All of the characters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables offer us a profound picture of how we understand and interact with the world around us, but none has captured our collective imagination as much as the redeemed criminal Jean Valjean. From stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family to becoming an unmarred and saintly figure by the end of the story, Valjean represents our own struggle with not only understanding what is good, but having the courage to do the good. The popular musical based on Hugo’s story suggests that Valjean’s conversion from criminal to saint happens in the blink of an eye, and his commitment to following a holy path becomes an almost instinctual action. The original story, however, suggests that choosing the good is a daily and often difficult choice. Much like a recovering addict, Valjean struggles with dampening his personal demons for the sake of making holy choices. If we are honest, our story is similar. Always choosing the good would be easy if the good were obvious. Jean Valjean’s journey helps us recognize how difficult accepting grace can be, and how sharing grace can sometimes be even more difficult.
The Lenten season invites us into this struggle. The forty days of Lent is time set apart for we who are the body of Christ to give up distractions or adopt spiritual practices that prepare us to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection well. Lent is the church’s gift to itself. It is neither mentioned nor mandated in the Gospels, but we know ourselves well. As we will discover with Valjean, accepting grace can be difficult work. Sometimes we feel that grace is absurd when it is offered to us. Maybe more often than we care to admit, grace seems wasteful when it’s offered to those we don’t think deserve it. Other times our faults and failures are so distracting that we don’t recognize grace when it is offered. This great season prepares our soul to have the humble vision to recognize that the empty tomb means death is no longer the end of our story. Valjean’s story is a helpful way to begin the season. Transformation takes time. Even though Jesus was raised after three days, for us the journey takes much longer.
The first chapter in our book explores the theme of grace through an examination of the character of Jean Valjean. Grace is one of the major themes of the Bible and an important aspect of Christian theology and practice. What, then, is grace? As the book states
“Grace is offered even before we are aware we are in need, it justifies us so that we can stop justifying ourselves, and it is the power of God to transform who we are. Sometimes this gift takes a lifetime to recognize” (p. 39).
How has God shown grace to you? to us? to the world? How does God call us to live in light of the grace we have received through Jesus? Choosing to consistently act in light of the grace we have received can be very difficult. Today we will discuss how following Jesus deepens our understanding of grace and transforms us into gracious people.
Can you think of a contemporary story in which someone was in need of grace? What happened? How was this person changed by grace? Was grace even offered? What was the result?
What is grace? How does God demonstrate and extend grace to us? What difference does God’s grace make in daily Christian living?
Matt Rawle, The Grace of Les Miserables (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019).