Followed relentlessly by police officer Javert, Jean Valjean finds himself with a unique opportunity: another man has been accused of his crimes and is about to be convicted. And if the innocent man is convicted, Valjean will be free. The dilemma is, can he allow another man to be unjustly accused and imprisoned for the accusations against him?
In the stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Valjean sings,
Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?…
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!
The question repeatedly asked in that song is one for us as well: who am I that I might suppose that I have rights to special privileges? Who am I that some treat me with gentleness and kindness? Who am I that God might bestow grace on me?
This is the very question that David asks in response to God’s promise of that the Messiah would come from his lineage:
“Then David the king went in and sat before the LORD and said, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far? This was a small thing in Your eyes, O God; but You have spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the standard of a man of high degree, O LORD God.” (1 Chron 17:16-17)
The extension of grace — and even unexpected grace — overwhelmed David not only with gratitude, but humility. His response was not unlike Paul’s when he contemplated the privilege he had been granted to serve as an apostle of Christ:
“For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain…” (1 Cor. 15:9-10a)
Here are two men who received tremendous privilege and grace in serving Christ. One came from a lowly position (being a shepherd was not only a dirty job, but shepherds had the reputation as being less concerned about honesty and integrity than the masses) and was overlooked even by his own brothers because of his diminutive stature and low familial rank. The other came from a high position — he had the right family from the right tribe from the right nation and was a high achiever. He had “the largest house on the right side of the tracks,” if you will. But when they experienced God’s grace they both responded similarly — “who am I?” That is, “I am unworthy to receive God’s grace. I deserve His wrath, not His kindness. Why would He do anything for me, never mind something so lavish?”
With these words, we find clues to a fitting response to God’s lavish grace and kindness to His people. The temptation when receiving a benevolent gift is to assume worthiness, and that can quickly lead to pride and self-exaltation. But the reception of every grace should not only stimulate our hearts to be thankful, but should also lead us to the humble question, “who am I?” and the boastful response, “God is great and gracious!”