A troubled bank clerk seeks to end his life on Christmas Eve but soon discovers the greatest gift of all when a mysterious stranger shows him what the world would be like if he’d never been born. That’s the essence of Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, “The Greatest Gift.”
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The Story Behind the Story
“It was the story I had been looking for all my life!” wrote Frank Capra, the director of the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Author Philip Van Doren Stern (1900–1984) sent “The Greatest Gift” out as his 1943 Christmas card when he failed to find a publisher for the short story. Somehow a card made its way to Frank Capra, who became immediately entranced by the story. He sent a copy to Jimmy Stewart, who shared his enthusiasm. Stewart eventually played the leading character, George Bailey (George Pratt in The Greatest Gift), when Capra adapted the story into the 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
As we select and apply highlights from “The Greatest Gift,” you’ll see similarities and differences between the short story and the film. But the storyline that Capra couldn’t resist weaves through them both.
Down on Life
Christmas should be a time of celebration with family and friends, but it holds no joy for George Platt as he leans over the railing of an iron bridge. George can find no value in his life as a small-town bank clerk. He feels left behind, while others appear to thrive and live worthwhile lives. Now he intends to end it all by jumping into the dark icy water swirling below.
George Platt wishes he’d never been born. He’s not the first or the last to feel this way.
A Man Named Job
It’s impossible to be happy all the time. Things happen to us or our loved ones that cause emotional distress. (See article, “Trouble with the Curve.”)
A man named Job had everything a person could want. He had a large family, vast agricultural holdings, considerable wealth, and abundant possessions. He also exercised faith in God and lived a morally upright life.
But he lost it all, and such was his misery that he wished he’d never been born. Job said, “Let the day perish on which I was born … Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:2–3, 11).
You may never suffer to the extent Job did, but painful things happen to all at some point. In those times, we may question whether life is worth living. And we may even, like George Platt and Job, wish we’d never been born.
It might be helpful to know that others feel this way from time to time yet somehow survive and carry on with the business of living. (See article, “These Things Happen.”)
Jeremiah the Prophet
Jeremiah suffered rejection and maltreatment by his countrymen and lamented, “Cursed be the day wherein I was born” (Jeremiah 20:14). But he emerged from the gloomy episode when the Word of the Lord induced him to return to his work.
The Scriptures do that. They supply hope and assurance that somehow God will provide a resolution to the matter. Listen to these words of David as he grapples with despair.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 43:5)
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
George looks around and sees a peculiar little man wearing a moth-eaten fur cap and a shabby overcoat stretched tightly across a paunchy belly. But it’s the stranger’s eyes that demand attention. “They were the kindest, sharpest eyes you ever saw.”
The little man displays an awareness of the situation and rebukes George for contemplating suicide, especially on Christmas Eve. When George claims he has nothing to live for, the stranger reminds him of the good things in his life. But George will have none of it and insists that his life is useless. Then he adds, “In fact, I wish I’d never been born.”
At that, the stranger lights up. “OK! You haven’t … You haven’t been born. No one knows you. You have no responsibilities—no job—no wife—no children. Why you haven’t even a mother … Your wish, I am happy to say, has been granted—officially.”
Frank Capra’s film portrays the stranger as an angel named Clarence. Van Doren Stern shrouds the little man’s origin in mystery, but grants him the supernatural power of a heavenly being. The question arises, “Do angels ever appear in human form?”
Angels to the Rescue
The Apostle Paul urges believers to “show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2–7).
Time and time again, angels appear at critical times in the lives of Biblical characters. They seldom appear as the two-winged variety often portrayed in literature and art.
On the first Easter morning, when the women entered Jesus’ open tomb to anoint His body, they saw an angel in the form of a young man wearing a white robe. His words comprised the essence of the resurrection message. “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.” (Mark 1:6).
Untold numbers of people facing crises in their lives report encounters with someone, often a stranger who provides help and comfort when they need it most. One cannot discount the possibility of angelic visitations in such cases. We know for sure God often sends His angels to Earth on missions of mercy. “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up” (Psalm 91:10–14).
The Wish Granted
“Your wish, I am happy to say, has been granted—officially.”
With that, he thrusts George into an extraordinary series of events that find him transformed into a brush salesman, unrecognizable to anyone.
George has never been born.
The Town without George
George finds everything changed in the small town. The scar on old Hank Biddle’s tree once made by George’s car has disappeared. Most unsettlingly, the bank he’d grown to despise is vacant with a battered “For Rent or Sale” sign fastened to the door.
Using his new identity as a brush salesman, George first visits his parent’s house. They don’t recognize him but invite him in to show his wares.
George looks around and spies a picture taken of him and his brother Harry. But George isn’t in the image. He’d never been born. George learns that Harry drowned in a pond the same day he posed for the picture. George wasn’t there to rescue him.
Next, George stumbles up the path to his own house. He finds the lawn and flower bushes in a mess. George’s wife Mary answers his knock at the door but doesn’t recognize him. He shows her the satchel and gains entrance into the parlor.
Finding Mary wed to another man, with a boy and a girl of their own, proves to be more than George can bear. He leaves a sample brush and rushes out the door and hurries down the hill toward the bridge.
The Greatest Gift
Arriving at the bridge, it relieves George to find the little stranger and cries out, “I’ve had enough. Get me out of this—you got me into it.”
The stranger reminds George of his attempted suicide and the wish he’d made to have never been born. But George is adamant. “Change me back—please. Not just for my sake but for others too. You don’t know what a mess this town is in. You don’t understand. I’ve got to get back. They need me here.”
The stranger understands, but he wants to make sure George understands. “You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you—the gift of life, of being a part of this world, and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.”
Then, the stranger returns George to his former world, a wiser man, appreciative of the little things he’d taken for granted. The church bells ring as a reminder that life is a gift from God. When George happily returns home to his wife and family, he’s overcome with joy. As he sits with Mary on the sofa, he comes in contact with something wedged between the cushions. He doesn’t even have to pick the thing up, for he knows what it is. The brush. A reminder of a time when he’d forgotten the greatest gift.
A Gift from God
Solomon, suffering from a deep depression, concluded that his life’s work meant nothing. Zero. Everything seemed senseless and wrong. “This made me hate life. Everything we do is painful, it’s just as senseless as chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). Solomon even opened Ecclesiastes on a note of frustration. “Meaningless! Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” If the wisest and wealthiest man of his day could sink that deeply into the doldrums, anyone can. Especially when facing pain, grief, or disappointment.
Here’s the problem. Solomon and his modern counterparts allow themselves to slip into a narrow view of life that focuses only on the negatives—and, yes, there are many.
Escape from the Doldrums
Losing interest or despising one’s life brings everything to a standstill. Learning, personal growth, productivity, spiritual progress, all of which should continue until our last day on Earth, fall flat. There’s no better description of this sad state than the doldrums, a nautical term once used by crews aboard sailing vessels to describe a dead, windless area that hampers further progress. Solomon eventually pulls out of the doldrums brought about by his contempt for life when he learns to appreciate his existence as a gift from God.
I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12).
This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot (Ecclesiastes 5:18).
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
The Apostle Paul stood before the Athenian philosophers who always grappled with the mystery of life and declared that “God who made the world and everything in it … gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25). He also reminded his young protege Timothy that God “gives life to all things” (1 Timothy 6:13).
Joe Banks, the unforgettable lead character played by Tom Hanks in “Joe Versus the Volcano,” grows tired of his job, his ailments, and life. But when all seems lost, Joe experiences an epiphany while standing on a makeshift raft in the middle of the ocean. He falls to his knees and prays, “Dear God, whose name I do not know, I thank you for my life … Thank you. Thank you for my life.”
Life is a gift from God as it has been from the beginning when He breathed into Adam “the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). A day should not pass without our taking time to thank God for our lives. But the greatest gift goes beyond physical life.
The Greater Gift
Were it not for the bestowal of a gift greater than mortal life, our demise would be nothing more than that described by Solomon during his journey into disillusionment.
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:5–6).
True enough, that’s the end toward which all mortals plummet. But God by His grace doesn’t leave us there. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
God’s plan for humankind goes beyond this life to life eternal. In reality, true life begins at death. Everlasting life is God’s greatest gift, and its realization makes the otherwise overwhelming setbacks that tire us of this life tolerable. “The sufferings of this present time,” Paul wrote, “are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15). Eternal life through Jesus Christ was, and shall always be the greatest gift of all.