The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern, is a story about a man who wants to accomplish something in his own life but is so busy helping others that life seems to pass him by. Despondent over what appears to be a very ordinary—if not a wasted—life, he wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish, and through the help of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he never lived. After viewing life from such a unique perspective, he concludes that life is indeed a wonderful gift. Though Stern never found anyone willing to publish the story, it finally found its way into the hands of filmmaker Frank Capra, who turned it into the all-time Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
I have not had any life-changing visits from a guardian angel, but I have had my perspective on this life altered in recent months. I am one of those Christians who truly believes the best is yet to come! It has not been tempting for me to spend any time or money collecting the trinkets and toys of this present world. I have not craved houses and lands. I have had a good life, a happy marriage, and wonderful children, who are now grown and established; and so any time God is ready for me to go, I am ready. There are no sad stories, no regrets about leaving, and no struggle to grasp a few more fleeting moments of time here on earth. It’s been a great journey! (For those who are shocked by this, no, I am not depressed; and, yes, I would like to know my grandchildren.) After all, earnest Christians live with a very loose grip on this present world. Right? Right!
We are only pilgrims passing through the temporal headed for the eternal. Right? Right! This life is inferior at best, and the sooner we slip the bonds of mortal existence and are clothed with the eternal, the better. Right? Not quite! Some months ago God began to speak to me about the wonderful gift He has given us in our earthly physical life. It should not be minimized or demeaned because it is not as blissful a state as the life to come, nor should one just endure it until liberated by heaven. Rather, it should be lived with deep gratitude and respect as a wonderful gift from God. It is good, not because I make it so, but because He has made it so.
God created life and declared it good. God gave Adam and Eve each other and the created world around them to enjoy richly. He considers this physical life sacred and reserves the severest penalties for those who destroy it. The first promise attached to a commandment was the promise of a long life. God often promised length of days as a way of honoring His faithful servants in the Old Testament. All of this is still true, despite the fall of man and the curse of sin.
Obviously, God sees the life He gives us as very good! Don’t confuse God’s gift of life that is good with what the world calls the “good life.” The two are polar opposites. The citizens of this present world chase after the “good life,” grabbing all they can get and holding it as tightly-fisted as possible. They generally succeed in keeping it long enough to make themselves thoroughly miserable before losing it all. Christians, however, have given up the “good life” so that they may enjoy a life that is truly good.
They do not grab for what they can get but rather hold everything they possess in an open palm. They clutch nothing to themselves but God. Thereby they can enjoy all things without those things affecting their joy.
If God views our earthly life as good, then His perspective ought to become our perspective. We should see every moment of our life here as a blessed gift to be richly enjoyed, life as a glorious journey marked by His grace. I don’t need health or wealth or popularity or beauty or anything else to make my life good. All I need is to walk with Him and remain in Him moment by moment. Such a view of life is neither a shallow optimism nor a refusal to acknowledge the deep darkness that life can bring. It isn’t ignoring the curse of sin and its awful physical consequences. But it is refusing to let those things blind us to the ultimate goodness of this life. It is acknowledging that every day is a gift from God—a gift that when received gratefully can transform the most common and ordinary moment into joyful living. It is a statement of faith that says pain, sorrow and trouble do not define my existence, determine my happiness or have the last word!
If God sees life as good, then His perspective should be reflected in the way we live it. God has given me some real-life object lessons to illustrate this point. Oscar Johnson, a dear friend, died recently after battling cancer for several years. Oscar’s life taught me so much about how one should truly enjoy each and every day. Oscar knew for over two years that he was dying. The joy and optimism with which he lived those years was a powerful witness to hundreds of people. During his last hospitalization, I was alone with him and took the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to my family and me and to say goodbye. That opened the door to talk about dying. He said to me, “Brother Avery, I have never walked this way before. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you’re dying.” And then with a big smile he said, “So I’m just going to enjoy my family, witness to my doctor, and take a nap.” Oscar was holding life in an open palm. He was rejoicing in every moment he had, and others were incredibly impacted by that joy.
A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of alumnus John Case, Jr. John died suddenly from a rare form of cancer at the age of forty-two. Hundreds came to the viewing and the funeral. His life had impacted so many people for what appears to be one primary reason—he loved life, and it showed! From the twinkle in his eye, to the lilt in his voice, to the humor in his words, John left those around him with the feeling that life is good and that he was enjoying it! A simple phone call from John could be the bright spot in a person’s day. What a great way to live!
It is doubtful that anyone was ever influenced toward the life to come by someone who despised the one he or she was living now. Life is good, and as Christians we should demonstrate that goodness to those with whom we interact.
As we celebrate God’s unspeakable gift in Christ this Christmas season, it would be good also to celebrate another of His wonderful gifts—the gift of life. Important celebrations require planning and thought. Last year on Christmas morning, before my family and I opened our gifts, we read the Christmas story, prayed together, and then I read some prepared remarks about how good God had been to our family and how grateful I was for each of them. I then mentioned some specific things about each one that I deeply appreciated. After I finished, each family member did the same. At times we were so overcome with emotion we couldn’t speak. When it was over, we embraced each other and realized anew how wonderful life really is! If you’re alone, read a prepared letter to God and thank Him for the life He has given you. You will not be alone for long! Whatever your circumstance, don’t miss an opportunity this year to celebrate all of life. Because it really is wonderful!