Jean Valjean was a bitter man.
The chains that shackled his wrists were not his only fetters: his heart was in bondage too. He harbored a hefty store of anger deep inside; anger with men. . . . And anger with God.
This man spent nineteen years of his life in a French prison. For stealing a loaf of bread. To feed his starving sister and her children. He was called prisoner 24601. He had no name and no identity. He was a slave of the law. He tried to escape four times, and each time, his sentence was lengthened. When at last his time was served, he was finally released, but he was forced to carry a yellow passport. And he was told that he must keep it with him for the rest of his life. That yellow paper branded him as an outcast, an ex-convict. It would forever separate him from "decent" people. It was a burden that he would have to stoop under until he died.
No one sheltered him, or fed him, or even offered him work. Nobody in their right mind would trust a man who had been a prisoner. So, he slept in the streets. And then, one night, a bishop --- Bishop Myriel --- invites Jean Valjean into his house. The bishop trusts the man who was considered so dangerous, feeds him, and gives him a warm bed for the night. However, Valjean is still in an almost-animal survival mode. He gets up in the middle of the night and steals the bishop's silver plates. The police catch the thief right away and bring him straight back to the bishop's house.
"We caught this man creeping away from your house early this morning," they tell Bishop Myriel. "He has this bag full of your silver. He claims that you gave him these things, but we know better than to believe that."
"Monsieurs, release him," the bishop says. "This man has spoken true. I commend you for your duty. Now God's blessing go with you." When the police are gone, Bishop Myriel turns to Valjean and speaks tenderly: "But remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has brought you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God."
From that point onward, Valjean becomes a new man. The old Valjean is no more. His soul is still in bondage --- but now it belongs to God. Valjean tore up his yellow passport and threw it into the wind. All of his long-suppressed bitterness slowly diminishes, and is replaced by forgiveness and grace.
Valjean takes pity on one that others scorn: a heart-broken prostitute. And through his care of this miserable woman, Valjean realizes that "to love another person is to see the face of God."
And, so, when Fantine dies, Valjean spends the rest of his life loving that woman's orphaned child.
Valjean realized that living for revenge would only make his life utterly wretched. When he was given the chance to rightfully kill a man - Inspector Javert - who had treated him horribly in prison, Valjean instead released his enemy. "Repay no one evil for evil...Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17, 19, 21). In showing grace to the Inspector, Valjean was, in fact, heaping coals of fire on his enemy's head; he was overcoming evil with good. Javert did not know how to respond to this grace, because all he had ever known was the law. "There is no God." He declared. "There is only the law." He spent his life keeping order, and keeping justice. His business was enacting the law "to the letter." And so, when he saw the power of grace. . . he couldn't live with it: "And does he know that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so?...There is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on!" (Javert)
Grace is something that could change the world. When it collides with judgement, true grace triumphs. Jesus was the embodiment of this true grace - "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." (Luke 23:34). "Let the little children come unto me." (Matthew 19:14). "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone." (John 8:7).
Grace makes beauty out of ugliness.
"Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth,
There is a flame that never dies.
For the darkest night will end and the sun will rise."
(Do You Hear the People Sing?)