Changed By God’s Grace: Chuck Colson

Most of us “baby boomers” have strong memories of the 1960’s and 1970’s – although we may see them through different colored lenses. It was such an intense and volatile period, one where the word “assassinated” was burned into our souls. Looking back, it is difficult to understand how our nation survived. But I believe we see the scars of that period in time in the lives of every succeeding generation.

One if the most well-known episodes surrounded the administration of President Richard Nixon. The Watergate issue that ultimately forced the President’s resignation was probably not as big as it was made out to be – there were political initiatives seeking to depose the Republicans from power. In light of some of the more recent fiascos it would likely pale. But, I do not want to diminish the wrong and the abuse of power that it uncovered.

One story that emerged from all of it is that of Charles Colson, who passed away last week. I could write forever about his story – there is so much that has transpired through the years. However, in short, as Special Counsel to the President, he abused his position and the public trust, and was convicted and sent to prison.

This is where the story takes a strange twist. Colson’s life was invaded by Jesus Christ, another convicted criminal, and he was radically changed. He then used the gifts and abilities given him by God to fulfill God’s purpose for his life. And he did so with great passion. His legacy lives on primarily in Prison Fellowship Ministries, which has brought positive change into the lives of prisoners literally around the world. He used his platform to get into the presence of world leaders and to write about the grace of God through his Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

One book he wrote, “The Body,” was a powerful testimony to the power of God through the Church, in transforming the world and tearing down the walls of the Soviet Union and its anti-God campaign. Filled with interviews and true life stories of people living under the iron rule of totalitarianism, it showed how their faith in Jesus Christ and the Peace of Jesus won out over the efforts of man to eradicate Christianity. I read it in about 1987 and was mesmerized by the countless testimonies of men and women, many of whom (not all) were Catholic or Orthodox Christians, who simply surrendered their lives, and stood firm on their profession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. (Reference Hebrews 11)

Chuck Colson was a Catholic Christian. I am an evangelical Christian. He and I are brothers in Christ. Colson was excoriated by many evangelical Christians and organizations for that book, claiming He was pushing Catholicism and a “one world” Church, headed by the Pope. I was shocked at the tunnel vision of these so-called Christian leaders, who apparently have never read the Gospel of John, nor his letters in 1st, 2nd and 3rd John, nor Peter’s letters to the Christians scattered about in the first century. We all serve one King of Kings, and He taught that His presence in our lives was evidenced by our love for our brothers and sisters in Him. Race, ethnicity, politics, denominations, Catholic, Protestant, etc, etc., have no bearing on this Bloodline in which we have our eternal life.

Chuck Colson was human – and far from perfect. Chuck Colson is now sitting at the feet of His Lord Jesus, who considers first and foremost the motivations of our heart. Well done, Chuck! Your example as a servant of your Master and your voice will be missed.  

I ran across the following story that, to me, epitomizes the reality of Colson’s faith in Jesus Christ and the healing power of forgiveness, even at the heights of the political world.

My Chuck Colson Lesson

By Lanny Davis, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in legal crisis management. Mr. Davis served as Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton in 1996-98 and served as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Board in 2006-07. He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson.

Sometime in 1973, I first heard the name Charles Colson from my father at the dinner table. My dad, who always told me he “hated” President Nixon, told me that night that he also “hated” a man named Charles Colson, who had the title “special counsel to the president.” He told me about a sign on Colson’s wall in the White House: “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

About a year later, I think in early 1974, I was astonished to receive a phone call, which began: “Hello, this is Bob Woodward from the Washington Post. Do you have any comment on the fact that you were on one of Nixon’s ‘enemies lists’?

“You’ve got to be kidding. Me? Why was I on Nixon’s enemies list?”

“We are not sure,” Woodward said. “You were Muskie’s youth coordinator and made a lot of anti-Nixon speeches. Maybe that’s how you got there.” (He was referring to Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and for whom I had worked during his campaign.)

I asked Woodward whether he had any idea who in the Nixon White House had put me on the enemies list.

“Yeah, we think it was Colson.”

“Do you mean Charles Colson — the guy with the ‘hearts and minds’ sign on the wall?”

“Yeah, that Colson. Would you like to comment?”

“Sure — I am complimented and want to thank Colson for the honor.”

The next day, I read a short article in the Post mentioning that I had been listed on one of the enemies lists. It wasn’t long until my phone rang. It was my mom and dad, both yelling, “Mazel tov,” with even more pride and joy, it seemed, than the day of my bar mitzvah.

“We’re so proud of you, son,” my dad said. “You made the List!”

Fast-forward about 30 years later, I am guessing, probably about 2004. I was at the dinner traditionally hosted by conservative columnist Cal Thomas on the evening before the National Prayer Breakfast. Each year,Cal invites friends to join him to hear a born-again Christian give testimony about his or her experience. It’s a moving experience and an honor to be invited.

“There is someone I want you to meet,”Cal told me. “You must come.”

When I arrived,Cal steered me over to a vaguely familiar face.

“Hi, I’m Chuck Colson,” he said, as he stuck his hand out to shake hands. I shook his hand, amazed, and became even more amazed when he said:

“I admired your work for President Clinton — and I had the same title as you, ‘special counsel.’ I’ve wanted for a very long time to say something to you: I am sorry, may God forgive me.”

I looked at him, stunned.

“You know, I’m the guy who put you on the enemies list — that was wrong, please forgive me.”

I looked into his eyes and I felt a strange and deep peace. It was eerie. I also saw a profound goodness and spirituality.

I thought of my dad, who had passed away in 1996, and who had used the words “hate” and “evil” about this man. My eyes teared up. I wished my dad was alive to hear me say, “Of course I forgive you, Mr. Colson” — and then adding: “And please forgive me and my late dad, for we used to use the word ‘hate’ about you.”

Chuck Colson immediately hugged me, whispering in my ear, “I know your dad is in heaven, and he is smiling right now at the both of us loving God and forgiving each other.”

I learned an important lesson that night: I vowed that I would never use the word “hate” about people in politics with whom I disagreed.

And I knew I would never forget this moment and what Charles Colson had taught me.

Thank you, Chuck.

May your soul rest in peace. I know it will.