A Remarkable Story, from a Remarkable Man

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Last week I told some brief conversion stories, mentioning Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship. Herewith is his extended account.

“Patty and I were heading for a vacation on the Maine coast, and we decided to spend a couple of days with my parents just outside of Boston. While there, I called Tom Phillips, the president of Raytheon, the largest corporation in New England. I asked if I might visit him. I had met with Tom four months earlier to talk about my becoming counsel once again for Raytheon. I had been impressed that day with how much he had changed from the man I had known before I went to the White House. Tom had seemed very much at peace with himself. I had asked him what happened to him. I can remember to this day his exact words: “Chuck, I have accepted Jesus Christ and committed my life to Him.” I nervously changed the subject. I’d never before heard anyone talk that way. In my mind, Jesus was merely an ancient historical figure. But in the months that followed, I couldn’t get Tom’s words out of my mind.

“So, while visiting with my parents in Boston, I met with him at his home. I wanted him to explain what had happened in his life. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, he might help me. We spent a hot, sultry August evening sitting on his porch. He described to me what had happened to him. Some years earlier he had gone to a Billy Graham crusade in New York and found himself strange- ly moved by the message. He was so moved that at the end, when Graham gave an invitation to accept Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior, Tom Phillips walked forward with hundreds of others and surrendered his life to Christ. He then described how his life had been radically transformed and asked if he might read a chapter to me.

“ As he told me his story, he pulled a paperback book off the table was Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s classic work, and the chapter that Phillips read  from was titled “The Great Sin.” Pride. Tom’s reading of that chapter was for me a totally devastating moment. I saw myself and my life captured in Lewis’s incredible words about that great sin that we quickly see in others but rarely recognize in ourselves: the haughty, arrogant attitude that comes from building our life around ourselves. As Phillips was reading, I could feel the perspiration under my shirt and on my brow, and it wasn’t just the warm night. My life experiences were flashing across my mind, just like the movie scenes where people see their lives lived out in the instant before they die. I now realize that I was, in a sense, about to die. I thought about my insufferable arrogance.

“Oh, sure, I had done good deeds for people and took care of the underdog. I did pro bono work when I was practicing law. I gave gifts to charity. I was a pretty decent guy, so I thought. In truth, my smug sense of self-righteousness hid my total self-obsession. Through the years in which I rose quickly in law and politics at the cost of my first marriage, I justified everything. I told myself I was doing it all for my family and my country, for national security. I was convinced that it was all a selfless endeavor. I realized that night at Tom’s house that it had all been about me. As Tom read Lewis’s words, some of them hit me with particular force, shattering the defense mechanism I’d built up over all of those years—the tough-guy exterior. The truth suddenly made sense. As C. S. Lewis wrote, someone who is so proud and so wrapped up in himself and so capable of rationalizing anything could not possibly see something immeasurably greater than himself—God.

“I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t wait to get out of Tom’s home

that night. He asked me if he could pray for me, and he did, a prayer like I’d never heard in church. Like I’d never heard anywhere. It was warm, moving, and caring. And what struck me as much as anything else was that Tom Phillips, one of the busiest, most successful businessmen in America, really, genuinely cared for me, Chuck Colson. Not the big-time Washington operator, but Chuck Colson the human being. I said good-bye to Tom and headed for my car, but as I walked toward it that night, I felt a sudden desperate desire to go back and pray again with Tom Phillips. I turned around and looked at the house, but the lights downstairs were already going out. Too late, I realized.

“So I got in the car, started the ignition, and drove out of the driveway. I could get no farther than a hundred yards from his house, however, because I was crying too hard to drive the car. The former marine captain, the tough White House “hatchet man” who thought he was as good as or better than anybody else, felt wretched. For the first time in my life I had looked inside of my own heart and detested what I saw. It was corrupt. I thought of the people I had hurt, the wrong I had done to others, how cold, hard, and self-centered I was. For the very first time in my life, I was deeply convicted of my own sin. I felt unclean, ashamed, horribly alone, and horribly lost. Tom’s words kept flowing over me about turning to God and making that simple surrender. I found myself in those moments almost involuntarily crying out: “God, I don’t know the right words, and I’m not much, but please take me. Take me just the way I am.” I sat there for half an hour, perhaps an hour, alone with my thoughts, tears flowing freely as they had never done before in my life. I experienced a feeling of total surrender and total release. I knew at that moment God was real, personal, and had heard my prayers.

“I expected to wake up the next morning feeling embarrassed. I was not one who ever cried, or at least let anyone know if I did. I was hard, tough, seasoned, independent, and proud. But not that morning. For the first time in my life I felt free. Nothing had changed about my circumstances. I still saw my name in the headlines that August morning. But nothing was the same that day. And it would never be the same again. In the week that followed I devoured  my own copy of Mere Christianity. Everything I read  confirmed the experience I’d had, and everything I’d experienced confirmed Pascal’s saying: “The heart has reasons, reason knows not of.” I knew with assurance that I had a new relationship with God. I prayed that week, asking Jesus Christ to take over my life. That began the greatest journey of my life—the greatest journey anyone can have. I experienced the fullness of one of the great paradoxes: We find ourselves only when we lose ourselves, in God.” (From The Good Life 473-477)

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