Chuck Colson lived a large life. Born in humble Boston digs, he worked his way up to the top of the American food chain, moving from Brown University to the Marines to a senator’s office to the Nixon administration.
It was a classic success story, with Colson climbing the ladder one powerful step at a time. But it all came crashing down when he was implicated in the Watergate affair. Colson went to prison in 1974 and was released in 1975.
For many people, such a spectacular flameout would have spelled retreat from the public eye. But Colson had no sooner left prison than he went right back in, founding Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry geared at the rehabilitation and spiritual restoration of prisoners.
As I detail in my new book The Colson Way, in Colson’s post-Watergate example, Millennials find an ideal role model. Here are five reasons this is true.
1. Chuck Colson lived his life for big things.
Millennials are restless. They’re idealistic, as many young people are. They want something big to live for. Chuck Colson found his grand purpose. After he was released from a Montgomery, Alabama prison, Colson could have made a mint writing a Watergate tell-all. But he and his wife Patty shared a vision for something bigger: reaching out to prisoners to offer hope in the name of Jesus Christ.
Colson wanted to make a dent in the universe. He met his share of frustrations and trials over the years, but his idealistic streak never wavered. He was audacious enough to believe that he could begin prison ministry not only in every American jailhouse, but also in facilities across the world. Colson’s big dreams yielded big results — which is what many young people today desire.
2. Chuck Colson got things done.
When Colson worked for Nixon as special counsel to the president (1969-73), he was known for “breaking china,” a phrase built off an expletive-laced order the president once gave him. I picture Colson with a glint in his eye as he overcame objections, persuaded the unwilling, and made phone call after phone call to push initiatives through to completion.
He relished overcoming impossible odds, like drawing an unprecedented number of union voters to Nixon’s side in his 1972 reelection campaign.
All through his life, Colson wreaked havoc on the status quo. He worked hard, but he had a smile on his face as he broke china. He refused to sit back when there was good to be done. There is a joy and toughness in his example that make him a great role model for Millennials who are now growing up and pursuing their own goals.
3. Chuck Colson was an iconoclast.
Grace may have saved Colson in 1973, but it didn’t anesthetize him. Too often, we think of salvation as a kind of spiritual sleeping pill. “Take one, and drop out of the world until you die.” Salvation for Colson meant that his china-breaking instincts were redirected, not blunted. He put all of his energy, time, and attention into seeking the welfare of convicts.
Recognizing that most people were happy never to encounter an inmate, Colson brought prisoners to distinguished D.C. offices to display their humanity. Imagine his shock when these visits led to the conversion experience of a U.S. senator, who remarked to his wife that Colson’s “born again” inmates displayed a spiritual vitality he had never seen before in his upscale church.
Millennials who are tired of seeing leaders march in a straight line, never questioning received policy, will find a lively model in Colson.
4. Chuck Colson was prophetic.
In his later career, Colson focused his attention on intellectual and moral renewal. He believed in the ultimate triumph of virtue and beauty, and he never stopped pursuing the advancement of righteousness. In 2009, when he was nearly 80 years old, Colson oversaw the authoring of the Manhattan Declaration, a document that made a vigorous case for marriage, pro-life witness, and religious liberty. ManDec called the younger generation to take up the banner of life, family, and liberty — and never drop it.
Colson loved his country. But he loved God and His kingdom much more. He labored to preserve the good in his country, but he never fell prey to the delusion that he “could take America back.” This meant that the ex-politico was not the religious tool of a political party, but was instead prophetic, just as many Millennials wish to be.
5. Chuck Colson believed that anyone could be redeemed.
Colson went where prison guards feared to tread. He went to death row. He talked with murderers and rapists. He connected so well with the men of Angola Prison, one of the scariest jails in the world, that on hearing of his death in 2012, the prisoners there made a wooden coffin for him and sent it to Prison Fellowship.
Colson did not travel to these fearsome environs to make friends. He went into the darkest places to bring the light of Jesus Christ. Colson’s life transformed when he saw, by divine aid, that he was a sinner before a holy God. He was wealthy, successful, and powerful in 1973, but, in truth, he had nothing. He was guilty — but not only of minor involvement in the Nixon administration’s corruption. He was guilty before a higher authority: God. In Christ, however, he was cleansed, made new, redeemed. Others needed to hear this good news.
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Ours is a cynical, broken, vain, self-obsessed age. It is enough to make Millennials want to tune out. But Colson’s example shows us a better way. There is a force more powerful in this world than evil and impurity and death. There is hope. There is grounding for the most invincible idealism. Colson found it. The question for the rising generation today is this: Will we?
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