Living By Grace: A Study of Jean Valjean

“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
(Philippians 2:12–13)

With every role I’ve had in community theater, I have tried to write up a brief character study.  I find this helps me develop my character and to understand his actions and his significance in the larger story.  As I step into an iconic role like Jean Valjean in the Cherokee Community Theater production of Les Miserables, a part that has been played by some phenomenal actors, a character whose story is known and loved by so many, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on this character and the powerful message that he presents.

Les Miserables, as a novel, is Victor Hugo’s reproachful commentary on society and its treatment of the poor, the uneducated, and the suffering of women in his time.  Within this critique unfolds a story of the redeeming and transforming power of love and grace, set in stark contrast with the inability of the law and revolution to affect any real change on the human condition.  The musical focuses primarily on the story of the redemption of Valjean, and his effort to live worthy of the grace he has been given.

Here’s what we know of Valjean:

(All of the quotes are taken from Victory Hugo’s Les Miserables, http://www.classicreader.com/book/268/).

Jean Valjean was orphaned at an early age and raised by his older sister.  When Valjean was 25, his sister’s husband died, leaving her with seven children under the age of 8, and him taking the father’s place in the family, “simply as a duty and even a little churlishly” on his part.  A hard winter came, and without work, they had no food.

In desperation, Valjean robbed a baker’s house, breaking a window and stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.  He was captured, and sentenced to 5 years of hard labor, serving as a slave in the galleys.  He never again saw his sister or her children for, as Hugo says, “what becomes of the handful of leaves from the young tree which is sawed off at the root?”

While in the galleys, Valjean tried to escape three times, only to be recaptured and sentenced to more prison time.  In total, he spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  He entered “the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy.”

When finally released, Valjean blamed himself for his wasted life.  He knows he would have been given the bread had he asked for it; that his act of violence benefited no one.  At the same time, Valjean also blamed society for punishing a man unjustly, and he blamed God, for having created such a society.  He condemned himself, society, and God; he had nowhere to turn.

Valjean ivaljean awakeneds paroled, but everywhere he goes he is treated less than human.  He cannot work, he cannot
find lodging; he is a dog on the streets.  There is no compassion, no mercy, just law and condemnation at every step.  Until, that is, he meets Bishop Myriel.  The Bishop takes Valjean into his home, feeds him, offers him a place to rest, and when Valjean is arrested for stealing the silver from the church, the Bishop offers him the candlesticks he had left – giving him forgiveness, giving him a second chance, giving him grace.

When faced with such grace Valjean had two options: “if he were not henceforth the best of men, he would be the worst; that it behooved him now, so to speak, to mount higher than the Bishop, or fall lower than the convict; that if he wished to become good be must become an angel; that if he wished to remain evil, he must become a monster… That which was certain, that which he did not doubt, was that he was no longer the same man, that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”

The rest of the story comes down to how Valjean responds to this grace.  I won’t go into all the details (read the book, or come see our show), but from his encounter with grace, Valjean is a changed man, and with every day he seeks to live a life worthy of such a gift.  Alive because of grace, grace flows freely to others, bringing help and hope to those in greatest need.

What I love about the character of Valjean is that he is truly an “everyman.”  He stands as a symbol for  the human condition, our need for transforming grace and love, and our struggle to live according to that love once we find it.

In a way we are all like Valjean, cut off from the blessings of God because of our sin.  We fall under the penalty of the law and are crushed under the weight of sins consequences.  Each sin compounds our guilt and our burden.  We think ourselves free, but our freedom is an illusion, for in sin we are bound to sin and to the law.

Then we encounter grace.  As Paul writes in Eph. 2:4-7, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  This grace liberates us from the law.  This grace transforms the wretched soul.  This grace brings peace and joy to the burdened heart.  This grace gives life to the dead.

And this grace calls us to walk in a new and different way.  Valjean knew he could not act as if the Bishop had not touched his life.  When God touches your life, you cannot be the same.  This is why Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

When you have known the grace of God in Jesus, the rest of your life is lived trusting in that grace, living according to that grace, and sharing that grace with others.  Grace runs through every part of life.  Grace is that which saves.  Grace is that which restores.  Grace is that which gives us strength to go forward.  If we live at all, we live by grace alone.

I hope that my performance in the role of Jean Valjean in some way communicates this transformation in grace, and that through this show God may be glorified and known and the God of grace and love.

SDG

les mis add

He Came for our Shame

“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
(Genesis 2:25)

I seem to be raising an exhibitionist.  I want to protect his identity, so I won’t reveal which child, but one of my little boys (under 7) apparently has no sense of shame.  He’ll run through the house naked, having “forgotten” to bring his clean pajamas and underwear down for after his shower, never giving a second thought to his, ahem… current state of affairs.  I’m praying, hoping, that someday here soon he will develop a sense of modesty and dignity – we’ll see.

I only mention this because I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the story of the fall.  We read in Genesis 3 that Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we are told that their “eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”  The next thing we know, Adam and Eve are sewing fig leaves together, hiding from the sound of the Lord walking in the garden.  They hid in fear, for they knew they had disobeyed God, and they knew the consequence of such disobedience: death.  They made loincloths to cover their shame, a shame they did not know up to that point.

Where did this sense of shame come from?  They were naked before and knew no shame.  God created them, male and female, and God called His creation good.  Why they are they ashamed of their bodies?  Was there some physical change that suddenly made them shameful?  Did the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil add 50 pounds, fast?  If that were the case, then all we would need to do to lose this shame is return to the ideal physical form, whatever that may be.  While I could stand to lose a few pounds, I don’t think that will take away my shame before God.  So what were they ashamed of?

Donald Barnhouse writes in his commentary on Genesis, “It was not skin nakedness that they discovered, but the nakedness of their dead souls… When sin came there was nothing left of righteousness and they were naked indeed.  We must not think of this as a change from blissful innocence of nakedness to a conscious knowledge of it, but from glory to nudity.”

Their shame came from the loss of glory, and while they had always been physically naked, now there was a spiritual nakedness, too.  This was not an embarrassment over a lack of clothing.  It came from deep within, from a fear of exposure, of being really seen, known as a sinner, a rebel from the ways of God.  I think this is a shame we all share.  We know our sins, they are ever before us.  While it would be humiliating to be exposed physically before others, to have my soul laid bare before God and man is truly terrifying.

D.A. Carson writes in The God who was There, “You cannot hide moral shame with fig leaves… You cannot undo the loss of innocence. It cannot be undone.  We cover ourselves in shame.  There is no way back to innocence.  In the Bible, there is only a way forward – to the cross.”

You see, even in the fall we have a glimpse of the Gospel.  God provides a cover for Adam and Eve’s sin and shame with garments of skin (Gen 3:21), presumably that of a lamb.  The first sacrifice for our sins was made by God.  And the final, perfect, sacrifice for our sins, to finally remove the guilt and shame, would also be made by God.

John tells us that in Christ, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  That very thing which brings us shame, the flesh, the body, Christ took upon Himself so that He could take our shame away.  1 Peter 2 says, “He has borne our sins in His body upon the cross.”  Isaiah 53:4 says, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow.”  Every consequence of sin has been put upon Christ and has been answered in Him as well.  The debt has been paid.  Sin in has been atoned.  The dividing wall of hostility has been torn down.  The chains have been broken.  Death has been defeated.  Judgment has been satisfied.

He came in the flesh to take away our guilt and shame, not so that we can go back to being naked, but so that we could be further clothed in glory (2 Cor 3:18, 5:4).  The glory for which we were created, the glory we lost in sin, the glory whose absence is our shame, has been restored and magnified in our Savior Jesus Christ.  When we come to Him in faith, laying down the “fig-leaf” attempts at self-righteousness and trust in His perfect, complete, and eternal righteousness, then we will begin to know the freedom from guilt and shame deep in our souls.

“Man of Sorrows,” what a name
for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood;
sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

SDG