On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I saw the most recent film adaptation of Les Misérables. From an aesthetic standpoint, it was one of the more beautiful movies I have seen recently, if not ever. From a literary standpoint, it was, of course, everything the original story was meant to be. My heart wrenched and rejoiced with every lyric. Outside of the Bible, I do not know of another story that so articulately and truthfully captures the power of grace.
Spolier Alert: If you do not know the story and want to see the movie and preserve the element of surprise, you might want to stop reading!
To Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman), grace is utterly mind-blowing, yet relieving. It is an undeserved healing balm to lawbreakers–even the worst of them. Grace is free, Valjean learns, but it is only available to those who humble themselves, recognize their offense, and receive it. During the scene which probably portrays Valjean’s “conversion” moment, he sings:
What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?
Valjean knows, however, that grace does not simply sweep sin under the rug as if it were nothing. Forgiveness comes at a price. Forgiveness that costs nothing is not grace: it is mere sentimentality at best, or a cruel, devilish trick at worst. Valjean first experience of grace came from a compassionate priest, who sacrificed his own wealth, safety, and reputation to let a guilty man go free. Valjean sings:
Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me
Valjean realized that all the law produced in his heart was hatred. He had never experienced mercy or grace or compassion, but only strict law. For Valjean, Javert (played by Russell Crowe) was the epitome of coldhearted legalism that did not produce love, but bitterness, rage, slander, and contempt. When grace came to Valjean, however, love, tenderness, and kindness sprouted forth.
Javert is at odds with Valjean because Valjean had broken parole after his conversion moment. He essentially becomes a new man. He changes his name, his demeanor, his location, and his occupation. After Javert finds out Valjean’s true identity, Javert spends his life pursuing this criminal to bring him justice. As police inspector, Javert is hopelessly tethered to the law, so much so that his mind cannot comprehend grace. Grace and law are antithetical. The thought of a convicted criminal living a free and productive life is ludicrous; it is an active, rebellious assault on the law. Grace frustrates him. Grace flabbergasts him. Grace offends him. Javert finds no solution but his own death. Right before his fateful jump off the bridge, he sings:
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!
Javert understood that there is not room enough in the world for Grace and Law. It is either Valjean or Javert. Ultimately, Javert comes to realize that grace had won, and that it always will win.
I have no doubt that most people who have seen this film leave the theater thinking, “I wish that were true. I wish I could experience grace like that.” Many of us wish that there was some relief from the demands of life. We all feel it. We all sense that there is some kind of standard, some law, that we must keep. From the hardest atheist or the most devout legalist, everyone senses they have a proverbial Javert to answer to. O, but what freedom Valjean found! Can it be found outside of the theater?
Les Mis points us in a vague direction for the solution. But I know there is another story, a true story, in which Grace triumphs over Law. In this story, the solution is simply substitution. In this story, there were no Valjeans or Javerts, but there was a Hero who bore the burden of the Law, fulfilling it completely and perfectly, unlike Valjean, Javert, you, or me. This one Hero secures Grace to all who trust in his obedience, not their own, as their righteousness before the Law. Can this be true? It seems unfair! Yet, this is divine fairness to the core: the One takes the penalty for breaking the Law, though he did not deserve to be punished; the many who trust in this One receive Grace and go free, though they deserve none of it. Like Javert these freed-ones do not live to undermine the Law. Oh no, instead they live to spread the aroma of Grace they have received through their Hero, rejoicing in and displaying the fact that the Law now has no power over them.
Les Mis is a beautiful cinematic experience, but it so much more than that. It is a pointer to Jesus, the One who did not abolish the Law, but fulfilled it in our place, and bore the righteous wrath of God in our place, only to rise from the dead triumphing over sin, death, and hell. No more wishing Les Mis were true. It is, and yes, you can experience grace like that.