I recently had the chance to see the musical Les Miserables. The music is excellent but the message of the play is even better.
As the play begins we’re introduced to Jean Valjean. He did 19 years of hard labor in prison, simply because he stole a loaf of bread to help feed his starving family. He gets out but he has to carry around a piece of paper that identifies him as a convict. No one will hire him. A priest takes him in and gives him dinner and a place to stay for a night. During the night Valjean steals silver from the priest and tries to run but is quickly caught. The police bring Valjean back to the priest, refusing to believe Valjean’s claim that the silver was given to him. The priest says he did give him the silver but he forgot the candlesticks. After the police release Valjean and go on their way, the priest tells Valjean he has claimed his soul for God and he is now to live as a changed man. And that is what happens. The rest of the play is about Valjean living a new life of service to others, all because of the kindness and grace he was shown by the priest.
Who gives expensive candlesticks to somebody who eats their food and steals from them? Even more so, who gives their Son to die for rebellious, undeserving sinners like us? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the nature of grace. It’s crazy. It gives gifts to thieves. It suffers and dies for ungrateful sinners.
While in prison Valjean suffers under the cruel hand of Inspector Javert. Javert continues to pursue Valjean after his release, and tries to throw him back into prison. In one confrontation Valjean pleads for mercy, telling Javert of people he is helping and how he has changed. Javert dismisses the idea and tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change.”
Late in the play Valjean has the chance to get revenge on Javert and kill him, but he doesn’t and he lets him go. Javert is furious and can’t understand it. “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he, to have caught me in a trap and choose to let me go free? … I’ll spit his pity right back in his face. There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert!”
It is either Valjean or Javert. It is either grace or law. Many view life like Javert. They think life is all about keeping rules. Grace angers them like it did Javert. It doesn’t seem right for criminals to receive forgiveness. Good things should only come to those who keep the rules. Punishment comes when you break them. There is no mercy or possibility of people changing.
Thankfully, because of Jesus, we can live like Valjean rather than Javert. Change is possible. God is merciful and forgiving. He longs to give His gracious gift of salvation to undeserving sinners like us. We rejoice in “the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We give thanks for the amazing, crazy, doesn’t-make-any-sense grace of God.
Fantine is a lady in Les Miserables who is treated terribly and suffers much painful humiliation. She finally gets some help from Valjean. She looks at the misery of her life and with sorrow sings, “There was a time when men were kind. When their voices were soft and their words inviting. … I dreamed a dream in times gone by; when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”
The good news of Jesus proclaims that those dreams come true, because of God’s grace. Jesus is kind and gentle and His words are inviting. His love for us never dies. Because of Jesus and the cross, God is forgiving. His grace is not a dream. It’s real.
The song in Les Miserables that moves me the most is “On My Own” sung by the young lady Eponine. She loves a young man who loves somebody else. From the despair of her heart she cries out: “On my own, pretending he’s beside me. … I know it’s only in my mind, that I’m talking to myself and not to him. … I love him, but when the night is over, he is gone. … Without me, his world will go on turning; a world that’s full of happiness that I have never known. … I love him, but only on my own.”
Many struggle with that kind of sadness. What helps the most is the good news that God really does love you. You don’t have to pretend He is with you. Prayer is not pretending you’re talking to Him. He is real, He hears us and He won’t be gone when the night is over. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). When we know His grace and love, we’re never on our own.