The Vast Difference between What We THINK and What We LOVE
Because I had only watched the Les Mis stage play and movies, my heart wasn’t prepared for a brutal plot twist included in Victor Hugo’s novel.
In fact, when I hit this section of the book, I was so devastated, I had to walk away from reading for several weeks. It was too painful to bear the images Hugo was asking me to carry.
In the book (as in the play/movies), Marius is an idealistic young man who embraces the democratic ideals of the French Republic. He rejects the Royalism of his wealthy grandfather to follow in the steps of his dead father, and he embraces severe poverty to study with a group of young rebels. Marius nearly dies in a street battle, but Jean ValJean rescues then carries him through a hellish labyrinth of Parisian sewers.
This rescue isn’t easy for ValJean. He hates Marius, resenting the threat romance presents to the happy home he’s created with his adopted daughter. Yet ValJean ultimately chooses the happiness of Cossette above his own, saving Marius’s life and providing for the marriage of the couple.
After the marriage, however, ValJean realizes that he must tell Marius the truth of his past. He confesses his life as a former convict.
Despite the young man’s democratic ideals, despite his compassion for the desperate, Marius slips immediately back into the prejudices of the upper class. He shuns the man who has saved his life and happiness, trying to force him out of Cossette’s life. The pain ValJean suffers as a result leads to his death.
THE ARCHETYPE OF THE YOUNG IDEALIST
While reading this part of Les Mis, I was reminded of Angel Clare’s behavior in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Angel is a similar young man of high ideals, intent on defying the aristocracy and all of its silly conventions. When push comes to shove, however, Angel embraces the defaults of his privileged culture. He demeans Tess for a rape that wasn’t her fault, rejects her, and allows her to endure abuse and suffering that eventually kill her.
Reading both stories, my stomach churns with a grief particular to injustice. If these young men had been monsters throughout the book, the pain wouldn’t be so bad. However, there is a unique horror in discovering that a character who seems to believe what is right and true doesn’t actually live by those same principles.
THE INTUITIVE BACKBONE OF OUR ALLEGIANCE
Hardy and Hugo were so wise to show us this aspect of human nature. They knew that what we THINK doesn’t always indicate what we truly LOVE.
As writers like James K.A. Smith and Jonathan Haidt have revealed, most of our allegiances are formed intuitively, not rationally. Haidt writes, “don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.” This is why members of all political parties are willing to overlook flagrant facts and cling desperately to what they want to be true. “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (Haidt xx).
We see this tendency in Marius and Angel. Both men had processed truth cognitively, but neither was prepared for the mess of human reality intersecting with their ideals. They didn't realize how the pressures of real life would divide their thoughts from their loves.
Like all of us, these young men made the mistake of oversimplification. They did this because sweeping generalizations may be true, but they are also terrifically easy.
The statement, “People should care for the poor,” will always be easier than, “I will invest long-term in one desperate person.”
“Women shouldn't have abortions,” will always be easier than, “I will be a foster parent until this young addict is recovered enough to parent her baby.”
“All men have sinned, and we should pray for our leaders,” will always feel truer when a politician we value is holding the office.
“God will provide,” is nice to say, and we might think we believe it is true, but until we are forced to release things that we hold most dear, we cannot have operational, love-based, living faith in that statement.
THE DIVINE GIFT OF TIME
Lately I’ve been wondering why a God who exists outside of time would bother to include this dimension in his physical creation. An omnipotent being knows what’s going to happen. It’s not like he needs a chronological limitation—a thousand years are like a day for him.
Surely, though, time accomplishes something powerful in us. Time allows us to think about what we believe—then it allows us to test those ideas out in reality. It allows us to identify the gap between our intellect and our deep allegiance. It forces us to carry the weaknesses we find back to the Father and dig into his resources.
Yesterday I listened to Tim Keller’s sermon, “Your Plans: God’s Plans,” and Keller affirms this principle in the life of Joseph. God didn't wrap up injustice, betrayal, need, and redemption in a 30-minute Touched by an Angel segment. He let time do hard work in Joseph and his family. He let long-term suffering bring about realizations that can’t be sped up.
In Greek drama, the word, “anagnorisis” refers to a moment in which a character recognizes his or her true character. Time in pain provides this this same gift to us off stage—it helps us come to the “aha!”--the awakening. Time is the vehicle that allows us to truly confess, “I knew truth, but I didn’t internalize it like I thought I did. Help my unbelief.”
This is the sort of breaking point Peter found during his denial of Jesus. The Savior he had sworn to follow, he abandoned. Had Peter not been given time to see his unbelief, he could never have known his ultimate need.
Likewise, in my own life, there are many Biblical truths I would have said I believed ten or twenty years ago. But not until God used the dimensions of time and pain did I find out that these convictions were only intellectual assent and not any sort of reality inside me. Like Marius or Angel Clare, I am (still) being deconstructed by suffering, forced to realize that I have been infected by oversimplifications and religious platitudes, distracted by the biases and allegiances of my culture.
PENITENCE FOR THE THINKER OF GOOD THOUGHTS
Thankfully, Hugo shows us a repentant Marius at the end of Les Mis. The young man sees the full scope of his foolishness, and he is crushed before ValJean with a holy sorrow. Marius then lets the truth change him. He sees what he thought he was, then he admits who has been in reality.
Such confession is hard and frightening work--like the peeling of Eustace’s dragon skins in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But this is vital penitence, something evangelical Christianity should embrace—of all times—especially now. Especially now when the gospel is being corrupted by political distortions--especially now when Christian leaders are allowing the love of power and the love of wealth to distort the eternal good news--now is the best of all times for God’s people to take up serious individual and corporate confession. Now is the best of times for the church to kneel beside the feet of the Savior who carried us through a hellish sewer to save our souls, the best of times to whisper, “We thought we knew what was right, but we have never let Truth sink into our deepest loves.”
This process is going to feel very naked, and we will want to reach for fig leaves. The zeitgeist is swollen with dismissive, arrogant postures, and modern Christians aren’t accustomed to feeling vulnerable in any way.
We like being dominant, not humble. We like being certain, not sorry. We like showing others how they need to repent, not repenting of our own failures.
But Truth personified sees us so clearly. We can hide nothing from him. We may sulk like the hard-working older brother standing grumpily in the field of his own labor, but the Father who loves us knows we need resources and weapons that can’t be formed by human reason or effort. He knows when we've missed the point of sonship.
This Father stands waiting to revive the thinker of right thoughts--the spewer of proper apologetics--the knower of everything but nothing at all--by imparting true belief. He stands ready to break down Peter the Denier-Who-Didn't-Actually-Believe-What-He-Thought so that he can come to him gently, commissioning him in the midst of his penitence with the divine ability to feed God's sheep.