A Few Things George Bailey Taught Me About Prayer

When I graduated from high school, a friend gave me a book with the words NO MAN IS A FAILURE WHO HAS FRIENDS written inside. I thought it was catchy and I thanked him for the gift, but I had no idea where that phrase originated. When I asked he said, “Watch It’s A Wonderful Life sometime. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

To be honest, it always seemed like one of the boring black and white films that I intentionally avoided, so it took me another ten years before I sat down and actually watched the movie from beginning to end. In the midst of chasing my dreams and going broke, the movie hit me at an opportune time and became one of my favorite stories. I found myself connecting with the central figure, George Bailey, in ways that words can’t express.

Over the years, I’ve watched the movie countless times and yet, each time, I find myself in tears as the emotions come rushing forward. I thought it fitting to sit down and record those emotions as a way to provide a fresh perspective on a familiar story.

The Power of Prayer

Just before the climatic scenes in Frank Capra’s classic, George Bailey is at his wit’s end. He’s inadvertently lost $8,000 and he’s fearful that he’ll be sought for fraud and his reputation will be ruined. Everything he has worked for is disappearing and thoughts of embezzlement and imprisonment soon follow. The only thing he can seem to pull together as collateral is a life insurance policy. In that moment, he resolves to believe that he’s worth more dead than alive.

I remember the night that I sat on the floor of a home I could no longer afford as I watched my income dwindle to nothing. I was too embarrassed to call my parents, so I wept on the phone to a friend. I had no idea how I would possibly make it out of the pressure of the overwhelming debt that I found myself in. It was suffocating.

Like the great Jimmy Stewart so majestically brought to life, I found my hope fading but not completely lost.

In the film, George sits at Martini’s bar, puts a shot of bourbon to his lips, and he utters this prayer:

“God, dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope, show me the way, God.”

Yet, just moments after his prayer is uttered, George is punched in the face, wrecks his car, and is left stranded in the snow. It’s a downward spiral that causes George to curse God as he says, “That’s what I get for praying.”

He staggers to the ledge of a bridge in the icy night believing that he is better off dead. Any remnant of hope is now gone and he’s ready to give it all away. And as I’ve found countless times, that’s when God shows up.

It’s not necessarily our prayers that beckon God to show Himself, but our utter hopelessness in our own effort that brings us to a place of humility where we’re finally able to hear God amid the noise of our circumstances.

I think George teaches us that it’s not the power of our prayers, but the condition of our heart that makes God visible.

A Christmas PrayerGeorge on the bridge "It's a Wonderful Life"

This Christmas season, I think about the millions of people who utter George’s prayer. Millions of people who are desperate and lost—feeling like they are worth more dead than alive. And even though prayer isn’t their thing, something inside of them will cry out. A tiny flame of hope will cause them to pray.

Despite their distrust of religion, or their distrust of people in general, they’ll utter words in prayer to a God that they may not even believe in. Or at best, a God who has seemed very distant. Whether it’s a diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, an addiction or their own feeling of hopelessness, they’ll pray. And like George Bailey, life will punch them in the face again.

If those moments teach us anything, it’s that prayers are rarely answered as expected. In George’s case, he needed a bit more humility before he encountered God’s purposes. I think the same is true for us as well.

As my friend, Kevin Adams, wrote in his book The Extravagant Fool:

“Sometimes when our burden seems most heavy God adds a bag of sand. Not for tearing our heart at the seams but to get our knees to bend.”

Although painful, I’ve found this to be oh so true. But despite the pain, how refreshing to truly bend our knees and encounter our Father. In George Bailey’s case, as he stood on an icy bridge ready to commit suicide, God sent him a guardian angel, Clarence, someone who restored his hope. It may not come in the form of a guardian angel, but my prayer for you this Christmas is that God would answer you.

You are a Pastor

However, no matter where you are, this Christmas, you will encounter people like George who are at the end of their rope. Maybe you’ll sit beside them in church or cross their path in the street. Maybe they’ll serve you coffee or prepare your meal. Maybe they’re your co-workers or even live under your roof.

Friends, those people need the message of Christmas. And it’s your responsibility to share it with them. Maybe you’re their guardian angel—someone who can restore their hope.

Every single one of us has the opportunity to minister God’s beautiful message of hope to those around us this Christmas. All of us have the opportunity to be a pastor. The word pastor simply means shepherdsomeone who leads to pasture. You and I both have the opportunity to lead people to feed on the green grass of the joy that God is with us.

So this is my prayer for us this Christmas:

“Most gracious and heavenly Father. This morning, I say a special prayer. A prayer for those who you’ve called to deliver your message of hope this Christmas.  

God, may they not trust in their own understanding, but lean on faith, which your word says, can move mountains. God I pray that you would grant them the courage and the strength to speak your truth, not only in words, but in actions as well. Give them mercy and grace to deliver Truth much like you did long ago—with the gentleness of a child.

In the stillness of a manger, you joined us in our mess and put an end to our waiting. That is the good news that brings great joy—a Savior is born. In that hope, we rejoice.

I pray for the hearts of those who are longing. God, add that bag of sand that will soften their heart to receive this good news—the gift of your Son. 

God, this Christmas, I long to see the hope of our souls met with the truth of your grace. As they collide, may it remind us that You are there, as a gentle child, calling us to the manger—calling us to come, rejoice and worship the King. AMEN!”


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9 Responses to A Few Things George Bailey Taught Me About Prayer

  1. Sharon Brooks December 20, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    Feeling like a beggar and useless, lilies smashed along with my heart, clothes torn, sense of direction gone out the window; I need a new compass.* laughs*
    I have learned many things, still more I’ve yet to. As the world seems to crumble around me, there is one thing so deeply embedded within that nothing and no one can take away; my light through it all… love. And somehow as I ponder my due, I cheer up a bit knowing… yes knowing, life is so wonderful because I see Him in it.

    • Matt Ham December 20, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      “Life is so wonderful because I see him in it” – may that realization become the answer to our prayers! Thanks Sharon!

  2. alaskachick December 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    I read too much into the words, “Hope” and “Faith”… I think. On one hand, I feel that they are very intimate words, between my Father and myself… and on the other, I feel that if I give myself over to the words themselves… I will let Him down. It smacks of laziness to me- of myself, mind you… I want to BE who He dreamed of me being… and I know that it isn’t just leaning on “Hope” for life to all turn or work itself out ~ but to get out there and do all I can, to learn more, be more, help more ~ in His name.
    Still searching for my ONE WORD for 2014… I feel I NEED to find it ~ it is waiting for me.

    Matt, I would very much like to say something else here, to Sharon Brooks, above. Sharon, please hold on. I have felt exactly the same as if the heart of me is bleeding and the screaming inside may disintegrate my very being… except for an unwavering belief, and yes, FAITH, that our Father in heaven is beside and inside me also ~ putting out the fires that threaten to burn me alive… and yet, I also would like you to know, as the tears run down my face, that our pain, that we share with one another, when we can find the strength to share it, makes us stronger… reading your words, YOU, Sharon, lifted a bit of the heartache and pain from my own heart. Please know that. Just your few shared sentences, made a difference in another person’s life. YOU made a difference to ME, today.

    • Matt Ham December 20, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

      Amber-Lee – I see what you’re suggesting but the more I’m reminded of real faith and hope, they are both very active! What are you considering for your word?

  3. Joshua Rivers (@JoshuaWRivers) February 8, 2014 at 10:53 am #

    God is definitely in the business of answering prayer. I actually wonder if it was more about the others praying for George than George’s prayer alone. There is power in praying for others and having others pray for you. Don’t be afraid to ask others to pray with you and for you!

    • Matt Ham February 8, 2014 at 10:56 am #

      Joshua – where two or more are gathered…

      Nothing like the power of prayerful community!

      Thanks for stopping by!


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