Mercy is pretty amazing when you witness it. Imagine you lose your job one day, and you are pulled over by a cop for speeding. It’s so serious that you could go to jail, but the cop decides, out of the goodness of his/her heart, to let you off that day. That’s mercy. But grace is absolutely mind-boggling. Not only does the cop let you off, he/she goes to jail in your place, and you take his job since you lost yours. Yeah, that would never happen.
And this is my point. Regardless of what you believe, true grace is an incredible, almost impossible concept. No matter what culture you’re in, we all live by the laws of physics; the laws of life: action-reaction, cause and effect, the concept of karma, or “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It’s part of the fabric of humanity. But grace is supernatural; it upsets the natural order of things.
And grace affects transformational change as a result. One of my favorite books is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In the first section of the book, Hugo spends an unusual amount of time developing one of his characters, the Bishop of Digne. He goes into great lengthy detail about how poor he was and how simply he lived, by choice. He gave everything he had to the poor and ate only what he needed in order to live. His only earthly indulgence was a set of silver and two silver candlesticks, which his sister would polish on a weekly basis. The first time I read Les Miserables, I thought “Sure, that’s interesting and everything, but come on, let’s get on with it!” But as you continue reading, you realize that Hugo is meticulously setting up THE defining storyline of the book.
In the story, the ex-con Jean Valjean, fresh out on parole, shows up at the bishop’s door looking for a place to spend the night. The bishop invites him in to stay, knowing that he is a criminal. But he doesn’t ask questions, and he graciously gives him one of his best guestrooms, sets the table with his silver and feeds him like a very important guest (much better than he himself ate on a normal basis). In the middle of the night, however, Valjean gets up to sneak away, stealing the bishop’s silver.
The next morning Valjean is picked up on the edge of town by the authorities, who see that he is marked as an ex-con. They search his bag, find the silver, and haul him back to the bishop’s house to return the items and confirm the theft. Valjean is faced with the sobering prospect of being thrown back into prison for the rest of his life. But then an amazing thing happens when the bishop sees Valjean with the policemen. “So here you are!” he cried to Valjean, “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?”
As the authorities release Valjean, the bishop whispers to him: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil, but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” And that was the bishop’s last scene in the book – he didn’t show up 10 years later to ask Valjean to repay the favor. That was it. You probably know the rest of the story. Essentially the bishop was able to break Valjean’s cycle of dark revenge and poisonous resentment with grace, and Valjean was transformed as a result. He was free to be honest, to be himself, and to give the same gift of remarkable freedom and redemption to others. In the story we also see an incredibly opposite contrast to this grace in the antagonist, Javert. He is unable to pardon others for breaking the law, and ultimately unable to pardon himself when he realizes he can’t live up to the law, leading to his suicide.
Grace is what I cling to. Grace allows me to get up in the morning without the fear of trying to live up to rules and laws I’ll never be able to live up to. Thank God for his grace, which far surpasses any man’s!
Previous blog posts about grace: Here’s what Bono has to say about it.