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Coming to Grips With Grace

with Chuck Colson | January 1, 2009

Unabashed loyalty to Richard Nixon landed former White House aide Chuck Colson in prison. In that dingy cell, Chuck began to realize how far from the good life he really was—and what it means to truly follow Christ.

Unabashed loyalty to Richard Nixon landed former White House aide Chuck Colson in prison. In that dingy cell, Chuck began to realize how far from the good life he really was—and what it means to truly follow Christ.

Coming to Grips With Grace

With Chuck Colson
|
January 01, 2009
| Download Transcript PDF

Chuck: We live in a time what's called "post-modernism," which means there is no truth, everything is relative, so there's no standards, no yardsticks, nothing to measure your life by – it's pure drifting in the vapor.  And what I'm saying to people is, "Yeah, that's where the secular world is," and if we hit them with the Bible, they're going to turn away.  They're just going to say, "Oh, it comes from one of these people preaching at us.  This is the Bible Belt."

But if you start talking about the meaning of their lives and where they're going to find fulfillment in life, you can engage them.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, January 1st.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll talk today with our guest, Chuck Colson, about how we can engage people around us in a spiritual dialog in the year 2009.  Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You know, it's not often when somebody comes to faith in Christ that it makes national news headlines, but I remember back when I was – I guess I was in high school or in college when the news came that Chuck Colson had found Christ.  And the reason I remember it is because, honestly, if I'm telling the truth, I was kind of cynical about the whole thing, and I thought, "Oh, yeah, I bet he found Christ," you know, the guy is trying to get out of a prison term, and he thinks maybe religion will help him out a little bit with that.  Did you think – do you remember hearing about it?

Dennis: I do and, frankly, I remember having some of those same thoughts.  And he joins us on the broadcast …

Bob: Here we are confessing our cynicism.

Dennis: It was the real deal.  Chuck, I'm glad it wasn't a fake.

Chuck: Thirty-two years ago, if it was a fake, I've certainly maintained it  [inaudible] over these years.  But you guys weren't alone, I mean, 90 percent of the world believed I was just looking for sympathy.

Bob: Well, and Larry King has said to you he has been impressed by, he's been witnessed to by the fact that you've persevered in your faith.

Chuck: Every time I have an interview with Larry King over the years, and I've had many of them, he will say, "You know, I just am so impressed.  You keep doing this," he said.  And a number of the secular interviewers will say, "You're really doing something with your life that I should have been doing in my life."

So maybe that's the witness, and when you say "publicity," goodness, most of our listeners won't remember Eric Sevareid or Walter Cronkite, but they devoted almost an entire broadcast on CBS News to my conversion.  It was bigger news than Watergate because it was so improbable.  The Boston Globe said "if Mr. Colson can find God and be forgiven, there is hope for everybody."

Dennis: And there is.

Chuck: And there is.  My life proves that.

Dennis: There really is.  You write in your book called "The Good Life," you mentioned that this book is like looking in a rearview mirror.

Chuck: Yeah, it is.

Dennis: And you're looking back over how you describe a "tumultuous" life.  And, you know, if you'd have said that to me 25 years ago, Chuck, I'd have said, "Well, yeah, maybe you because of where you came from being with Nixon and in the White House and going to prison and all the fallout of making national news with a crime," but, you know what?  Now I understand what you mean – life is tumultuous and looking back over it, we can live a good life if we have our hope in the right place.

Chuck: Yeah, it's true.  Everybody thinks that you can go through life, and it's a breeze.  People who haven't had a major crisis in life, people who haven't fallen on their face, just have to wait for their turn, because it will happen.  You think you've got life all together, the world rolls over on top of you.

But I've tried to write this book – you're quite right – looking at my life through the rearview mirror.  I'm 73 years old, and you learn a lot.  You learn a lot from your own experiences, you learn from your own failures – which I've had my share, certainly – and you learn from the lessons of other people's lives.  And so "Born Again" was written prospectively.  I tell the story of my conversion, coming out of politics, coming to Christ, going to prison, and that was sort of a forward look at a new life in Christ.

Now, 32 years later, let's look back and see what really happened – what worked out, what didn't work out.  And I wrote this basically – I think you fellows know, I wrote it principally for seekers.  People today are searching for the questions about meaning and purpose – what is life all about and how do I find my fulfillment and why am I here and what's my purpose, what am I going to do with my life?

So I wrote this, hopefully, because my life has been such a rollercoaster up and down, that people would look at my life and then learn some of the lessons that I've learned, and it leads you to only one place as all of us know.

Bob: Well, it's interesting, because as I started reading through this book, I had the thought, "This is your Ecclesiastes."

Chuck: Yeah, it is – "Vanity, vanity and a striving after the wind," precisely.

Bob: All of life is that until you come to the end, and you say if there is no faith, if there is no hope, then there is nothing.

Chuck: Yeah, the last words of Ecclesiastes capture it all.

Dennis: They really do.  There's a scene that I think really sets the stage for your book, and it's early in the book, but it tells the story of how you got together with a group of people and announced your conversion.  You said there was polite applause, and you were near some bay or some sound, and a man was – I loved the way you described it – he was leaning back with a cocktail in his hand, and he basically said, "Mr. Colson, as you can see, all of us here have lived a good life.  We have it all."  It was evidently people who owned yachts and three and four homes around the world.

Chuck: It was Hope Sound in Florida, which is one of the watering spots for the truly rich and famous and wealthy from all over the world, and this woman is a lovely, beautiful Christian woman – took her backyard, which looks over the bay, and the bay was full of beautiful 70, 80, 100-foot yachts, and she put a tent out, and she had a 5:00 party, and everybody came in their white dinner jackets and long gowns because they were heading off to different parties for the evening, and I gave my testimony because she had arranged it this way.  I would give my testimony and then take questions and answers.

I gave my testimony, and most people were looking away, or they had this studied indifference about them – they didn't want to appear to be affected by it.  All the questions were then about Watergate, Nixon, the presidency, prison, and just as it was getting ready to get over – it was not an easy experience – just as it was about to end, this man leaning against the tent pole, legs crossed, cocktail in one hand, looks at me and says, "Mr. Colson, you had this dramatic experience going from the White House to prison, but what are you going to say to the rest of us here?"  He said, "You can see," and he sweeps his hand overlooking at the bay, "You can see that we really have the good life.  We don't have these kinds of problems."

I said, "Well, you may not have had them yet – you will.  If there is anybody here who has really had a life without problems, I'd sure like to talk to them afterwards, because everybody has their share of problems, and if you don't now, you will when you're lying on your deathbed and all of these things will have no meaning to you because you know your life is about to end."

It was like letting air out of a bellows.  Just – whoosh!  You could feel people exhaling.  There wasn't a sound, nobody applauded.  The hostess got up and said, "Well, make yourselves comfortable, and Mr. Colson will stay and answer questions."  And I had a stream of people, and my wife did as well.

Dennis: Right.

Chuck: And we did a dinner that night, coming up telling me, "My son is on drugs, and I can't find him," and "My husband's got four mistresses, I don't know how to deal with it."  I mean, it was just a neverending series of problems.  There's one study I cite in the book that finds that – empirically finds – that people can become content and happy in a middle-class lifestyle.  Money in excess of that doesn't do anything.  It does not increase their happiness by any measure, and very often creates unhappiness.

Dennis: You know, there is a generation of our listeners who really have never heard the story of how you came to faith in Christ.  So to set the stage for how this book has come about, how your Ecclesiastes began to be written, take us back to the White House.  You were working for President Nixon; had one of the most prestigious jobs there.  You were a powerful man, an attorney, you and your wife, Patty, were raising your family at the time.

Bob: Were you counsel to the president?  Was that your …?

Chuck: I was special counsel to the president, yes, and I was in the office – as a matter of fact, my office was immediately next to his – his working office in the executive office building, and we were very close.  I was one of the four or five people closest to the president.

I really came up with the strategy for the 1972 campaign, which was a landslide victory for the president – historic landslide victory, as a matter of fact.  And when the election was over, that night, as a matter of fact, when the voting was taking place, Nixon had me and Bob Haldeman, just two of us, in his office.  We sat there until 2 in the morning – Patty and my kids were in my office waiting for me.  And he's toasting me with all the vote results coming in and talking about the fact that I'd made his presidency, and I can do anything I want in the cabinet and go practice law, and I'd make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which I had done before I'd come to the White House.

So I really had the life made, and the next morning I woke up feeling miserable and for two or three months I would sit in my office and look out over the beautiful manicured lawns of the south lawn of the White House and think about, "Boy, this is pretty good, you know, the grandson of immigrants comes to this country, rises to the top, earns a scholarship to college, I'd been a success at everything I'd ever done, and here I am and what's it all about?"  And had this incredible period of emptiness.

And then I went to Boston one day after I left the White House, then I went back to my law firm.  I had a meeting with the president of Raytheon, one of the largest corporations in America, because I was once again to be their counsel; I'd been counsel before I went to the White House and I was coming back to be counsel again.  And he – Tom Phillips, the president, just seemed so different.  He was calm, and he was peaceful, and we had a great conversation, and he started asking me about me and my family and how I was weathering Watergate.

I said, "Tom, you've changed, what's happened to you?"  He said, "Yes, I've accepted Jesus Christ and committed my life to Him."  He kind of looked away when he did that, almost like he was embarrassed to say it, but he shocked me.  I took a firm grip on the bottom of the chair.  I'd never heard anyone say something like that – that boldly.

Dennis: Now, wait a second.  You hadn't grown up in the church?

Chuck: Oh, no.  I'd been in church twice a year, if that, and would say I was a Christian because I grew up in America, and it's a Christian country, and I wasn't Jewish, so I must be a Christian.  I had no idea what a Christian was, no clue. 

And he said to me, "I've given my life to Jesus Christ," it was shocking words.  But over those next several months, I began to think about that conversation and wonder what he really meant and why he was so peaceful and why his personality had changed so dramatically.  And so in the summer of 1973, in the darkest days of Watergate, the world caving in, I went back and spent an evening on the porch of his home outside of Boston – a hot August night, and he witnessed to me; told me what had happened to him; told me his story, an amazing story. 

And he also read to me a chapter out of C.S. Lewis's book, "Mere Christianity" about the great sin, the great sin, pride, and it was me Lewis was writing about, and I realized my life, I thought was idealistic, I was trying to do all these things for my family, I was trying to serve my country – it was all about me, and it was pride.  And I didn't give in.  He wanted to pray with me, and he led a prayer, but I didn't.

Dennis: You resisted?

Chuck: I resisted, sure.  I'm too proud – a big-time Washington lawyer and friend of the President of the United States.

Dennis: You didn't want to bow to anybody?

Chuck: That's right.  And I went up to get in my automobile and start to drive away, and got about 100 yards and had to stop the car, I was crying too hard.  I called out to God – I said, "Come into my life.  If this is true, I want to know You, I want to be forgiven."  And that was the night that Jesus came into my life, nothing has been the same since, nothing can ever be the same again.  The world all scoffed, as you guys noted at the beginning of the program, but it was okay.  I persevered, and my faith really sustained me through prison, and then I saw a mission in life.

And, of course, that's the great paradox.  One of the things I talk about in this book is that everything about life is a paradox.  It's not the way it appears, and we get this idea about what's good in life, but what turns out to be best for us is the thing we least expect or maybe don't want.  The greatest thing that ever happened in my life was going to prison.  Thank God for Watergate, thank God for what happened to me.  Because I went through this, I've discovered what life is really all about, and that's what I write it in here, basically, what I've discovered life is all about.

Dennis: You actually said that in a "60 Minutes" interview.

Chuck: I did.

Dennis: And Mike Wallace – it stunned him that you said that – "Thank God for Watergate."

Chuck: He stopped the interview.  That was the 20th anniversary of Watergate, and he was sitting on my porch at home.  He brought his camera crew, and Mike and I had been pretty good friends, actually, through the years.  And he was sitting there, and I said, "Yeah, I thank God for Watergate."  He just – he was at a loss for words, and they stopped, and when you saw that on the screen, there was a break at that point, because he didn't know how to respond to that.

Bob: Your spiritual malaise, though, really came before Watergate was a news story.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, yeah.  It was the fact that I'd done everything, and I was 41 years old, I'd ended up in the office next to the president.  I grew up in very humble circumstances; I earned scholarships; I went into the Marines; became the youngest company officer for a brief period in the Marine Corps; the youngest administrative assistant in the United States Senate; went through law school at night, which was a tremendously difficult thing to do and, you know, here I am.  I've done everything – built a law firm, great success, and I couldn't see what life was about.  And you get to the place – "Is this all it is?  There's got to be more to life than this."

And I think every human being arrives at that point.  When they do – a lot of people will go and take a drink and try to make that feeling go away, or they'll take some pills or they get in drugs, or they go have an affair.  But those are nagging questions in the life of every human being, and I think what we Christians have to do today – I think it's really a difficult period, because we live in a time what's called "post-modernism," which means there is no truth, everything is relative, you can't trust anything you read because all it is is the opinion of the person who wrote it.  So there are no standards, no yardsticks, nothing to measure your life by.  It's pure drifting in the vapor.

And what I'm saying to people is, "Yeah, that's where the secular world is," and if we hit them with the Bible, they're going to turn away.  They're just going to say, "Oh, here comes one of these people preaching at us.  This is the Bible Belt."  But if you start talking about the meaning of their lives and where they're going to find fulfillment in life, you can engage them.

Bob: Well, and we can be seduced, as believers, by the cultural message, which says, "You will find meaning and purpose and fulfillment."  I think materialism is the greatest seductress of our day, don't you?

Chuck: Absolutely.  And it gets into the church, it seeps into the church.  It's almost impossible for it not to affect Christians, because you can't turn on a radio, look at a billboard, pick up a newspaper, magazine – so we Christians absorb all this stuff, and then we kind of give it a little bit of a holy varnish by saying, "Well, we're really Christians, and, you know, Sunday morning, at least, I'm going to be devoted to Christ."  So we get affected by this.  Yeah, we get a look at ourselves and our values.

Dennis: Chuck, there's a scene that you paint vividly in your book of you've just been picked up by the federal marshals.  You are being taken to this prison that was anything like the White House.  I mean, you describe it well of how musty and paint …

Bob: It wasn't a country club like everybody said it was?

Chuck: Well, you know, it's interesting, people say that about prisons – minimum security prisons – but I never found anybody trying to get in.

[laughter]

Dennis: You describe that scene, though, of driving along with those federal marshals.  You've just left your family, and you describe a peace, a lack of fear.  Now, I have to ask you – was it your newfound faith in Christ that was the basis of you moving toward three years of incarceration?

Chuck: Yes.  You go through something like Watergate where you pick up the newspaper every day and hear these charges made about you and headlines and screaming headlines, people saying outrageous things, you're in the middle of a battle for your life.  It just totally absorbs you, it's very hard on the family, and so, all of a sudden, I've made the decision, I pled guilty, I got my sentence, I'm going off to prison, and on the ride to the prison I was kind of, well, I'm relieved, it's over.

In fact, I slept – the first night in prison I slept better than I'd slept at home in months because I knew what I had to do, and I knew what I was going to have to face, and I knew it was going to be tough, but I knew that Jesus would sustain me.

Dennis: There was one other scene that you didn't write about in your book, but I have to wonder if it happened, and that was a scene with your family, where the reality of your choice, your guilty verdict, and the reality of prison came pressing in, and you faced your wife and your children.  Was there a scene like that when you broke emotionally with your family?

Chuck: Just once – just once when I broke emotionally, yes.  No, we talked about it, and I told the kids – first I talked to Patty, and she was really shaken when I made the decision, because it meant going to prison.  I got a three-year sentence, I actually didn't – I served seven months, but it was a tough deal, and when she realized when I explained it that it was the right thing to do because I knew I couldn't live a Christian life and be free to live a Christian life as long as everything I was doing was being judged by how I testified in the Watergate trials.  So, in a sense, it meant freedom to get it put behind us.

And she took it very well.  She's been a great, strong support.  The kids took it in different ways.  The boys, the two boys were dismayed because they passionately believed I was innocent and should fight for it.  The only time I broke down was with my daughter who …

Dennis: You're talking about Emily?

Chuck: Emily, yeah, and I was putting her on a plane and she said – to go back to school – and I said, "I hope I haven't disappointed you, Emily," and she turned around, threw her arms around me and said, "I'm proud of you, Daddy."  That was a great moment.

Bob: You know, even as you recount that, I'm thinking of the paradox that must have been a part of your life.  You were a Marine, right?

Chuck: Mm-hm.

Bob: The Marine Corps is all about character.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Bob: Chuck Colson in the White House was the antithesis of character.

Chuck: Well, he didn't know it at the time.  He thought he was being the embodiment of the Marine Corps character.  The Marine Corps character is Semper Fidelis, always faithful; can do – whatever the job is, you're going to do it, it doesn't matter – walk through fire and bullets.  So when Nixon would say, "We've made a decision," there were times I'd argue with him because I thought he was wrong sometimes.  But once he made the decision, he was the guy that got elected president.  I wasn't.  I was there to serve him.  I had two choices – obey the order or resign.

So I did it.  For me, the ends justified the means, and that's why I say in this book, you cannot live the good life until you recognize the evil within yourself.  The good life is impossible without recognizing evil in yourself.

Dennis: Yes, and it's all centered around who God is and I just wanted to say, too, at the conclusion of this broadcast, thank you for being faithful.  I'm sure there have been many traps in leadership since you came to faith and, personally, I'm glad Bob and I were wrong back when we heard of your conversion and that the cynicism that many felt has been disproved by a life well lived and by someone who is finishing strong.  I just personally want to say thank you to you for not just living the good life but for following the King faithfully and representing Him exceptionally well.

Chuck: Well, I thank you very much, Dennis, those are kind words.  I have to tell you that I've just been a man doing his duty.  When I think of what my Savior did for me that night in the driveway when it became so clear to me that my sins had been forgiven, I would be dead today were it not for that.  I would have suffocated in the stench of my own sin.  So I do what I do out of gratitude to God for what He's done for me.

Bob: And the point, again, is that the man who is doing his duty is the man who is living the good life, isn't it?

Chuck: Yes.

Bob: We've got copies of your book in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  In fact, I want to encourage our listeners, go to FamilyLifeToday.com.  On our website, we have listed a number of resources, like Chuck's book, that are designed to help you think about how to engage people around you in this kind of a dialog that can get their minds opened up to the reality of the Gospel.

We've got copies of the book, "Mere Christianity," which was the book you said, Chuck, was instrumental in you coming to faith in Christ, and other resources as well.  Again, our website if FamilyLifeToday.com, and let me encourage you to spend a little time there today and think about what you can do to be ready in this new year to initiate some of these spiritual conversations and get the dialog going about the Bible and about Jesus and about why that matters in their lives.  Think about how you can approach this year with an evangelistic purpose in mind.

Once again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com, and the resources we've talked about today are available right there, or you can give us a call at 1-800-FLTODAY.  Our phones are closed today, but we'll have a team here tomorrow, and if you need to get in touch with us then, or if you'd like to have these resources sent to you, just write down the number, 1-800-358-6329.  That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  Give us a call tomorrow, and we'll make arrangements to have the resources you need sent to you.

Now, tomorrow we want to encourage you to be back with us.  Chuck Colson is going to be here again, and we're going to continue talking about how we engage our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, in the kind of conversation that helps reshape their thinking and ultimately may lead them to faith in Christ.  I hope you can join us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow. 

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