Christmas movies have an incredible ability to channel nostalgia. The connection to one’s childhood helps explain why many of us feel so closely connected to our personal favorites. If these movies don’t represent us, they at least represent who we want to be or who we used to be, someone usually in the form of a child who, against all odds, has a spark of hope (e.g., Buddy the Elf, Cindy Lou Who). In a genre brimming with sentimentality, one film stands alone in my mind — It’s a Wonderful Life. Despite all the charges of it being the corniest and most outdated, I think it reveals life in its truest sense.

How’s that you say? I’ll admit that the film has its fare share of “Every time a bell rings” sentimental padding, but let’s not overlook the topics it addresses: suicide, death, loss, ambition, failure, regret. For all the 1940s jargon (“Hot dog!”) there are plenty of dark-night-of-the-soul, Job-like moments in this story of a man who thinks his life isn’t worth anything. Yes, George Bailey is depicted as the paradigmatic all-American saint, but what about when he makes his daughter cry while she’s practicing piano? What about his violent display of rage while his family is preparing to throw a Christmas party? How about when he drunkenly peers over the precipice of a bridge ready to throw himself off or, after being rescued, his wish that he had never been born?

Part of what makes George Bailey’s character so timelessly relatable is that he is a man at the end of his rope, a man whose dreams have withered into a reality that he never would have chosen. On the one hand, he’s exceptional. He sacrifices his ambitions to run the family business, becomes a regular family man, and does his duty whenever possible. Even still, despite his exceptional goodness, he eventually comes to the end of himself. His good intentions, his solid reputation, his loving, charming, and attractive family are not enough to save him from ruin. So, what makes this life so gosh darn wonderful, you ask? The answer is God and God alone.

There is a hard line between the sentimental and the eternal message of this movie. The surface-level message that a man’s life has infinitely changed the lives around him for the better is weak sauce compared to the more subliminal message: that your life is not your own, that God is real and that God brings all things together for good (whether in this life or the next). The vision of Bedford Falls without George Bailey is really a view of the town without God’s gracious handiwork.

Several hours after his suicidal despair, George Bailey is on the same bridge pleading to have back the very life he despised (prayer, you’ll notice, is a golden thread weaved throughout the entire film). “Get me back!” he begs God. “I don’t care what happens to me! Get me back to my wife and kids! I want to live again! I want to live again! Please God! Let me live again!” It is the cry of a dead man who has suddenly realized that he is dead and in need of being raised. Once again, God answers his prayer. And never has anyone been so grateful for a bleeding mouth.

From that point on, George Bailey is a living, breathing testament to being dead to himself and alive in Christ (Gal 2:19-20). Yes, the money that comes streaming in during the final scene helps bail him out of jail, but let’s not forget that, moments before the money began trickling in, George says, “I’m going to jail! Isn’t it wonderful?!” At that moment, nothing external has changed — from his perspective, George still owes an insurmountable debt and is going to pay that debt off with scandal and imprisonment — and yet, everything has changed. It is a change of heart. Only a man whose very self has been put to death and then raised by a greater Power could respond in such a way as George Bailey does.

It’s no accident that the film ends with a crowd singing a raucous, unadulterated version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” While people continue to pour money into the collection for the Bailey family, the same officer who had come to take George to prison rips up the warrant for his arrest. The warrant is torn in two — literally, “rent from top to bottom” — and thrown into the collection as the officer shouts, “Peace on earth, and mercy mild. / God and sinners reconciled.”

It’s a Wonderful Life is not a triumph of the human spirit, but a testament to God’s faithful activity through people’s lives. It’s about a man whose previous life of striving was laid to rest and then raised anew. It’s about a God who can take a life in ruins and make it wonderful.