Love and hatred. Romance and heartache. Forgiveness and vengeance. Mercy and injustice. These are the real-life elements that make a good story come to life. Such is the case with the classic novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
The story follows the struggles and triumphs of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean who’s living under a pseudonym and hiding from his past during the French Revolution era. He’s hunted down throughout the years by Inspector Javert, a man of principle who will stop at nothing to see that justice prevails—particularly as it relates to former prisoner #24601.
Though we’ll probably never experience anything remotely close to what transpires in the book (at least I hope you never find yourself swimming through sewage!), this story is universally beloved because it speaks to the inner conflicts we all face.
A Slave of the Law
To begin, we see in Valjean a bitter man who resents the label of shame he bears. He’s angry at the world and refuses to see any hope from within his dark hole. But the trajectory of his life is forever changed by an encounter with grace.
Valjean has never experienced the kindness that was shown to him; he doesn’t know what to do when offered it. His choices are to remain hardened in his pride and refuse to accept forgiveness or to allow this act to break his heart of stone and teach him to love. The rest of the story reveals the change that took place when the dam in Valjean’s heart gave way as he comprehended and accepted true forgiveness.
Meanwhile, the zealous Inspector continues his chase of Valjean, growing more confident than ever of his world ruled by duty, order, and justice.
Javert’s journey reaches its climax when his world collides with “the world of Jean Valjean,” one that celebrates mercy and forgiveness. The encounter unravels this man of iron. He cannot fathom why his enemy, Valjean, would show him mercy by letting him go free when he rightly could enact vengeance upon him.
Javert can choose to either remain hardened in his pride and refuse to accept forgiveness or to allow this act to break his heart of stone and teach him to love. Tragically, Javert never yields. He cannot cope in a world where mercy triumphs over justice, and so into the darkness he falls.
Suddenly I See
There’s an undeniable theme of redemption in this story that’s too beautiful to miss. While the analogy doesn’t hold up perfectly, it’s clear to see in Valjean and Javert the two extremes of a sinner’s response to undeserved grace.
When a bishop overlooked Valjean’s theft and deception, Valjean was awakened to the whirlpool of his sin and the wonder of grace. But Javert’s refusal to accept a comparable extension of mercy was his undoing.
There’s a similar, real-life scenario found in Luke’s account of the crucifixion. In chapter 23, a conversation takes place between Jesus and the two criminals hanging on crosses on either side of Him at Calvary.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (vv. 39–43).
Thousands of years of prophecies and promises of hope culminated when Jesus trudged up the hill to Calvary and was nailed to a cross. Both of the men hanging on either side of Him had front-row seats to this moment in time; only one of them recognized the man next to them as the Son of God. Both of them witnessed the miraculous story of redemption taking place; only one of them grasped the forgiveness Jesus offered.
Another Story Must Begin
The stories of the criminal on the cross and the criminal on the run are not unlike your own. The good news is the hope they received can be yours as well.
Through Scripture, the apostle Paul reiterates that Christ’s purpose for coming into the world was to save sinners—and then Paul declares himself the worst of them all (1 Tim. 1:15). In many ways, Paul was much like Inspector Javert—overzealous and intent on overthrowing anything that contradicted his own sense of righteousness. Probably the least likely convert in his day. But unlike Javert, Paul learned what it meant to love and to be loved with full forgiveness.
Who Am I?
Whether you’re the self-proclaimed sinner like Valjean or the self-righteous sinner like Javert, you’re a sinner in need of grace. The wonderful, miraculous truth is that no matter where you fall on this spectrum, God offers you grace through His Son (Rom. 5:8; Titus 3:4–7).
If you know you’re a recipient of God’s grace today, rejoice once again in His unfailing love for you!
But if you’re unsure of your standing before God and doubt whether you’re truly loved and forgiven by the Father, find hope in knowing that our God delights in you and desires you to know the Truth (1 Tim. 2:3–4).
Jesus relentlessly pursues you with more fervor than Javert could possibly muster and more love than Valjean could ever hope to extend.
He’s a God of justice who offers mercy in Christ. He’s the Holy One who redeems unclean sinners and declares them new, whole, and righteous (2 Cor. 5:17–21). The Author of your faith inserts a plot twist in your life tale, erasing your past and beginning a new story on a fresh, clean slate.
Because of Jesus, there is another way to go beyond a life enslaved to sin, and that’s a life saved by grace through faith in the crucified Jesus. This should make God’s people sing (Ps. 108:3–5)!
I’d love to hear from you.
- Do you struggle to accept God’s forgiveness of your sin?
- How does an encounter with God’s radical, freeing forgiveness change the way you live?