Les Misérables – Reflection #4

Les misImagine for a moment that I did something to greatly offend you.  Let’s say that I spray painted ugly things on your front lawn, or vandalized your car, or intentionally hurt your child.  Let’s say that after I had offended you, I began to feel bad for my actions.  I feel the need for forgiveness, so I go to my friend Craig and I ask him to forgive me for what I have done to you.  Now, my friend Craig does not know you, and my offensive actions were not perpetrated in any way against him.   In this environment, how appropriate do you think my apology is?  The answer:  not very appropriate at all.  If I am remorseful, I should apologize to you, because you are the one I have sinned against.  It is you, that I would need meaningful forgiveness from because it is you I have hurt.

Understanding this, we can understand the power of the grace the Priest extends to Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” opening moments.  The Priest had been offended – Valjean’s latest crime was against this man . . . stealing his silver.  The Priest had every right to exact punishment on Valjean after the police caught him.  As mentioned yesterday, Valjean understood this.  Of the Priest, he sang:

One word from him and I’d be back, beneath the lash upon the rack

Instead he offers me my freedom

The grace offered by the priest is so meaningful because Valjean had sinned against him. . . the priest had something to forgive.  Instead of just mouthing the words, “You are forgiven” the Priest graciously gives Valjean a new life.

In this way, the Priest’s transaction mirrors our relationship with God in Christ.  As sinful people, our sin ultimately is not just an offense against a person, but an offense against God.  Our lust, greed, and pride are not just signs of our ugliness, they are offenses against a holy God.  One word from God and we’d be back, beneath an eternal lash upon the rack.  However, instead of condemning us to die, Jesus graciously offers us His life.  Jesus offers to die on the cross to take the full payment that our sins deserve.  His offer is so meaningful and loving because HE IS THE ONE WE HAVE SINNED AGAINST!

When we see a movie like “Les Miserables” sometimes we wish that someone would show us the kind of grace the Priest showed Jean Valjean.  In Christ, all are offered the same gift, only more.  Instead of giving us silver that will tarnish, Jesus gives us righteous treasure that will never go away.

Upon hearing of the gracious offer of our Savior, we now have a choice.  What will we do?  Will we receive the grace He offers and see it transform our lives, or will we reject it and try to work out our life in our own strength?

Jean Valjean took seriously the words of the Bishop and allowed the grace to transform him.  The Bishop spoke to Valjean and said:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have saved your soul for God!

Javert on the other hand, refused to allow the gifts offered him to dent his heart of stone.  Some see in Javert a calloused villain, however, in him I see real tragedy.  Like Valjean, he was offered the gracious gift of life many times, yet he rejected its freedom.  Instead, it drove him to suicide.  Before jumping to his death, Javert spoke of his confusion over the grace offered him:

Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
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!

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold.
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on…..

Javert is the symbol of one who rejects the grace offered to him.  Like the older brother in the Prodigal Son Parable of Luke 15, he refuses to see the beauty in grace . . . instead it drives him mad.  Because of this, Valjean ends the story in heaven, while Javert ends in demise.  It is not that Javert is a worse man that Valjean . . . it is that Javert rejected grace while Valjean accepted it.

Of course, “Les Miserables” is just a story. You  can reject my interpretation of “Les Miserables” as a misguided attempt to see God in the arts.  However, the stakes are much higher in humanity’s relationship with God.  If we reject the grace offered us in Christ, our eternity is at stake.  May all who read this post think seriously about our response to the grace offered us in Christ.  Will we respond as Valjean or Javert?

  • The world we live in is miserable, thus we want something more.
  • Sin prevents us from experiencing that something more.
  • Grace, not Law allows us to live another story.
  • We must accept that grace in order for it to be effective in our lives.

Praise God there is hope for miserable people like you and me.

Les Misérables – Reflection #3

Les mis“Les Miserables” is French for “The miserable ones.” Because of this, some would think that this story is one lacking hope. The exact opposite is true. This is a story about hope. The thing that makes this story so Christian in its worldview is where this hope comes from.

As previously mentioned, the main character in “Les Miserables” is Jean Valjean. His misery is quantified in his fugitive life — living a secret life concealing his identity as a former convict who skipped parole. Valjean spends the first moments of the movie demonstrating his sinful side – stealing a set of silver from a priest in the middle of the night. This is clearly the low point for Valjean. He does not stay in this depth, however, rising to dignity and purpose by the movie’s end. How does this transformation come about?

In this story, the face of the Law is a man named Javert. Javert is excellent at his job . . . driven by the charge of making sure every law is enforced. At the beginning of the movie, Javert’s job is to oversee the band of inmates working hard labor in the ship yard, Jean Valjean being one of those under his charge. Upon getting his release from prison to parole, Javert instructs Valjean on how his life can be “saved”:

You will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law.

Javert’s plan for Valjean was for him to meet every letter of the law for the rest of his life. If Valjean did not accomplish this fact, he would return to forced labor as a prisoner of the state. Of course, Valjean is unable to stick to these terms, and Javert dedicates his life to finding Valjean and bringing him to justice. This is what the Law does. It does not have the ability to change a man, merely the ability to point out when the man is wrong.

Again, I do not know author Victor Hugo’s full intent on the character of Javert, but from my background it seems clear to me (biblically) that Javert is a type of the Law, the Old Testament Law. When writing in Romans 7:7-12, the Apostle Paul says:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Paul seems to be saying that the Law’s power toward sinful people is to show us where we have failed, not empower us to better living. Too many times Christians read the Law or hear sermons telling us how to live, and leave merely convicted and dejected . . . thinking of new ways we don’t measure up or new standards we will surely break. This is what the Law does. It does not liberate . . . it incarcerates. By the Law we see one compelling fact: God’s ways are high and holy, and mine are not. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean mimics the Laws relentless conviction of us as sinners, cosmic convicts set to receive an eternal punishment.

The Law, however harsh, is not bad. On the contrary, the Law has an important job to do, and it does it well. Like Javert. On numerous occasions in the movie, Valjean tells Javert that the Inspector is simply a man doing his job. Javert is sworn to point out Valjean’s failure without partiality, and he consistently does so. In Galatians 3:23-24, Paul speaks of the importance of the Law:

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

According to Paul, the purpose of the Law was to parent us (the idea behind the word “guardian”) until we can accept Christ. The purpose of the Law is to convict us as sinners and show our need for something else. Something else that can truly change a man. That something is grace.

The hinge in Jean Valjean’s life is a single act of mercy and grace extended to Valjean. Grace is a gift. Something freely given that is not deserved and cannot be repaid. Grace is not simply forgiving a past transgression, but it is providing for someone’s need.

I have mentioned before that Valjean’s low point was when he stole a set of silver from a priest. After stealing these items, Valjean is on the run when he is caught by the Law. After catching him and recognizing that the silver came from the priest, Valjean is brought back to the priest’s home. Instead of convicting Valjean, the priest instead decides to extend great grace. The priest tells the police that he had given Valjean the silver as a gift and even proves his point further by giving him two more pieces of silver, the valuable candlesticks. The silver Valjean now possessed would allow him to start over. Not only would he not be arrested, he would have resources he could sell so that he could live. Not only would he have resources on which he could live, but Valjean now had an inspiration to live a different life. He 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 this world; This world which had always hated me

Take an eye for an eye! Turn your heart into stone! This is all I have lived for ! This is all I have known!

One word from him and I’d be back

Beneath the lash, upon the rack

Instead he offers me my freedom, I feel my shame inside me like a knife

He told me that I have a soul, How does he know?

What spirit came to move my life? Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall And the night is closing in And I stare into the void To the whirlpool of my sin

I’ll escape now from the world From the world of Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean is nothing now

Another story must begin!

This single act of grace inspired a new and better life. What the Law was powerless to do, grace accomplished. Grace allowed this man to change and grow – to live another story.

This is what God has done for us in His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s grace gift to humanity. If the Old Testament Law convicts us as sinners, Jesus death on the cross graciously pays our debt and provides us the resources to live. More than just making us feel bad about our lack of holiness, Jesus is the wind in our spiritual sail. In Christ, we are made righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). In Christ, we are made new (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). We are not changed because we try harder, we are changed because of the grace extended to us in Christ.

Miserable sinners lack hope on our own, but we are not on our own.  Praise the Lord, we are not on our own!  Because of His grace, another story has begun in us.  A story of hope.

So far in my reflections on “Les Miserables” we have seen that:

  • Life is hard, and so we long for something better.
  • Sin and the fall kill us and prevent us from living something better.
  • Our path to hope is found not in Law, but in Grace.

Tomorrow, I will conclude these reflections with some personal applications in light of this Gospel truth.

Les Misérables – Reflection #2

Les mis24601. This number had hijacked a man’s identity. 24601 was the prison identification number of Jean Valjean. For 19 long years, Valjean had served hard time for a crime of desperation . . . stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry family member. The shame of this number attempted to control his life. After serving His full sentence for his crime, Valjean was free from the chains of the physical prison, but he would never be free from the shackles of shame his imprisonment brought. For the rest of his life, Valjean would be required to report himself to local authorities as a dangerous man . . . a title that would prevent him from finding a place to live or a job to work. It seemed the chain of his shame was a much more difficult lock to pick than his prison cell.

As Valjean is released from prison, the warden Javert provides this icy pronouncement:

Javert: Now prisoner 24601. Your time is up and your parole’s begun. Do you know what that means?

Valjean: Yes, it mean’s I’m free.

Javert: No. Follow to the letter your itinerary. This badge of shame you’ll show until you die. It shows you’re a dangerous man.

Watching his life unfold, the stench of 24601 overshadowed the man Valjean, and drove him into further despair. He ends up stealing the silver from the one man who reached out to help him. All this drives Valjean to the brink. He cries out in prayer:

What have I done. Sweet Jesus what have I done.

Become a thief in the night, become a dog on the run.

Have I fallen so far and is the hour so late that nothing remains but the cry of my hate.

In Jean Valjean, we feel the sticky shame of our own sin. The ways in which we all fall short of the glory of God are not things that are easily removed from our psyche, or our eternal report card. God knows all, and our personal sin turns all of us into 24601 . . . a person condemned to die for our transgressions. No matter how much we run, our sin is always known. No matter how much we try to do better, our past is always with us. Romans 6:23a states plainly, “The wages of sin is death.” Our sin chains us to our past, will not let us free, and turns us into thieves in the night and dogs on the run. Our sin is probably not the theft of a loaf of bread, but it is no less damning. Like Valjean, we need a new start, but how can we get it?

Again the answer to this question will come in a different post.

Meanwhile, Fantine’s dire circumstances have driven her to the street. She ends up selling her hair, teeth, and body for just a few francs. Sitting in the theater, the mind numbing events and debauchery that occur during the song “Lovely Ladies” was almost too much for me to watch. The scenes are not pretty or lust-enducing . . . they are sad and depraved. In this way, I loved this movie. Most of the time, our entertainment outlets try to dress up sin and make it look fun and exciting. Seldom do we see sin and the fall of man for what it is . . . a total waste and sign that something is seriously broken. Fantine’s demise is a perfect reminder to us of the ugliness of sin, the fallenness of the world, and our need for something better.

Sin hurts everyone it touches. It destroys individuals, families, relationships, our relationship with God, and even our interaction with creation itself. Sin is ugly. God does not command us to not sin just because He wants to make arbitrary rules. He calls it “sin” and commands us to abstain because it is BAD FOR US. One of Satan’s chief strategies is to make sin look better than righteousness. This strategy has duped people from the beginning.

Further, sin and the fall have not only effected people, it effects the systems people build.  The French society of “Les Miserables” is terribly broken and unfair.  Jean Valjean became a thief because his family was hungry due to the tyranny of revolution.  Fantine was pushed toward the street because her husband abandoned her and the patristic environment of the French workforce did not give her a fair shake.  Sin’s societal effects are clearly seen in this film.  Economist Brian Fikkert recently commented on American’s understanding of sin, both Republicans and Democrats.  He commented that Republicans tend to emphasize personal sin and responsibility and ignore sin’s effect on the systems of our world.  In this way, they have underestimated sin’s effect.  Democrats tend to emphasize the systems and ignore personal sin and responsibility.  In this way, they are wrong as well.  In “Les Miserables” we see the effects of sin on both the individual and the world in which we live.

If you have seen the movie “Les Miserables,” I want you to do yourself a favor. Whatever the sin is that you are most tempted by, I want you to reframe your perception of the sin. Instead of thinking of it as something fun and exciting, think of it as Fantine on the docks with the rest of the “Lovely Ladies.” In that light, it doesn’t look so appealing does it? Our flesh and Satan have teamed together to put fancy makeup and bawdy dresses on our temptations so that we think it is something desireable . . . but take a closer look. It is actually miserable. Fantine describes the reality of sin in this way (of her role as a prostitute):

Just as well they never see the hate that’s in your head.

Don’t they know they are making love to one already dead.

There is no “Pretty Woman” glamour here, just emptiness and brokeness. This is what sin leaves behind.

In my first reflection on this movie we saw that the hardness of this life makes us long for something more. In this post, we have seen that the chains of sin prevent us from experiencing that something more. If this was the full substance of the film, it would be merely a tragic tale. However . . . there is more.

More posts to come . . .

Les Misérables – Reflection #1

Les mis

In recent years there have been a few overtly Christian movies made.  Specifically, I have in mind the trio of films produced by a Georgia church that have had some mainstream success (“Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” and “Courageous”).  These films are evangelistic in nature and overt in Christian themes.  Sunday night, I went to see another Christian film.  This one, however, was not produced by a church, but by a major Hollywood studio and starred some of the biggest names in film.  Though the nature of the film is not quite as overt as the “Georgia Three” the message is no less Christian.  The movie I am referencing is the screen adaptation of the musical “Les Miserables.”  

Over the next few days, I plan to write a series of reflections on this story from a theological perspective.  As I do that, I want to make two things clear:

  1. As my friend Doug Serven said, “This is not a Disney musical.”  Thus I would not recommend this movie for small children.  It deals with intense and mature themes that would frighten (or bore) children.  The PG-13 rating is well earned (much like the book of Judges 🙂  ).
  2. This film is a wonderful work of art, and much could be said about the making of this movie and the power of the cinematography, performances, etc.  I will leave those conversations to others who are more qualified.  However, I will point you to this youtube video that speaks of the making of the film:

That said, here is my first installment of some thoughts about this movie.

“Les Miserables” is an intensely emotional movie.  I found myself either in tears or on the verge of tears for nearly the entire 2.5 hours.  Some could chalk this up to the emotional tenor of the music, but I think the real power is in the story.  The music merely serves as an amplifier to the plight of the characters in the film . . . and the plight of the characters is something we all can relate to.

The main protagonists in the story are a fugitive that has been transformed by grace (Jean Valjean) and a woman forced to sell her body to provide for her child (Fantine).  Both of these characters are constantly weathered under the pressures of this world, yet they long for something better.  In this way, all people on this fallen planet can relate to their angst.

Early in the movie, Jean Valjean sings a prayer that highlights the level of his despair:

The cries in the dark that nobody hears,

Here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there’s another way to go

I missed it twenty long years ago

My life was a war that could never be won

They gave me a number and murdered Valjean

When they chained me and left me for dead

Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Can’t you just hear the pain and suffering in his prayer?  At one point, Jean Valjean was not a criminal.  He no doubt had hopes and dreams . . . but life had shackled him with disappointments and wanted to squash his hope.  If we are introduced to the difficulty of this world in Valjean, we are overwhelmed by it in the female protagonist Fantine.  In her famous song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” we see how the pain of this world slowly crushed her:

There was a time when men were kind

When their voices were soft

And their words inviting

There was a time when love was blind

And the world was a song

And the song was exciting

There was a time

Then it all went wrong
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

Then I was young and unafraid

And dreams were made and used and wasted

There was no ransom to be paid

No song unsung

No wine untasted
But the tigers come at night

With their voices soft as thunder

As they tear your hope apart

And they turn your dream to shame

He slept a summer by my side

He filled my days with endless wonder

He took my childhood in his stride

But he was gone when autumn came
And still I dream he’ll come to me

That we’ll live the years together

But there are dreams that cannot be

And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed


As Fantine struggles through her dreams dying, her young daughter Cosette (now orphaned in the care of crooks) sings of hope in this dark world in her song “Castle on a Cloud”:

There is a castle on a cloud,
I like to go there in my sleep,
Aren’t any floors for me to sweep,
Not in my castle on a cloud.

There is a lady all in white,
Holds me and sings a lullaby,
She’s nice to see and she’s soft to touch,
She says “Cosette, I love you very much.”

I know a place where no one’s lost,
I know a place where no one cries,
Crying at all is not allowed,
Not in my castle on a cloud.

In her youth, Cosette has not given up on her dreams as her mother had.  Though her world was hard and unfair, she dreamed of something better.  The hope that Cosette ushers in brings a season of reprieve for her new caretaker, Valjean.  For a number of years, Valjean sees a hint of hope in the love he shares with his adopted daughter.  Though not fully realized, the spark of love reminds him of greater things.

After all the struggles of the characters, the closing scene of the movie reveals the place when the hopes of a miserable people are realized . . . in heaven.  In the closing song, these words are proudly sung by many who had already died earlier in the movie:


Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!

Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to Your glory

Eponine & Fantine:
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
(Valjean joins)
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshed, the will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the baricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!
(Singing chords)
Tomorrow comes!

It is in death, having experienced forgiveness in Christ, that Valjean finds rest, peace, and happiness.  The hope that had slowly built in him throughout the movie is finally realized fully when tomorrow comes.

As I watched this unfold, I was reminded of the truth of Romans 8:18-25:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

I do not know for sure if Victor Hugo had Romans 8 in mind when he wrote this story, but his story fits in with this truth quite well.  That is why we relate to it so much . . . that is why it is so emotional.  We live in a sin-stained world that is corrupt and unfair.  While we live here, we hope for something better.  Like a 9 month pregnant woman who has seen the discomfort of her current situation cause her to long more and more for the day she meets her child, the difficulties of this life cause us to long more and more for Tomorrow to come, when Christ returns and sets things right.

There are many other lessons from this story, but I will conclude today with this overarching theme setting the stage:

  • We live in a world that is miserable, so miserable in fact that we may want to give up hope.
  • However, we can maintain hope because a tomorrow is on the horizon when redemption will come.
  • How does that redemption come and how do we experience it?  That is a post for another day.