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The wonderful givenness of life

Individuality thrives by expressing the gift of our shared human nature

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life Associated Press

The wonderful givenness of life
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’Tis the season for Christmas movies, including the beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is bent on escaping the givens of his small-town life in Bedford Falls—from his apparently dead-end family business to the seemingly shallow interests of the girl next door. “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” he declares as a young man.

In his quest for individuality, George doesn’t make an entrepreneurial venture in plastics (like his friend Sam Wainwright) or achieve great feats in combat (like his brother Harry). Instead he assumes the family business and marries the girl next door. But that turns out to be more than mundane, as his financial-turned-identity crisis reveals. In the end, George’s life is shown to be indispensably unique. His individuality leaves its greatest mark in all the good he made of those small-town givens of work, family, and friendship.

One reason George Bailey’s tale remains popular year after year is because it tells a parable of the perpetual human quest to forge our own way. Today, the pursuit of individuality continues in ways typical of Western modernity. Like George, we still seek to define ourselves in reaction to those around us (parents, siblings, classmates, etc.) or through distinguishing achievements in academics, athletics, career, and so on. Not all of these paths end as happily as George’s when the effort to individualize becomes consumed by choices that isolate rather than integrate our lives with others.

Moreover, the quest for identity has also taken much more radical turns against the most basic givens of human existence. Chosen gender is now celebrated in rejection of created biological sex. A tabula rasa approach to individual identity goes so far as to radically alter the human body.

In the midst of these identity crises, Christians should offer an alternative vision. That vision should convey that the most extraordinary expressions of individuality are those that show the profound potential in the shared human nature we have been given.

In our striving to exercise our individual gifts we must not neglect our relationships.

What is most profound about our nature is that we are made to image God. Our Creator has endowed humanity with the capacity to reflect his many-faceted glory by unfolding and developing the possibilities of His creation, both within ourselves and in the world around us. Our individuality is to express the imago Dei as each of us reflects God’s glory as unique persons.

A second aspect of this profound reality follows: Our human nature is a given. That hardly sounds profound or welcome to some today. Givenness has come to be treated like a wrench in the works of progress, another boundary to be surpassed as history and humanity advance. From a good Creator, however, the givenness of human nature is a good gift. Sin has woefully marred our experience of that gift, but sin’s curse does not extend to the givenness itself. God created human nature good and with a particular structure. Our efforts to glorify Him in this life ought to display that good givenness.

Third, our individuality is embedded in a shared humanity. Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck pointed out that even as each individual images God, so the whole of humanity together displays his manifold glory. Each person stands in an irreplaceable position in the tapestry of humanity to the honor of God.

What do these reflections suggest for us practically? Our individuality has the greatest potential to flourish when we recognize that it expresses a God-given human nature designed to honor Him and serve others. For each of us, this means that in our striving to exercise our individual gifts we must not neglect our relationships, whether through all-consuming work or forgetfulness of others’ own unique gifts. For those in authority—parents, teachers, pastors—this means nurturing the development of individual personality in those in our care by helping them recognize the structured human nature in which their uniqueness is made to thrive. In public life, it means working to revive recognition in culture and policy for the givenness of what it means to be human, in contrast, for example, to new gender policies that have introduced confusion in medicine, education, and sports.

With so much brokenness in the world, the good givenness of human nature can become obscured. But God’s gift of redemption restores that nature, including our capacity to see His goodness in creating our nature. At Christmas, we celebrate these good gifts by recalling how the Son of God took on our nature to accomplish our salvation, making possible for us the most wonderful life in Christ.

Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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