In recent years audiences worldwide have watched a drama of forgiveness played out onstage in the musical version of Les Misérables. Now a major motion picture makes the story available to all. I used the plot as an illustration in my book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Often I’m asked, “Can a person be forgiven without first repenting?” The following incident in Jean Valjean’s life indicates the answer is Yes.
The musical follows its original source, Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel, in telling the story of Valjean, a French prisoner hounded, and ultimately transformed by forgiveness.
Jean Valjean served a nineteen-year term of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread, entering the French penal system as an impressionable young man and hardening into a tough convict. No one could beat Jean Valjean in a fistfight. No one could break his will. At last Valjean earned his release. Convicts in those days had to carry identity cards, however, and no innkeeper would let a dangerous felon spend the night. For four days he wandered the village roads, seeking shelter against the weather, until finally a kindly bishop had mercy on him.
That night Jean Valjean lay still in an over-comfortable bed until the bishop and his sister drifted off to sleep. He rose from his bed, rummaged through the cupboard for the family silver, and crept off into the darkness.
The next morning three policemen knocked on the bishop’s door, with Valjean in tow. They had caught the convict in flight, with the purloined silver in his pack, and were ready to put the scoundrel in chains for life.
The bishop responded in a way that no one, especially Jean Valjean, expected.
“So here you are!” he cried to Valjean. “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”
Jean Valjean’s eyes had widened. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey
Valjean is no thief, the bishop assured the gendarmes. “This silver was my gift to him.”
When the gendarmes withdrew, the bishop gave the candlesticks to his guest, now speechless and trembling. “Do not forget, do not ever forget,” said the bishop, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.”
The power of the bishop’s act, defying every human instinct for revenge, changed Jean Valjean’s life forever. A naked encounter with forgiveness–especially since he had never repented–melted the granite defenses of his soul. He kept the candlesticks as a precious memento of grace, and dedicated himself from then on to helping others in need.
Hugo’s novel stands, in fact, as a two-edged parable of forgiveness. A detective named Javert, who knew no law but justice, stalked Jean Valjean mercilessly over the next two decades. As Valjean is transformed by forgiveness, the detective is consumed by a thirst for retribution. When Valjean saves Javert’s life–the prey showing grace to his pursuer–the detective senses his black-and-white world beginning to crumble. Unable to cope with a grace that goes against all instinct, and finding in himself no corresponding forgiveness, Javert jumps off a bridge into the Seine River.