A Great One Passes

April 22, 2012
Chuck Colson 1931 – 2012

Chuck Colson

Greatness as measured by Christians differs significantly than that found in the secular world. Those who are considered great by estimation of the unbelieving world are generally those who have succeeded in some great ambition – perhaps it’s amassing wealth, the building of significant structures or development of new technologies. It might be discovering a new scientific theory or a new land. Often it is the accumulation of political power through founding a movement or even more directly through military success. Whatever the consideration, greatness in this world is measured by what is gained.

The Christian view of greatness is directly the opposite of this in that it considers not what has been gained but what was lost or surrendered. Christ gave His life. Paul gave up his authority as a Jewish leader. St. Francis surrendered his wealth. Loss in this world is gain in the next, and so the greatest wealth of a saint is always the depth of his or her sacrifice.

Because of this upside down economy, the heroes of the faith often begin by being humbled. Paul was literally knocked from his horse in the midst of persecuting the church, originating the idiom to be “knocked off one’s high horse”. Augustine was called by the voice of children to surrender an empty life of carousing and licentiousness. John Newton the writer of Amazing grace and slave trader turned abolitionist was brought low by illness before his conversion.

Chuck Colson’s own humbling brought him to a place of faith, and eventually greatness. He came to national prominence as Special Counsel to then President Nixon in 1969. In that capacity he became a close advisor of Nixon’s, often advocating the harshest measures in dealing with the President’s ‘enemies’. It was in this role he was to become notorious for playing a role in the worst political scandals of the 20th century – Watergate.

In 1974 Chuck Colson was indicted for his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, and as he was facing arrest a friend gave him a copy of C.S Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The reading of this book, no doubt coupled with his impending conviction and imprisonment brought the necessary humility into the life of Chuck Colson to accept the grace-filled message of the gospel. The ‘Hatchet-man’ of Nixon became an imprisoned servant of Christ. It was this time in prison that was to lead to the chronicle of his conversion titled Born Again, a Biblical phrase that came to become a popular description of those who had become Christians.

His imprisonment also gave birth to what is perhaps his greatest work of service, the founding of Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry specifically dedicated to work with prisoners and their families. It was a work that was eventually to have national and international impact meeting the needs of the most hopeless in our society.

Colson also turned his attention to the influence of Christians in our culture, using his experience in government to explore the proper role we play as those who speak truth to authority while avoiding the pitfalls of the corruption of power and ambition. He became in many ways the embodiment of the command of Christ to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ it. He received a number of awards for the work he did but always turned his influence and wealth back to helping others.

I only saw Colson speak ‘live’ once, at a large gathering of Christian businessmen in the area a few years ago.  Of course he was the highlight of the event, but he was completely unassuming and without a hint of self-importance. His message was simple and direct, that all our wealth and power meant nothing if it was used to influence those around us for Christ and meet the needs of the neediest among us. His words had power because he had been living them for decades by then.

By the measure of those who have no regard for or understanding of the work of the gospel Colson will forever be party to a hated administration. For those who understand grace, humility and the transformative power of Christ Colson will be as the book of Philippians proclaims, one who will “shine among them like stars in the sky”.