In the Absence of Grace

So, guys, if you want to make sure that your wife or girlfriend is thoroughly depressed at the end of date night, I have just the suggestion: watch Les Misérables. When choosing among all of the potential movies my wife would like, I actually thought I was going for the film that she might pick—a real date night pick, or dare I say, chick-flick, as opposed to something with super-heroes or hobbits. Unfortunately, she’d already seen The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hobbit, all thanks to me.

And she wasn’t wrong, either. Les Misèrables, despite all the things that make it a compelling story, whether on the printed page or the movie screen, will never be accused of being the most uplifting film of the year. Sentimental about the human condition it is not (and I should emphasize that this article is about the film and not the book). The narrative and its characters are largely enveloped in darkness and gloom, and given that it takes place in early 19th France this isn’t terribly surprising. It takes place during a violent period of French history. Yet for all the bleakness, one could argue that there is an element of hope that ultimately underlies the story as it unfolds.

Les Misérables is primarily the story of two men: Jean Valjean and Javert, the first a convict and prisoner, the second the law enforcement officer from whom he eventually escapes and spends years in hiding. Valjean was incarcerated because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and fled the law afterwards. Even after he has served his time, he finds that he is on lifetime parole. Finding work, and living a life of actual freedom, proves impossible. So once he’s free, he’s still not free. Though no longer a prisoner, he is unable to experience freedom from his past, which is why he disappears, evades parole, and assumes a variety of false identities to throw off authorities. His life becomes one of noble pursuits, largely as a means of atoning for his earlier crimes; he lives to earn his redemption, always believing that he’s fallen short.

Javert keeps pursuing Valjean, and once Valjean disappears upon his parole becomes obsessed with him. With each encounter Javert reminds Valjean of his crime and his commitment to bring him to justice once more. Despite the relative insignificance of Valjean’s offence, and the circumstances surrounding it, Javert—given his strict and unrelenting adherence to his moral code—is unable to consider forgiveness as a possibility. No longer is it a matter of justice; his hunt for Valjean has become personal.

What’s interesting about the story is that at one point Valjean finds refuge in a house of religious orders. Caught stealing valuables from the clergy residence, the priest covers for him and lies to the authorities in order to give him a second chance. In that moment Valjean experiences forgiveness. He experiences mercy. For the first time in his life he receives grace rather than judgment. So powerful was that occasion with the priest that Valjean later forgives Javert when he has the opportunity to kill him. Even though he has his former captor and unforgiving pursuer at his mercy, he extends forgiveness instead of exacting vengeance. Later in a moment of despair Javert commits suicide because he cannot cope with Valjean’s mercy.

The real tragedy of Les Misérables is that neither the antagonist nor the protagonist in this story are able to grasp what forgiveness is all about. Valjean doesn’t believe he’s truly been forgiven. Despite the priest’s extending him grace, he lives believing that he has to earn his redemption. Javert doesn’t believe Valjean can ever earn his forgiveness. And because he can’t forgive this petty thief, he also can’t receive forgiveness from him. Both live in a world where forgiveness and redemption are essentially math problems. It’s about whether or not what good you’ve done outweighs the evil. Is atonement even possible? For different reasons, both characters conclude with a bleak, “No.”

Such is the way the world thinks. Underlying forgiveness is the concept of “grace.” And “grace” is counterintuitive. It doesn’t fit within the worldview of many in our world. Instead, we work for most of what we get. Not only that, we compete for what we get. We think in terms of what we “earn” or “deserve.” In the Christian worldview grace is unmerited favour. Grace is an undeserved gift. It is unearned blessing. Our efforts cannot procure grace. The basis of grace does not lie in the worthiness of the recipient. Like Paul says in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” This way of thinking is not common in our culture.

Missing in the story of Les Misérables is a strong sense of the ultimate source of grace: God himself. Clearly there are hints and suggestions of divine grace and forgiveness. But it is just as clear that the characters in the story exist in a reality where this divine grace is largely unknown and unexperienced. Life is mostly unforgiving and harsh. But without a divine source for grace, truly extending and receiving forgiveness proves difficult or perhaps even incomprehensible. It’s when I have experienced the forgiveness and grace only God can give that I find myself able to extend and receive forgiveness from other people. And this is because only through God’s gracious gift can I even begin to comprehend the reality of forgiveness. This is so because God’s grace has itself changed me, has done something inside of me, and altered the inner-workings of my heart.

What both Valjean and Javert needed was divine grace, not just forgiveness from one another. They needed to understand that the only way to give and receive grace from other people was in having already received such grace from God himself. More than that, they needed to know that such grace is very definition of gift. Never could they earn it from God. In other words, they needed the gospel, to hear the proclamation that when Jesus went to the cross he did what none of us could do—pay the price for our redemption, a price none of us could pay but one when paid would free us to enjoy the gift as given and the Giver who gives it.

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