If you watched the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” (if you haven’t, you should), you probably remember the premise of the movie. On Christmas Eve, a crisis triggers George Bailey’s insecurities and his deep-seated resentment at spending his entire adult life working for the tiny Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, rather than doing the great things—traveling widely, building impressive buildings—that he had always dreamed of doing. In the end, all the people in town whom he had helped over the years come together to rescue him, the so-called “rabble” derided by the greedy banker Mr. Potter. As George is reminded by his guardian angel Clarence, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” And as his younger brother Harry toasts him, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” Thus our hero learns that his life has not been a failure after all, that he has in fact had a wonderful life.
It’s a moving scene, with a positive message. And perhaps it raises the question in the viewer’s mind, how will you measure your life? In 2010, Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen wrote an article with that exact title. I first read the article in 2016, and it has resonated with me ever since. I have recommended the article to many people, and I included a quotation from the article in the “Faith @ Work” ACE class that Donald Thampy and I taught. On the last day of his class on management theory at Harvard Business School, Christensen would ask his students to answer three questions: how can I be sure I’ll be happy in my career? How can I be sure my relationships with my spouse and family become an enduring source of happiness? And how can I be sure to stay out of jail? (That last question was serious; two of his Rhodes Scholar classmates spent time in jail.)
Christensen talks about how, while he was at Oxford, he spent an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put him on earth. As he says, “I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned.” He ends his article with the following words, aimed at all of us but perhaps particularly at the George Baileys among us: “Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”
As we look forward to a new year, I suggest we all take Christensen’s recommendation to heart. And here I think the Heidelberg Catechism can help us (Ha! You thought I was going for the Westminster Shorter, didn’t you?). The Heidelberg Catechism memorably opens with the assertion that the believer’s only comfort in life and death is that he belongs to his faithful Savior Jesus Christ. The second question asks: what must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? The answer is: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” There it is: guilt, grace, gratitude.
Brothers and sisters, our lives will be judged by our great God and Savior, not by our bank accounts, nor by our titles and awards, but by how we have served and worshiped Him. May we measure our lives by our gratitude to our Lord, our service to others, and our stewardship of whatever God has entrusted to us. I wish you all a wonderful life!
Steve Hoogerhyde is a Ruling Elder.