Legalism vs. Faith

Few stories are as moving as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The story of a convict on the run from a fanatical officer of the law, it is one of the most profound illustrations of professed faith vs. life-altering faith that I have ever seen. It is less about the evils of early Victorian society as it is a condemnation of legalism. It has been adapted for the big screen and the small, turned into a musical, and translated into multiple languages.

What make the story so profound are its characters of Valjean and Javert.

Valjean stole bread to feed his family. He went to prison. Through subsequent escape attempts, he added years to his sentence. When he is finally freed, it is under a yellow passport, which indicates he is a criminal to the people of France. It would prohibit him from being hired as a worker, in essence condemning him to live the rest of his life as an outcast. A Bishop takes mercy on him. His simple act of kindness makes a huge impression on Valjean. He undergoes a salvation experience, and changes into a new man. This man is kind; the other one was hard and mean. This man is merciful; the other man was merciless.

The one person who does not believe the transformation is Inspector Javert. He sees no more of Valjean than his yellow passport. In his eyes, you are either good or bad; since Valjean was in prison and has broken his parole, he is bad. Relentlessly, Javert pursues him over a matter of years. He makes Valjean’s life a living hell. But when Valjean has the chance to end it, to kill him and get away with it, he chooses mercy instead.

Christianity changes you. If it doesn’t, it isn’t true. Both of these characters are by the standards of literature at the time “Christians.” But one of them is true and the other false. Valjean knows what a pathetic, wretched creature he is, and the man he used to be. He does not do good things to make up for it so much as a result of his changed life. In the book, he continually struggles with overwhelming shame of his past, to the point where he pushes away Cossette and Marius believing they would be better off without him. I’m sorry he never found freedom from guilt (Christianity is about liberation from that!) but he does show humility.

Javert plays the role of many brought up in the church. He thinks he is fine. He thinks he is good. He thinks he is just, because he has “lived [his] life trying not to break a single rule.” He is so tied up in the rules that he forgets his humanity. Fantine? To Javert, she is a whore! But Valjean sees her as a desperate woman in need of mercy. Cosette? The daughter of a whore and a bastard child, who can redeem herself only through choosing better company than she now keeps. And Marius is a dangerous radical, rather than a young man on the wrong path.

When confronted with a man obviously much better than he is, who has broken all the rules, Javert snaps. How can this be? How can a common criminal have more honor and mercy and justice in him than he does? Rather than be humble and yearn for what Valjean has (salvation through Christ), he commits suicide. Not because he knows that Valjean deserves to go free, but because he cannot stand the fact that a convicted criminal is a better man than one who has never broken any of the rules.

Much as I hate to admit it, there are a lot of Javerts in our church today. There have been a lot of Javerts in our church from the start: holier than thou types who deep down really don’t think they are all that bad. I know. I used to be one of them. I grew up in the church. I never did anything all that “bad.” I never stole, I never was rebellious against my parents, I never drank, I never had premarital sex, and I knew all the Bible stories. That meant I was a good person, right?

According to scripture, no, that just meant I was a “rule-abider.” That might be good enough for Javert, but not for God. It was not until I realized the true depths of my own depravity that I found the humility of Valjean. And… my life started to change. I have compassion for Javert, because I understand where he came from. But he made the wrong choice – to give in, rather than to surrender to a power higher than himself. And that, amidst all the many tragedies of this beautiful, sad story, makes him the most miserable of all.

4 thoughts on “Legalism vs. Faith

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  1. One more idea resulting from Legalism va Faith: Javert and Valjean are a metaphor of the Old and New Testaments.
    The Old Testament looks magestic. But you really can’t continue living in the Old Testament after you meet the New Testament: “there is nowhere to go on”.
    Well, really, “I never shall yield till we come face to face”. They did come face to face. And he yielded.

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