“It’s a Wonderful Life” and Why I’m Frustrated with Prayer

Do we live in George Bailey's alternate reality, or God's kingdom?It’s a Wonderful Life has power like few other films to restore my faith in mankind.

Or at least that’s what I was going to write.

I saw a screening of the film at a friend’s house and drove home in my usual condition: more full of thoughts than I’d like. My Facebook feed awaited me with news of yet another couple grieving over their newborn’s passing. A friend sharing the effects of a years-long depression. More development on the San Bernardino shootings, over which the unbelieving world (voiced by the New York Daily News) finally threw off the last vestiges of their polite silence and hollered “God isn’t fixing this!“.

A cold blast of reality, like the one George Bailey got when his angel announced he’d gotten his wish, and no longer existed.

Sometimes George’s alternate reality, its eeriness anticipating the Twilight Zone a decade in advance, feels more like ours than George’s real one.

Maybe that’s why I was tempted to paint It’s a Wonderful Life as a faith-in-mankind movie. It’s the safer portrait. It was the original intention of the director. It sticks to viewing the movie as a feel-good experience, instead of looking a chaotic world straight in the eye to make the audacious, incredible, ridiculous claim that God is the powerful one.

But perhaps I’m not supposed to be playing it safe.

Perhaps I – we – should be walking straight into the audacity and planting our flag.

Yes. God does respond to prayer. He does choose to operate that way. He does answer our requests.

I’ve long been struggling with the lack of answer to prayer. Long have I prayed for things that have not yet come. Very few answers for myself, and almost none for others.

Conservative theology has crafted a lot of nice, religious-sounding answers to why our prayers are met with silence. The simplest one is, “Well, it must not have been the Lord’s will.” Maybe. It could be that we just consistently suck at guessing what God wants done, and back it up with the fact that “we can’t know his plan”. That correctly addresses at least some of our prayers, and makes us look irreverent for questioning it. After all, no one can resist God’s will.

But what, then, do we make of the reports of the old saints? Of John Hyde, whose physical symptoms after years of travailing prayer for Indian souls were described thus:

“The heart is in an awful condition. I have never come across such a bad case as this. It has been shifted out of its natural position on the left side to a place over on the right side. Through stress and strain it is in such a bad condition that it will require months and months of strictly quiet life to bring it back again to anything like it’s normal state.”

Or George Mueller, who said:

“I have been praying for sixty-three years and eight months for one man’s conversion. He is not saved yet but he will be. How can it be otherwise…I am praying.”

How could he say that? How could he know with such confidence that his desire matched up with God’s will? Frankly, most of us pray without any sense of that. We’re guessing. We recoil especially from language like the last sentence, fearing that it attempts a “claim” on God and so disrespects his position.

But this man spoke like he knew God. And the knowledge sustained both him and his prayers. He didn’t live to see it, but God did capture the soul of Mueller’s friend for his own.

Meanwhile, we go to church and sing hymns like “Sweet Hour of Prayer”, blind to the mockery we make of ourselves. How many of us, on any given day, actually spend anywhere close to an hour in prayer?

When we’re pulling the “God’s plan” argument out for every unanswered prayer – even for things Scripturally revealed as God’s will – I get suspicious.

Especially when we have not yet prayed as Scripture commands. Or when the fruits of our arguments are that we stop praying.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18-19)

Things used to happen when people prayed. Revivals sprung up. Provision took place. Miracles occurred that left people with no choice but to attribute power and glory to God. It’s difficult to Scripturally claim that God does not want these things and still sound convincing.

It’s a Wonderful Life was made back in the days when movies involving God were movies that ordinary people went to watch, without the “faith-based” label stamped on it like a surgeon general’s warning. I could write the movie off as a relic of a more naive age, or a product of the giddiness of World War II’s ending.

Or, regardless of the writers’ intent, I could accept it as a message from God. He uses such things. I know he’s trying to get to me. I’ve had at least three friends this week speaking of their faith in prayer. I was struggling with it right before I saw the film. Sometimes films accidentally speak truer than the church, of the power and character – not of family, or friends, or humanity, or even of prayer – but of God.

So I will keep praying.

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