What is the all-compelling power of life? I was confronted with this question recently when my wife and I went to watch Les Miserables in the theatre. From the moment the movie started, I was drawn in. The setting is 1815 in France. In the opening scene, an army of slaves are labouring to steer a massive ship into harbour. Among the slaves is a peasant named Jean Valjean. He is on the eve of finishing his 19 year sentence; 5 for stealing bread for his starving sister’s family, and 14 for escape attempts. However, just before he is released, his officer Javert marks him as a former convict on his identity papers, making it near impossible to find residence or work. After release, he desperately tries to find food and shelter but is enslaved to his past.
One night, a French Catholic Priest finds Valjean sleeping in the cold and invites him in, feeds him, and allows him to stay in the church overnight. Not knowing how to take this unusually kind treatment, Valjean takes the opportunity to steal expensive silverware and takes off in the middle of the night. He is found by the police, beaten, and returned to the Priest to face retribution for his actions. The police bring him before the Priest and question whether the items belong to Valjean. Rather than turning him in, the Priest responds that the stolen items are his gift to Valjean. He then brings more dishware to give to Valjean. Confused and blown away by such undeserving love, Valjean is speechless and in tears. The Priest bends down, and pronounces a blessing on him.
Though free, Valjean only knew himself as a slave, a thief. But the surprising love given to him by the Priest, and experienced as a reflection of God’s surprising love to him, changes his life forever. From then on, Valjean is a new man. He becomes a factory owner and mayor, pouring himself out in radical mercy toward his employees and fellow citizens. Why? Because having received unexpected love, his heart was set free.
For Jean Valjean, love freed him from his identity as a slave. He was treated with dignity and given much for what he did not earn. The love he experienced had now become the all-compelling power of his life. Think on your own experiences. What have been some of the most powerful experiences in your life? By chance, have they had anything to do with the approval of a father, mother, or mentor in your life? Being loved by someone when you least expected it?
I’ll never forget my devastation after my first relationship broke off. I was new to what it meant to be vulnerable in a relationship with a girl, and I got burned. When I broke down in front of my friend Tim, he didn’t try to gloss over it. He simply came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and silently stood there with me in my grief. In experiencing the unexpected love of a friend, I was being healed.
In our culture today, we generally think of ourselves as free people who are independent and in control of our own life. Jean Valjean was a slave, and we are free. But are you really free? How many of us can say the drive to “make it” in life does not compel the decisions we make? How many of us can say that we are not hungering for something we have been searching for all our lives but have never found? How many of us can say that we don’t believe that if we just find the right person, it will all be better? Whether it’s power, money, sex, control, or the exhausting search to find “who we are”, we have more in common with Jean Valjean than we think. The question is not whether we are controlled by something, but if what we are controlled by enslaves us or frees us.
As Jean Valjean shows us in Les Miserables, the love he experienced not only from another human but from God was the all-compelling power in life that set his heart free, empowering him to spread radical love to others.
Consider this: the greatness of the love you experience is in proportion to the greatness of the one who loves you.
What do you think it takes to experience love like Jean Valjean did? Have you experienced a love that has set your heart free?