I used to ask myself, “Why am I a Christian?” But after seeing Les Miserables, on this cold, leaf-less evening in December, I thought, this movie is exactly why.
In the movie, Jean Valjean is a convict slave, working off his debt to the government. But even after he is put on parole, with his history haunting him, he cannot find work in the poverty stricken, 19th century France.
He gets so desperate that when a kind priest trustingly takes him in, after a generous meal and a few hours of rest, Jean steals away into the night with mounds of the priest’s silver dinnerware.
He is caught the next day and brought before the priest to be identified and accused.
And this is where this story becomes the story of only one, specific religion.
The priest surprises the confident captors when he says, “No, no. I gave him that silver,” and he turns to Jean and says, “In fact, let me get the best part, the silver candlesticks. In your haste you forgot to take them as well.”
As the dumbfounded guards drift away, the priest kneels down and looks Jean in the eyes. He hands him the candlesticks and says, “I have paid for your debts. I have bought you so that you can be free. Use this wealth and start your life anew. I now give you to God.”
This is how Christ is different from Mohammed, from Buddha, from Brahman and any other that I know of. He came and paid for the punishment that was justly deserved by me. And he said, I have given you a chance to start anew, debtless. Now come and I will show you how to live.
I do not know which of the most feasible religions is the most correct. But if that gives me a choice of which to devote myself to, then this one, the one where my God loves me enough to pay for my debts, make me new and set me free, this one is what I want. This God is who I want to serve.
And the rest of the movie, without giving it all away, is also like the strange life of a Christian. Jean earns beautiful things and success through hard, honest work. But he is required by the ethic that was shown to him by the priest, methodically, one by one, to give each of those things away. And the man that it makes him, and shows us that he is, becomes more pure-hearted, heroic, and humble with each opening of his hands. This is the story of a man that, as he gives up all of himself, changes the hearts of the world.
And this is the hard and beautiful request of Christ. We are not in this for the wealth it can bring us, though sometimes it does. But we are in this instead simply to obey the one we trust. And as he gives us beautiful gifts, he also asks us to be willing to give every single one of them away. To surrender our time, our jobs, our spouses, our children to his care.
And Christ’s goal for us in this life is that we get to the end of our lives as naked as we came. Not a burden strapped around our shoulders. Not a bit of hate or resentment clinging to our hearts. We have given them all to him. Not a dollar to our name that we haven’t offered to let him use, for we cannot take it with us anyway. And we leave behind us an ocean of ones we loved, ones that we left better off, more lifted and encouraged, more in love, who now also are hopefully looking at the one who saved us and can save them too.
We are only left with tried-and-true love brimming in our hearts, and bright and shining eyes, looking up at the priest that saved us, as he says thank you for trusting me, and obeying. You have lived a life wholly pleasing to me, my faithful, my good servant.
That is the meaning of a life devoted to Christ. The purpose is to hear those words from the one who paid our debt and taught us to love likewise. To hear him say, “Well done, my son. You weathered a cold and leaf-less world, and through you I made it bloom. Well done indeed.”