The foolish genius of grace

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age… (Titus 2:11–12)

One of the first Christian books I ever read was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? In a chapter entitled “Why Forgive?”, Yancey recounts the story of Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, which of course was adapted into one of the most well-known musicals. Valjean, a hardened convict after serving a nineteen-year prison term for theft, has recently been released. Unable to find shelter, he is finally taken in by a kindly bishop. That night, after the bishop and his sister fall asleep, Valjean steals the family silver out of the cupboard and sneaks off into the darkness.

The next morning, Valjean is brought back to the bishop’s residence by three policemen who have caught the thief and are ready to put him back in prison for life. In Hugo’s own words, here is what happens next:

“So here you are!” [the bishop] 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 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”
Jean Valjean’s eyes had widened. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey.

The bishop convinces the police that the silver is a gift, and when the police leave Valjean alone with the bishop, the bishop gives him the candlesticks and says, “Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.” The bishop’s grace – this unearned gift of forgiveness and silver given by an unobligated giver – changes Valjean’s life forever, melting his hard heart and leading him to dedicate himself to helping others in need.

This fictional story is a great example of how grace straddles the border between genius and foolishness. Valjean deserved to go back to prison for his theft, and the bishop had every right to press charges. The bishop’s choice to not only forgive him but bless him with more silver could have foolishly enabled Valjean’s criminal behavior, but instead his extravagant grace transformed Valjean’s heart in a way that more prison time likely would have never done. Throughout the gospels, you see many displays of this “genius yet foolish” grace: a father running out to meet his prodigal son and throwing him a party (Luke 15). A vineyard owner hiring workers and paying those who worked one hour the same as those who worked all day (Matthew 20). A king forgiving his servant the enormous sum of money that he has squandered (Matthew 18).

But the greatest act of grace, of course, is a holy Father allowing His innocent Son to die an unjust death upon a Roman instrument of torture, to bear the punishment that we deserved. Despite our rebellion, despite being enemies of God, we have been not treated as our sins deserved, but have been offered extravagant grace, so much more than we deserve, in Jesus: eternal life, God’s presence in us by His Holy Spirit, joy and peace that does not depend upon circumstances, meaning and purpose in life, no more shame, guilt, or fear, and perfect love that will never end. I pray that you would let God’s grace melt your hard heart and transform you into a person who lives with gratitude towards the One who has shown you such undeserved kindness. And I pray that you would have the courage to extend a similar grace towards those around you, that others might just have their hearts transformed as well as you become a conduit for God’s amazing grace.
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