the midst of this really, really difficult time, I held on to this truth: My mom knew Jesus as her Savior. And as I watched her suffering—and that of my family—deep down I could have joy knowing she would soon be set free from her pain and be in His presence.

Sometimes life—at Christmas and all year long—feels like waking up in Pottersville. Bleak, mean-spirited, desperate, dirty. But there is hope over in Bedford Falls . . . and beyond . . . for true joy far better than anything we can imagine.

About the Author

Mindy Kroesche

Mindy Kroesche

Mindy Kroesche is a stay-at-home mom who works part-time for Revive Our Hearts on a remote basis. She has degrees in journalism and French and has worked in ministry for over twenty years. Mindy and her husband, Jon, make their … read more …

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