In our time of overwhelming media input, it’s easy to get confused about love. C.S. Lewis bemoaned the deficiencies of the English language with it’s single word for love, whereas the Greek language offers four separate words! We are fortunately gifted with the life of Christ and the beautiful words of Paul the apostle in 1 Corinthians 13 to help us, but sometimes what we grow familiar with no longer impacts us as it should. This is where the God-ordained power of story steps in to give us a new perspective. For this reason I am very grateful for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Set in post-revolutionary France, this story focuses on the tragic and beautiful life of Jean Valjean who fleshes out a picture of sacrificial and responsive love.
We first meet Valjean as a recently released convict, dirty and tired from travelling. Though he is now free, his papers label him as a former convict, and no one will sell him food or provide lodging. Someone points him in the direction of Bishop Myriel’s home where he is finally welcomed and fed. This great gift, however, is too late to soften the heart of Valjean, who is now too beaten down to appreciate what is being offered.
Although Valjean is a convict only because he stole bread to feed his sister’s family, 19 years of hard labor and the rejection he experienced in the town have transformed him into a resentful man. Though he perpetrates no physical harm upon Bishop Muriel, he does get up in the middle of the night to rob him of the only valuable items the bishop owns. But this rash act has its own consequences, and he is soon apprehended by a group of soldiers.
Redeemed by love
As the soldiers and Valjean approach the bishop’s door, the bishop walks up quickly and intercedes.
“Ah, there you are!” said he, looking toward Jean Valjean, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the bishop with an expression which no human tongue could describe.
Valjean is incredulous in the face of this undeserved mercy. Before Valjean leaves, the bishop says, “You belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you.” This act of grace changes Valjean, and the rest of the book reveals him becoming the same angel of light for others that the bishop was for him. In fact, his acts of love are so extreme, his very life and freedom are put in peril several times.
After leaving the bishop, Valjean vows to be a different man. He changes his name and by working hard becomes wealthy and powerful as the mayor of a town. In the background, though, Inspector Javert still hunts for the parole-breaking convict. This comes to a head when a man is mistakenly identified as Valjean and is about to be sentenced. Valjean has the difficult decision of whether or not to reveal himself and be condemned to prison or to hide and allow this innocent man to be condemned. After an intense night where Valjean debates with himself about what he must do, he walks into the court, reveals his identity, and then departs to help another who needs him.
The rest of the novel details his many acts of extravagant love even though he ends up alone and dying. The final paragraph describes his tombstone where no one visits and there isn’t a name – a terrible tribute for a man who gave so much. His isn’t the only story of heartbreak; although the shining cord of Valjean’s love runs brightly through the novel, the scenes surrounding it are filled with abuse, heartbreak and fear. But the darkness of the events only further highlight Valjean’s selfless love. The night I finished the book, I sat weeping, overcome by how powerfully, how sacrificially, Valjean loved.
A picture of love
Even though the story is tragic in so many ways, we know that the real reward for one who loves as he did cannot be seen this side of the grave. In fact, the chapter that tells of his death is titled, “A Night Behind Which There Is Day,” giving us a hint of what awaits this faithful one. Hugo does not shy away from the evils of the world, but instead he uses them to show us the true character of love. Love is not flashy or demanding of attention. Love is not dressed to impress. Instead, love is the response to a great gift and a desire to give back what has been bestowed. In this, Valjean so perfectly embodies the true character of love.
It is this kind of example that makes vivid the well-known words of John 3:16 (ESV): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (italics added).
What makes Valjean so remarkable is how passionately he responds to this offer. When mercy is shown to him, his relentless desire is to fulfill the calling on his life to be a new man, and it is this passion that pushes him forward to repay his debt. In Scripture, we see God’s own passion reflected in his relentless desire to be the sacrifice that pushes history forward towards the One who paid the debt in full.
We also have the ability to bring to life the very character of our God. Like Valjean, we have been shown unexpected mercy, and we have unique opportunities to bring justice and love to those who might not appreciate our sacrifices. The challenge is maintaining this focus on our purpose of responsive love. When we meditate on the glorious and unexpected mercy of John 3:16 we, like Valjean, can live lives that demonstrate the true character of love and God to a world that might be “reading” our lives.