This post is probably a few weeks late, but perhaps that will allow for more people to have seen the incredible film adaptation of Les Misérables and appreciate these lessons. I have loved Les Misérables for a long time in play form and was thrilled by the film version. While the singing was not as naturally beautiful as the play, the acting brought the songs alive in a fresh way.
Here are some things I’ve learned Les Mis:
1. Grace is powerful — transforming some and hardening others.
One of the major themes of the story is grace — received and given. In every instance it has a powerful effect. For Jean Valjean it leads to a whole new life of love and service. For Inspector Javert, driven by law, it leads to his demise.
As the Puritans used to say, “The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.” Either way, you don’t leave unchanged after an experience with grace.
2. You never stop needing grace.
Jean Valjean is the hero of the story, but he never stops needing grace. Though dramatically changed after his experience with a gracious bishop, he remains a flawed man. The movie wonderfully highlighted his fear and the somewhat strained relationship he had with his adopted daughter Cosette.
This is an important lesson, because we often think that everything in our lives will change after some dramatic moment. But that’s not how life is — we always need grace.
3. Young leaders are often foolishly idealistic.
One of the most tragic aspects of the story is the foolish idealism of the rebel leaders. They are outnumbered and outgunned. They have no chance of winning this battle, let alone a war. But they plunge ahead to their own demise.
This is the plight of young leaders. We are often foolishly idealistic and end up dying on hills that should never even be fought on. Oh, that every young leader would have an older, wiser leader to coach and help them along the way!
4. Most people are carrying significant pain.
The most striking thing to me about the film version of Les Misérables was how everybody was suffering. This shouldn’t be a surprise since the title is “The Miserable Ones.” Nonetheless, it reminded me that most people in the world and around me are carrying significant pain.
It’s a suffering world and, though we try to hide it well, there is a great deal of pain in us and around us. We think everything’s OK because the houses look pretty, but it’s not. We need the grace and love of Jesus to break into our pain and give us hope.
5. Powerful love is sacrificial and substitutionary.
Jean Valjean showed his love for Cosette by sacrificing his health, and ultimately his life, to save the one she loved. This is the nature of sacrificial love. As Tim Keller says in The King’s Cross:
All love, all real, life-changing love, is substitutionary sacrifice. You have never loved a broken person, you have never loved a guilty person, you have never loved a hurting person except through substitutionary sacrifice…
There are a lot of wounded people out there. They are emotionally sinking, they’re hurting, and they desperately need to be loved. And when they are with you, you want to look at your watch and make a graceful exit, because listening to them with all their problems can be grueling. It can be exhausting to be a friend to an emotionally damaged person. The only way they’re going to start filling up emotionally is if somebody loves them, and the only way to love them is to let yourself be emotionally drained. Some of your fullness is going to have to go into them, and you have to empty out to some degree. If you hold on to your emotional comfort and simply avoid those people, they will sink. The only way to love them is through substitutionary sacrifice.
This is the essence of our gospel of grace. God showed his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is why the gospel is so powerful and this is why Christian love can be so transformative.