The Conversion of Charles Colson

Posted by Dr. Martin Albl:

Some thoughts on the death of Charles Colson, an evangelical Christian who was also a collaborator with Catholics such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of the journal First Things.

“Pride is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

These words, from C. S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity, had struck a nerve in Chuck Colson, the former trusted aide to President Nixon who died this past month at age 80.

As Nixon’s loyal confidante, Colson had wielded great power and influence. Yet even after Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972, Colson felt an inner emptiness.

It was Tom Phillips, a successful CEO represented by Colson’s law firm, who first read Lewis’ words to Colson, challenging him to look honestly at himself and at his motivation for participating in the shady activities of the Nixon White House.

Lewis describes pride, or self-conceit, as the sense that one must constantly be better than others. This feeling leads inevitably to enmity not only between people, but between people and God.

Lewis explains, “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not really know God at all.”

Colson realized that Lewis was describing his own pride—his own driving ambition that had led him to a successful career as a lawyer and to his position at Nixon’s side. He realized too that this same “spiritual cancer” dominated the White House, a cancer that would result ultimately in the Watergate scandals.

The night after his meeting with Phillips, Colson wept uncontrollably. He knew that he needed to change his life, but he didn’t know how to do it. Colson, moreover, was suspicious of sudden, emotionally charged “religious conversions.” In the military, he had seen men experience such “conversions” during times of stress, only to fall back to their old lifestyles once the stress had passed.

At this point Lewis helped Colson again. During a week’s vacation, Colson carefully studied Mere Christianity, and found answers to his intellectual questions about the truth of the Christian faith. Convicted in both heart and head, Colson was then able to commit his life to Christ.

Colson’s new-found faith was quickly tested, however. Convicted of obstruction of justice, Colson spent seven months in prison. Receiving no special treatment, Colson shared in every aspect of the prisoner’s life: the uncertainty, the loneliness, the constant threat of physical violence (Colson’s own life was threatened.)  But Colson believed that God helped him to overcome these hardships, and he was able to work with others in establishing prayer and study groups in the prison.

After his release, Colson continued his Christian witness of both heart and head. With his heart reaching out to those still in prison, he established the Prison Fellowship, an organization offering faith-based programs for prisoners and working for prisoner rehabilitation and the reform of the prison system.

Working equally hard for the religion of the head, Colson insisted that in a society dominated by moral relativism, Christians must be able to express and defend their worldview in an intellectually coherent manner.

Through organizations such as Prison Fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and through the countless people he has personally touched, Colson’s dual legacy lives on.