Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is one of the most deeply beautiful books I have ever read. Les Miserables the musical is a masterpiece of adaptation. The melodic beauty which grips our attention from the earliest moments of the musical is best felt through the deepest of all questions, “who am I?” The Oracle of Delphi tells Socrates, to “know thyself” as he pursues wisdom. The Book of Proverbs makes this point another way when Solomon tells us that, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” Fearing the Lord tells us not only about God, but about ourselves. Crucial in our understanding of wisdom is the realization that there is an author of meaning and purpose in our lives, and we are not said author. Authors define characters. If I attempt to author my own story, driven by my desires, I shall, in the end, take the position of Solomon after he spends years doing the same, namely that life is, “vanity of vanities, a striving after the wind.” I would become as Macbeth and proclaim, “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Because I failed to know myself, to fear the Lord, my life would become a tale told by an idiot and I myself would be that idiot. So, Jean Valjean asks the proper question, “who am I?” A question we must all ask.
Valjean serves a lengthy prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his starving family. His sentence is extended because he attempts to break free. For 19 years, he serves in a brutal prison camp under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert who, at the time, serves as a prison guard. Javert refuses to call Valjean by his name for most of the musical. Instead, he refers to Valjean as his prisoner identification number, 24601. As Valjean seeks to know himself, Javert is there to define him by his prior sin. Valjean is certainly guilty of a crime, but Javert wants him to only be known AS his crime. Guilt proclaims that I have erred. Shame proclaims that my essence is my error. Valjean believes the lie of Javert. He begins to live as though he is nothing more than 24601. Valjean assumes his position as the criminal and steals gold and silver from the church from which he is given refuge. When the police bring him before the Bishop from whom he has stolen, Valjean believes, through shame, that he is nothing more than the criminal Javert has told him he is. In a pivotal moment in the musical, the Bishop tells the police that Valjean did not steal the gold and silver. Instead, he tells the police that Valjean left so quickly he forgot to take the most expensive gifts. The Bishop shows Valjean the answer to the question, “who am I?” The Bishop shows Valjean that he is loved. This love frees Valjean from the weight of his shame and changes the course of his life. However, Valjean cannot escape his shame. He changes his name to Lamert and begins a new life with the wealth he is given by the Bishop.
Valjean hides his shame for years as he seeks to live a good life. That is, until he is once again confronted by Javert. Javert will not let Valjean escape his past. To Javert, Valjean will never be anything more than a common thief. In life, guilt will lead to repentance, but shame will lead to death. Valjean finally realizes that he is not 24601, but one who is loved. He confronts his past shame directly, declaring, “who am I? I’m 24601!” He is one who is guilty, and yet loved. His essence is one who is loved which enables him to love. He loves because he is loved.
This is our story as Christians. I am guilty as a sinner. Yet, I am loved. I am loved by the author of life, even in the midst of my guilt. Too often, we as Christians fall into the trap of shame. We assume our essence as wretch, not as one who, though I err, I am loved. Shame is a weight which we are not meant to carry. Satan, our Javert, wants nothing more than for us to be known as our sin. Satan seeks to destroy all that is good. He knows that shame destroys us. Thus, he is the father of shame because he wants us to be destroyed. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul writes that people are thieves, revilers, drunkards and swindlers. Satan wants nothing more than for a thief to be, in essence, nothing more than a thief. Paul tells the church in Corinth, “and such were some of you.” Prior to our baptism, we are guilty and shame captivates us. However, Christ loved us in our guilt, and now we are those who are, “washed, sanctified, and justified.” We are loved. If we forget that, we will allow our guilt to drive us to shame. Shame will drive us to hide. We hide from one another and we hide from God. We hide because we define ourselves by our mistakes. We, like Adam and Eve, seek to cover our failures because we do not want others to know us as we know ourselves. Shame is isolating. Shame is a product of not knowing who we are in light of who God is.
We should all seek to know ourselves. If we forget that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we will take our own will as the arbiter of right and wrong. This will inevitably lead to failure and guilt. Guilt will lead to shame and the shame will break us. All of this will happen because we neglected to properly answer the Oracle’s charge to, “know thyself.” We are all guilty of transgressions. As those in Christ, we are no longer defined by our sin, but by the love of our Redeemer. Ignore the Javerts in your life. Do not be your own Javert. Do not be Javert to others. Let us define ourselves as the Apostle John does, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” “Who am I? I am, though I have erred, loved.